By Rubin E. Grant
Throughout this fall, Vestavia Hills didn’t hold any pep rallies before the Rebels’ football games because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
But on the eve of Buddy Anderson’s final game as the Rebels’ head coach, they held a pep rally at Thompson Reynolds Stadium, and Anderson cooked up a surprise for his wife, Linda, who had been by his side during his entire 49 years at Vestavia Hills, including the last 43 as head coach.
During previous seasons, when Anderson didn’t make it home for Sunday dinner because he was at the school late while putting together a game plan for the Rebels’ next opponent, Linda would bring some food up to the stadium and they would have a candlelight picnic at midfield.
Anderson had his boom box handy and his Kenny Rogers’ CD with the song “Through the Years.” He would play it and they would dance.
Through the years
You’ve never let me down
You’ve turned my life around
The sweetest days I’ve found
I’ve found with you
Through the years
I’ve never been afraid
I’ve loved the life we’ve made
And I’m so glad I stayed
Right here with you
Through the years
During that last Thursday evening pep rally, Anderson thought it would be a nice touch to have one last dance with Linda on the field that bears his name.
Anderson made an arrangement with Vestavia Hills band director Jerell Horton to play “Through the Years” over the public address system right after he introduced his family. As the song played, Buddy and Linda danced.
“It was a very moving moment for both of us,” the 70-year-old said, “kind of a climax to my career, a neat thing.”
The Last Game
The next night, the Rebels took the field against longtime rival Shades Valley for Anderson’s final game.
The schools had played a number of memorable games during Anderson’s tenure, perhaps none more memorable than the Rebels’ 42-35 overtime victory against the Mounties in the semifinals of the 1998 state playoffs. Vestavia Hills went on to win Anderson’s second state championship the following week.
But nothing that significant was riding on the outcome of this matchup — except for Anderson going out a winner.
In the days leading up the game, Anderson spent little time thinking about it being his finale.
“To me, I prepared like it was any other game,” he said. “I prepared them the best I could. The main thing was to get them ready for Shades Valley, for them to be ready to play a good Shades Valley football team.”
Anderson didn’t make any special pregame speech, but the Rebels played inspired football, rolling to a 52-27 victory as senior quarterback Braden Glenn accounted for five touchdowns, three rushing and two passing. The 52 points were the most the Rebels’ scored in a game this season.
Anderson estimated that 150 to 200 of his former players were in attendance and around for a post-game reception.
“I got to see most of them,” he said. “I didn’t remember all of their names, but once I looked at them, I knew who they were.”
After the game, Anderson shared kisses with Linda and his three daughters and was surrounded by his seven grandchildren. A decree from Gov. Kay Ivey was read over the loudspeaker.
Linda was quite emotional in the aftermath.
“I am crushed because this has been our thing and this has been our life together since we married,” she said. “I’m so proud of him and he’s let me be a part of it.”
Anderson kept his emotions in check.
“When the game was over, it was a relief,” he said. “But it was a fun day, a great day.”
The Last Season
Anderson had announced during the summer that the 2020 season would be his swan song. It was the 40th anniversary season of his first state championship, in 1980.
The season began inauspiciously when Anderson — and Linda — were infected with the coronavirus along with some of the Rebels’ players less than two weeks before the season kicked off. Vestavia Hills had to shut down practice and cancel their first two games against rivals Mountain Brook and Homewood. Both games went into the record books as forfeits.
When the Rebels finally returned to action, they had to play arch-rival Hoover. They fought hard but fell 24-21. Vestavia Hills lost three of its next four games with the only victory coming against Tuscaloosa County, 17-10, on Sept. 18.
After losses to Thompson (38-9) and Hewitt-Trussville (42-35), saddling them with an unsightly 1-6 record, the Rebels closed the season with victories over Spain Park (32-7), Gadsden City (45-7) and Shades Valley, narrowly missing the playoffs with a 4-6 overall record.
The Rebels were victims of the late start to the season and some unfortunate breaks along the way, but Anderson believes the team was much better than its record indicated.
“It was definitely a different year than other seasons, that’s for sure,” Anderson said. “At the end of the year, I definitely felt like we were a playoff team. We had improved by leaps and bounds.
“They can count those (forfeit) losses against my record, but I feel like we won four, lost four and COVID won two.”
Anderson is thankful the Rebels had a season because late in the summer, he wasn’t sure whether they would play any games.
“I guess I am pleased that we got to play eight games,” he said. “I never dreamed we would make it through the season because of the virus.”
Anderson, the winningest high school coach in state history, ends his career with a record of 346-160 and two state championships.
The Last Inventory
On the Monday after his final game, Anderson was back in his office and in the locker room.
“After 49 years, I’ve got a lot of stuff to go through and discard a lot of it,” he said. “I’ve also got to get an inventory together. I never had to do that right after the season because I was always coming back.”
He was also preparing to meet with players, get ready to hand out team awards and vote on permanent captains for the 2020 season.
Anderson’s retirement isn’t official until Jan. 1 and then it will be time for the next phase of his life, whatever that is.
“We’re looking forward to doing some other things,” Anderson said. “It’s going to be an adjustment for me and Linda. God has a plan for me and I’m looking forward to that.”
Then, he reflected on his career, doing another inventory of sorts.
“There are so many memories,” he said. “I’ve coached so many great kids. I have been so blessed and I am very humbled.”