By Rubin E. Grant
Ray Powell’s roots ran deep at Shades Valley High School.
His three older brothers went to school there. One played baseball, one played football and one was a drum major in the band. His mother was kind of the “band mother” and worked in the concession stands.
Because of his mother’s duties on game nights, Powell found himself at the concession stands, too.
Powell would have attended Shades Valley, as well, but when it was announced that Homewood High School would open, Powell was among the students at Homewood Junior High who were held back to attend the new high school.
Powell went through spring football drills with Shades Valley during his freshman year but never suited up for the Mounties. Instead, he became a member of Homewood’s first football team in 1972, playing for their new young coach, Alvin Bresler.
“I knew about Alvin since he played at Shades Valley and my brothers went there,” Powell said. “He was a promoter, and he was always thinking about how to make things happen. He told me he was interested in helping me get a scholarship.”
So, Powell, then a junior, along with 17 senior football players who also had been rezoned from Shades Valley to Homewood, formed the nucleus of the Patriots’ first team.
The team will be honored on its 50th anniversary Sept. 9 at Waldrop Stadium. About 40 former players are expected to attend.
“I am becoming more and more excited about the reunion the closer we get to it,” said Powell, a split end who went on to play at Auburn and now works in real estate. “It will be good to see all of my old teammates who will be there.”
Of course, Bresler will be there. He was only 23 years old when he was handed the reins of Homewood’s fledgling football program. He had played receiver at Auburn and was a sixth-round NFL draft choice of the San Francisco 49ers in 1971, but he was in training camp only 10 days before leaving.
“I knew I was not going to be able to make it a career,” Bresler said. “I had suffered a bad knee injury during my sophomore year at Auburn and it never really fully recovered.”
Bresler returned home and discovered that Anniston needed an assistant coach. He hadn’t finished his degree, but he took the position under legendary Anniston coach Bill Farrell. He also enrolled in a class at Gadsden State to complete his degree.
“I taught eighth grade science and I learned a lot from Coach Farrell,” Bresler said.
Following the 1971 season at Anniston, Bresler heard Homewood was beginning the process of interviewing perspective head coaches, so he figured he would apply.
“I was never short on self-confidence or self-motivation,” Bresler said.
Bresler met with Homewood Superintendent Virgil Nunn and Principal Michael Gross, but he didn’t expect to get the job because of his age and lack of coaching experience. Surprisingly, the brash young coach was the choice.
Bresler quickly assembled a staff that included successful veteran coaches, such as Dave Beason, Jackie Clayton and Wayne Sheets. Beason was the offensive line coach, Clayton the offensive coordinator and Sheets the defensive coordinator.
Beason, who also was the school’s first head basketball coach, was a key member of the staff because he had grown up in Homewood and knew the kids from the community.
Putting a Team Together
The biggest challenge was blending players who were already in the system at Homewood Junior High School with the seniors coming from Shades Valley.
Peter Braasch, one of the co-chairs for the reunion, was one of the seniors who transferred from Shades Valley. He welcomed the change.
“Once it was decided we would come over, we weren’t going to get to play our junior year at Shades Valley and they treated us badly,” said Braasch, who later became an assistant football coach for many years at Vestavia Hills before retiring. “All the rest of the guys were happy to leave Shades Valley because of how we were treated.
“Plus, Alvin was a great guy. He was a breath of fresh air. He was always super positive. He made it feel like a college-type atmosphere. He made playing fun instead of drudgery.”
Ever the innovator, Bresler formed intramural teams so the players could get to know each other’s personalities and bond.
When they began practicing in the spring, the Patriots initially worked out at the junior high school, but the field conditions weren’t ideal, so Samford coach Wayne Grubb allowed them to practice at Samford.
“We loaded up the school bus and went over, and some others got there by car,” Bresler said.
They were far from a cohesive unit. Gene Lorendo, who had been Auburn’s receivers coach when Bresler played there, attended one of their practices and was none too impressed, making an unflattering remark to Bresler.
“I ran him down after practice and asked him, ‘What do you think?’ He said, ‘After you get your first first down, you should call a timeout and have a pep rally,’” Bresler recalled.
Bresler was taken aback, but it also motivated him.
“That stuck in my gut because I knew we had the players to make us successful,” Bresler said.
The First Season
During the summer, the Patriots shifted their practices to Mountain Brook Elementary to prepare for their inaugural season.
Braasch, a running back/guard who was co-captain and Randy Galbraith, who would earn All-State honors, were two of the team leaders. Powell, versatile Ricky Powers, who went on to play at Tennessee, and Murray Legg, a quarterback who went on to play defensive back at Alabama, were among the standout players.
Without a stadium of its own, Homewood played its home games at Berry High School, which Berry football coach Bob Finley had agreed to let them use.
As it turned out, the Patriots opened the 1972 regular season against Shades Valley, losing 20-10. The next week, Homewood earned the first victory in program history, beating Holt from Tuscaloosa 16-13, but that was followed by a heartbreaking 13-7 loss at Tarrant.
Then, the Patriots played a “home” game against John Carroll, falling 19-14.
“We shouldn’t have lost that game,” Bresler recalled. “We deserved to win but didn’t.”
Afterward, the Homewood players loaded up the school bus to return to the junior high school. John Carroll passed them along the way on Columbiana Road, riding in a Trailways bus. That only added insult to injury.
“They made us look pitiful,” Bresler said. So he went to Mr. Gross, who was on the bus with them, and told him that was going to be the last time they were taking a school bus to a game.
“Mr. Gross, who was a 100 percent supporter of the football program, said, ‘Coach, what do you want to do?’ I told him we’re going to ride Greyhound to the rest of our games,” Bresler said.
With their new mode of transportation, the Patriots won four of their next five games, beating Midfield, Vestavia Hills, Tuscaloosa County and Emma Sansom from Gadsden and losing only 7-0 at Erwin. They took a 5-4 record into their season finale at Mountain Brook. Bresler treated it like it was the Super Bowl.
“It was one of the most important talks I gave to them,” Bresler said. “I told them we had a chance at a winning season or we could have a mediocre season.
“We won 6-0 to finish with a 6-4 record, and afterward I told them we were no longer the Patriots but the Fighting Patriots,” Bresler said.
“Finishing with a winning record was fantastic,” Braasch said. “I heard that was the first time a team had a winning record at a first-year school.”
Powell said, “It was really important for us to have a winning record. We were all very competitive and wanted to establish a winning tradition.”
Bresler believes what the Patriots’ first team accomplished paved the way for Homewood’s state championship in 1974, in only the third year of the program.
“We had established a winning team,” Bresler said. “I think that set the stage for our state championship team two years later.”