“Bear” Bryant’s “Italian Battalion” stays loyal to this day

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It was six days before Christmas and there was 30 inches of snow on the ground. Despite the weather conditions, hundreds of cars were parked in the drive of Sts. Peter and Paul Ukrainian Catholic Church, which sat glowing atop a hill. People gathered into the church hall to hear the man with the funny accent speak. Coach Paul “Bear” Bryant towered over the podium to address the 550 Bridgeport, Pennsylvania residents who had come to honor and welcome him.

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For hours after the event ended, Coach Bryant stayed to sign autographs for the hundreds of people who had come out to see him.

“He signed every person’s book,” the event’s host, Johnny Nicola said. “I asked him three times, ‘Coach Bryant are you tired?’ ‘No,’ he said, ‘These people all waited. I’m going to sign them all.’ He signed every one that was there. So that was the type of man he was.”

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It was Bryant’s authenticity that led to the creation of the Pennsylvania-based Alabama booster club in the first place.

The founders first got the opportunity to meet Bryant on a visit to Tuscaloosa due to the invitation of their friend Dude Hennessy, who played for the coach at The University of Kentucky. The trip from the northeast to the deep south was not one without cultural shock.

The late ’60s was a trying time for the state of Alabama. Many people from around the country saw it as a place full of racism and hatred, but this did not deter Bridgeport Bama Booster Club founders Jerry and Johnny Nicola.

While staying in a townhouse motel, they realized the marquee read something unsettling. Johnny Nicola said he remembers it saying, “KKK Meeting Tonight Public Invited,” and that his brother immediately realized the gravity of the situation.

“My brother Jerry looks at me and says, ‘Johnny, we’re in a world of trouble down here,’” Nicola said. “He said, ‘We’ve got all the strikes: we’re Yankees, we’re Catholics, and we’re Italian.’”

Despite this overt displacement, the Nicolas left Tuscaloosa feeling like they were leaving home. But they couldn’t let their newfound love for Coach Bryant and his Crimson Tide die out.

“I said, ‘We’re gonna start a ‘Bama club,’” Nicola said. And so they did.

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It wasn’t just the brothers’ love for the Tide that motivated them, but also their affinity for University of Alabama culture. Fellow founding members were also drawn to the hospitality they experienced in Tuscaloosa.

“It’s just a whole different atmosphere,” longtime club member Jeff McQuaid said. “We felt welcome. We felt relaxed. We just had fun.”

It’s been the atmosphere and the people that make it up that have kept the club coming back to Alabama once a season since 1970. This year the group came down for the Tide’s homecoming game against The University of Kentucky. Because of its regular visits, the club’s story remains well-known by Bama fans.

“It’s weird because a couple years ago we went to Innisfree and they were like, ‘What are you doing down here?’” McQuaid said. “Then we told them and they’re like, ‘You’re those guys?!’”

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While locals are always excited to meet the Bridgeport Bama Club, friends at home do not quite understand its purpose. Members do everything they can to convince doubters by trying to capture their experiences.

“It’s amazing up there that a lot of people who aren’t savvy with football, they don’t understand why we would pick Alabama,” Joe “Coconuts” Kekoanui said, who has been a member of the club for the past few years. “And then you come down here and I show them videos or pictures and I’m like, ‘This is why. Because there’s 101,000 people and there’s 200 more thousand outside that are cheering the team on.’”

Since its conception, the club has done what it can to contribute to the championship atmosphere found in Tuscaloosa. In its doctrine, it states that every time The University of Alabama wins a national championship, the club will pay for congratulatory billboards to be put up in both Tuscaloosa and Bridgeport. The first year they did this, Alabama just so happened to beat Penn State in the Sugar Bowl in 1979. The club members weren’t too loved by their neighbors for a while.

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Even if it catches hate, the club remains strong and loyal to this day. They will continue to support the Tide through the good times and the bad. Even though this past football season didn’t end with a new billboard, there is still faith that Nick Saban, the modern “Bear” Bryant, will lead his team back to the top.

*all pictures contributed by the Bama Booster Club of Bridgeport, Pa.

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