Friday, February 21, 2020






Everybody needs a Tom Calvin in their life

Story by David Elwell; The Decatur Daily

I firmly believe that if everyone had a person like Tom Calvin in their life that the world would be a better place.

Calvin, who died Wednesday at age 93,  had a way of making you feel special. Part of it was his smile and that twinkle in his eye. There was also that firm handshake that pulled you into his world.

His wife Lenette is the same way, minus the firm handshake. They were a dynamic pair for 70 years and changed the lives of so many people they touched. It wasn’t just football players or the girls she coached in gymnastics. They were indeed an impact couple.

I met Calvin when I was a rookie sports writer at The Daily. It was in the summer, and he was preparing to start his fourth season at Austin High. I lived close enough to the old Austin campus that you could hear the whistles from the football field in the morning and the band practicing in the afternoon.

One late morning as I headed home from the office, I decided to swing by the practice field. I had yet to meet Calvin. I knew about his playing career at Alabama and in the NFL with the Steelers. I knew about his coaching success at Sylacauga. The plan was to watch some practice and, if I was still there when practice ended, I would introduce myself.

In those days you could park on the street right next to the practice field. I did and before I could step from the street to the grass I heard this raspy voice repeatedly yelling across the field for the managers to "find out who that man is."

It took me a couple of minutes to realize the raspy voice was Calvin and I was the subject his managers were running to question. I explained who I was and they relayed the message. He later came over and apologized. The next time I saw him he apologized again and he did several more times. He made sure I knew that I was always welcomed at Austin, in his office and at practice.

I thought I had hit it lucky. I expected this veteran coach to be someone who didn’t care much for distractions for his football program. I thought dealing with the local newspaper would probably be a low priority. I was wrong. Instead we became great friends.

Over the years I have put coaches in two groups. One group is coaches that use fear to get the best out of their teams. The players play their best because of a fear for what happens if they don’t.

Then there are the coaches who care for their players so much that the players want to be successful so as not to disappoint. It didn’t take me long to see that Calvin belonged in the second group. His players loved him.

That season was Steve Rivers’ first year as head coach at Decatur. The Daily’s high school football spotlight was probably shining a little more in the Decatur direction. Calvin had been at Austin three years with just one winning season. As the fourth man on sports staff, most of my assignments were at Austin.

During school, Calvin was in his office the last period of the day. There was no football practice in those days until after school. My visits would be during that last period. I would ask questions about the Black Bears and just let him talk. Often he would divert to stories about growing up in Limestone County, playing football at Alabama, marrying the head cheerleader at Alabama, playing for the Steelers and the glory days at Sylacauga. The stories were so interesting that I would show up some days when I wasn’t working on an Austin story just to hear another one.

Austin went 1-9 in 1981. After that season the next three years were amazing. The Black Bears won 31 games and in 1983 advanced all the way to the Class 4A championship game at Legion Field. If there had not been a monsoon that night at Legion Field, I’m convinced Austin would have won that game. The wet field slowed down a fast Austin team. Murphy won 7-0.

Calvin’s career was all about relationships. One of the most special relationships was with Rivers, who played for Calvin at Sylacauga. Rivers’ father was not around much. Calvin became like a father figure to him. Sylacauga even won a tennis state championship with Calvin coaching and Rivers playing.

After high school, Calvin helped Rivers get a scholarship to play football at Mississippi State. When Rivers was ready to start a coaching career, it was Calvin who told Decatur head coach Earl Webb about him. Rivers joined Webb’s staff and that changed his life. He met his wife Joan here and eventually became head coach at Decatur and later Athens. Their son Philip has created a legacy as a star NFL quarterback. None of that would have happened if not for Calvin.

Calvin touched a lot of other lives and will continue long after he’s gone just because of the people he touched. We should all be thankful that he passed through our lives.

Five things you may not know about Tom Calvin


• One of his Calvin’s best friends growing up in Limestone County was Alabama teammate Herb Hannah, the father of the famous Hannah brothers who played at Alabama in the 1970s. Herb’s son John is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

• Calvin played at Alabama in 1949 and 1950. In the 1949 Iron Bowl, he scored a late touchdown to cut the Auburn lead to 14-13. The point after touchdown kick was missed giving Auburn the win. 

• When Tom and Lentte married in 1950, it was the wedding of the cheerleader and the football star. The Birmingham News covered it with big photo at the top of Sunday’s front page. The guest included players from both Alabama and Auburn.

• The Pittsburgh Steelers selected Calvin in the 25th round in the 1951 draft. He was not impressed with the money and elected to start his coaching career at Baldwin County. A year later the Steelers called and increased the offer to $8,000 and Calvin accepted. He played for the Steelers from 1952-1955.

• Calvin left the NFL to become head coach at Sylacauga. He built a powerhouse that was declared state champions in 1957, 1960 and 1961 and won another championship on the field in 1969. Many of those players from Sylacauga stayed in touch with their coach. Over the years several traveled to Decatur for reunions.

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