David Sadler was 53 years old living in his hometown, Cadiz.
On Monday, January 12, 2009, the day before his death, David was at work using a jackhammer. He complained to his brother Phillip, “This thing is shocking me.”
Seconds later, David was on the ground. He was barely conscious while being rushed to the hospital in his brother’s truck.
A day later, January 13, 2009, marked the passing of another of Bear’s Boys.
This is a story about the passing of a seemingly healthy person, but this kind of tragedy strikes more frequently than we realize.
Cause of death: Brain aneurysm.
Sadler was a person not defined by football, but he did excel and became a beloved native son when he starred on two Kentucky High School Championship teams at Trigg County High School in the early 1970s, then played in two Sugar Bowl games and a Liberty Bowl for legendary Paul “Bear” Bryant at the University of Alabama.
As a senior at ‘Bama, he was team captain.
That day. January 12.
Shortly after arriving at Trigg County Hospital, David was on his way to St. Thomas Hospital in Nashville.
Even before David arrived in Nashville, Mal Moore, Director of Athletics at the University of Alabama, was aware of the seriousness of David’s situation, and his teammates had been alerted.
How they knew of David’s plight, I don’t know, Internet and cell phones, I presume.
Next day, with family at his side, David passed away. Reflective of the kind of person he was, David had become an organ donor.
How I learned about David’s death
Tuesday, January 13, I was on my computer and clicked onto The Cadiz Record, David’s hometown newspaper. Checking the obituary section, I noticed Jimmy Mathis’ father had died. Jimmy was our quarterback at Trigg County High in 1972-73.
I called Jimmy immediately and told him how sorry I was to hear about his father. At the end of our conversation, I said, “Be sure and keep me up-to-date if anything happens to any of our Trigg County football players (1971-76).”
Less than five minutes after we hung up, the phone rang. It was Jimmy.
“Coach,” he said, “I just got a phone call. Something bad has happened to David (Sadler).”
First, I called coach Buddy Perry, who wondered why I had not received his e-mail the day before. Bruce Higbee, Trigg County quarterback in 1971, and Johnny Jaggers had already heard that David was in St. Thomas Hospital, had suffered a brain aneurysm and was in bad shape. It was a bolt of lightning that rocks us all when this sort of news comes, as it always seems to.
Because David was an organ donor, visitation and funeral services were pushed back a few days to January 16. Joye (my wife) and I arrived at King’s Funeral Home in Cadiz around six o’clock. We signed the registry and I turned my attention to a crowded room. People clustered in small groups, talking quietly among themselves.
Some faces I recognized, some not.
There was a long line of people leading to the casket that seemed to have no starting place. My line of sight carried toward the front of the room where David lay, and reality started to settle in. My emotions began to well up, get the best of me.
Then, a nice lady beside me took my hand and led me to the front where Phillip and Mike, David’s brothers, and his widow Lynda and daughters stood. I tried to not fixate on David’s body as I talked to family one by one, not crying too much.
Later, we would have nostalgic conversations, the kind where best-of-times memories flood back, come easily and serve to relieve tension that comes with grief.
It’s a moment that encourages one to believe David’s spirit is right there beside all of us, smiling.
Then I made my way to my brother Johnny and Coach Perry. This was when I was told an amazing story. It involves “Bear” Bryant, underlines what “Bear’s Boys” really means and lets one understand why every player who ever earned a letter under Coach Bryant became forever one of Bear’s Boys.
To recount how David Sadler earned his place, we go back to the winter of 1971, when I was given the opportunity to be head football coach at Trigg County High School, following in the footsteps of Ken Barrett.
My brother Johnny and Buddy Perry became my assistants.
Where is Trigg County?
Historically, Trigg is linked to Between the Rivers, an area of 170,000 acres located in parts of Trigg and Lyon counties in Kentucky and Stewart County, Tennessee, between the Cumberland and Tennessee rivers.
Now called Land Between the Lakes, some call it the best fishing and hunting area in the United States. My son Marty calls it “God’s Country.”
In spring 1971, I met David Sadler for the first time.
He was a freshman who made a big impression on the coaches at spring practice. By fall, shortly before practice in August, David had made himself an important cog in our football team. I couldn’t decide where to play him.
Big, fast and willing, he started at defensive end and offensive guard the next three seasons, during which our team won 33 of 38 games.
David helped us win two Class A state titles, and we finished one point away from a chance at a third.
In the spring of 1973, before David’s senior year, Alabama came calling. So did Kentucky.
Coach Perry was instrumental in getting Alabama interested in David. He telephoned Crimson Tide defensive coordinator Ken Donahue, who asked us to send film.
Also that spring, scouts from the University of Kentucky came to see David work out.
His senior season at Trigg County would catapult David to All-State honors, and he was the recipient of the state’s Outstanding Lineman Award from the Lexington Herald-Leader.
Recognition of his skills were enhanced by the team’s successful drive to a Class A State Championship. Yet, when the time came to talk about college scholarships, we were told that coaches on Fran Curci’s staff at Kentucky didn’t think David was “SEC material.”
Nevermind. UK had not so much as had a winning season in seven straight years and wouldn’t in 1973, either.
So, for David’s future, we turned back to Alabama and Donahue. At the end of the 1973 season, coach Perry called to see if Alabama needed more game film on David.
To our amazement, Donahue’s response was, “I’ve already seen him play three games, and Alabama will be offering David a scholarship to play football.”
Wonderful news for all of us.
During his freshman season at ‘Bama, David played just enough to not be redshirted. Bryant’s staff knew what it was doing.
By the next season, the kid Kentucky figured was not Southeastern Conference caliber was a starter at Alabama on both sides of the football, at offensive tackle and nose guard on several occasions.
He would play in two Sugar Bowl games and the Liberty Bowl.
By the end of his last season, 1978, Sadler needed only 18 hours to graduate. Knowing David’s eligibility was spent, Coach Bear Bryant asked him to stay on as a graduate assistant.
He had a huge decision to make – get his college degree or go home.
Ties to his Old Kentucky Home were strong, and David returned to Trigg County, he married, became a father and entered the logging business. Later, he worked for his brother building homes.
Standing there in King’s Funeral Home in January, near David Sadler’s casket, I looked around the room. I thought about how quickly time gets by. Seeing so many who had come to honor David was mind-boggling.
But I was about to discover something special and good coming out of this tragedy.
To this day, it gives me goosebumps.
Jim Crider, David’s roommate at Alabama, had traveled to Cadiz on Thursday. By Friday, several of Bear’s Boys had arrived – 15, I thought, although Coach Perry’s estimate was 25.
Crider spent Thursday evening at David’s home consoling Lynda and family and discussing the family’s needs.
Crider and other Bear’s Boys are privvy to something many don’t know. Before Coach Bryant died, he created a special fund to be used to help his boys when hard times came. How much help depended on circumstances.
David’s hospital care, the funeral and burial were paid for in their entirety by Bear’s Boys. And David and Lynda’s three daughters have full scholarships to attend the University of Alabama if they want them.
It shows “Bear” Bryant was far more than a football coach. When I learned about the generosity and support by Bryant, I was flabbergasted.
March and springtime have come again, and everyone has gone back to their lives. Cadiz and Trigg County, too.
But folks haven’t forgotten their Bear’s Boy.
A sign at the edge of town reads: “Trigg County Football, 1971-72 State Champs.”
Soon to be added: “Home of David Sadler.”
It has been my pleasure to share my perspective on David Sadler’s amazing grace and to reflect on what Bear Bryant still does for his boys.
Joe Kelly Jaggers