There was one final obligation inside Auburn Arena on Thursday afternoon for the voice of Tigers athletics, Rod Bramblett. Everyone said that his wife, Paula, wasn’t much of a sports fan, but she so loved the company of her husband as he traveled about covering three teams from autumn to the first blush of summer these past 16 years. She was there, too.
Their two coffins, flower-draped and so grimly out of place in a house of vibrant games, flanked the large speaker’s platform. Their smiling faces took up the whole of the arena’s overhead video board, with the legend beneath them reading: “Forever Auburn Tigers.”
A community mourns when the voice that has shared with them the wildest victories and most crushing defeats is cut off in the mid-sentence of life. The mourning compounds, more than double, when there is a couple to eulogize.
Bramblett and his wife, Paula, died early Saturday evening following an accident in which their car was hit from behind by another driven by an unidentified 16-year-old.
The accident occurred scarcely a mile from Jordan-Hare Stadium, where Bramblett famously declared to his listeners in 2013, “Oh, my Lord in heaven, Chris Davis just ran it 109 yards.” In the bedlam of Davis’ last-gasp run-back of a missed Alabama field-goal attempt, giving the Tigers a 34-28 victory and keeping alive an SEC championship season, Bramblett gave the play permanent shape and substance. And gave his career its most defining words.
Auburn police issued a report Tuesday stating that they had ruled out alcohol or cellphone use as a cause for the accident. The investigation continues. The teen driver was injured in the crash, but he is expected to survive, authorities have said.
Nearly 2,000, by the roughest estimate, came here Thursday to memorialize the Brambletts. He was eulogized as someone who “held the only job he ever wanted” (former Auburn coach, and Bramblett’s basketball color-guy, Sonny Smith). His wife was remembered as the light that drew the family together and a fine Auburn acolyte in her own right, only with no microphone to broadcast it (she worked in the university’s office of information technology).
“You need to thank Paula, because he was first a Georgia fan,” her friend Debbie Wood informed the gathering. As she recalled, it was his pursuit of Paula that brought him to the loveliest village on the plains and altered all allegiances.
Bramblett, a 1988 Auburn political-science grad, began at his alma mater doing baseball in 1993. Following the death of noted Tigers play-by-play man Jim Fyffe in 2003, he added the heavier lifting of football and basketball.
“He loved Auburn athletics and Auburn University,” said basketball coach Bruce Pearl, whose team went on a shocking run to the Final Four this year, taking Bramblett along on the ride.
On his resume is the distinct trifecta of broadcasting appearances in football national-championship games, a Final Four and a College World Series for one school. That’s how you build a broad and loyal following.
His preparation and his professional approach were held up by all those who spoke of him. The relationships he built with the coaches and others he worked with were heartfelt.
“I’m not looking forward to my next (radio) interview 90 minutes before the game,” Pearl said.
A few who came to Thursday’s service were of the well-known class. Like runners Bo Jackson and Ronnie Brown, former quarterback Jason Campbell and CBS’ Gary Danielson. Even the voice of Alabama football, Eli Gold, was there as well, proving that a rivalry can coexist with respect.
Much more of the gathering was made up of those fans who felt the need to mark a loss in the family.
The LeCroys, Steve and Belinda, made a three-hour drive from tiny Snead, in north-central Alabama, because they felt he was one of them. “He loved Auburn so much that when things went bad he hurt and let you know it,” Steve LeCroy said. “And when things were good, he rejoiced with the fans.”
Long-time fan Ron Sanford drove over from Birmingham, with his Auburn-tiger-striped lap dog, Tiger Jake. He admitted he had his doubts when Bramblett first took over for Fyffe. “But, with his first ‘Touchdowwwn, Auburn,’ he fit right in,” Sanford said.
Paula, 52, and Rod, 53, are survived by two children, for whom a Go Fund Me account has been established. And by the echoes of hundreds of games both great and small.
The career spanned a couple of decades, and three sports. But Bramblett largely was known for his football work - remember this is the South - over a two-week period in 2013 when events brought out the best in him. (As a result, that year Bramblett was anointed the national sportscaster of the year by Sports Illustrated).
First came a fourth-and-18 last-minute pass by Nick Marshall, tipped by Georgia safety Josh Harvey-Clemons, that fell providentially into the hands of Ricardo Louis for a long game-winning touchdown.
“A miracle at Jordan-Hare! A miracle at Jordan-Hare,” Bramblett blared. “Seventy-three yards! And the Tigers, with 25 seconds to go, lead 43-38.”
And, yet, that was only a warm-up, a little vocal calisthenics for the “Kick 6” play against Alabama two weeks later.
As Thursday’s service closed, there was Bramblett’s voice from that day, replayed once more, this time to honor the man, not the moment. As the Rev. George Mathison, the minister officiating the service, called it, “It’s as much a prayer of awe as anything.”
“There goes Davis! Davis is going to run it all the way back! Auburn’s gonna win the football game! Auburn’s gonna win the football game! He ran the missed field goal back, he ran it back 109 yards! They’re not gonna keep them off the field tonight! Holy cow! Oh my God! Auburn wins! Auburn has won the Iron Bowl in the most unbelievable fashion you will ever see! I cannot believe it, 34-28! Oh, my Lord in heaven, Chris Davis just ran it 109 yards, and Auburn is going to the (SEC) championship game!”
And, quite appropriately, a funeral ended with the sound of applause from a gathering of fans.
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