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August 25, 2012TUSCALOOSA | Ed Conyers isn't quite sure when the 50th anniversary of his duties officiating football practices at the University of Alabama passed, but he knows it's been fairly recently.
"I believe I started in '62, but it might have been '61," said Conyers. "To be safe, let's say '62."
It's not hard to pinpoint because of Conyers' memory. At 84 years old, that's plenty sharp. More likely, it's because there was nothing formal about how it all began. Carney Laslie, the longtime right hand of legendary UA coach Paul W. "Bear" Bryant, called Conyers one day trying to locate Gordon Pettus, who had always handled the role. Pettus was absent from practice, and Laslie asked Conyers if he could fill in.
"I said absolutely. I didn't tell him that I had only officiated two high school games in my life at the time," Conyers said.
In time, the job went from once a week to twice a week, then more often than that.
"One day I said, 'Carney, I can't come any more. I've got a job, you know," Conyers said. "Carney's exact words to me were, 'That ain't my problem. That's your problem.'"
Today, Conyers' practice officiating is an endeared tradition in the Alabama football program. UA coach Nick Saban teases Conyers that he never calls a penalty on the offense, only the defense.
For more than a decade, Conyers helped Bryant's teams play more penalty-free football without earning a nickel. When the NCAA passed a rule in the 1970s that required schools to pay anyone with a role on the practice field, Conyers began collecting $10 per practice.
"With the Lord as my witness, when I first heard about the rule, I thought I was going to have to pay
Considering a Conyers tale UA coach Nick Saban told earlier this week, the stipend could be considered hazard pay. During the 2010 season, Conyers was lined up behind the offense in a two-minute drill in the team's indoor practice facility when quarterback Greg McElroy scrambled out of the pocket and accidentally ran over Conyers, who was 82 at the time.
"The quarterback just runs right over him. And the first thing that hits the ground is the back of his head - and he's out cold," Saban said. "It just scared me to death that he got hurt."
Saban called it the most frightening moment he's had in his five-plus years at UA. Conyers wasn't drawing breath, and couldn't speak when Saban asked if he was alright. Team trainer Jeff Allen was on the brink of calling an ambulance before Conyers regained his wits.
"He showed a lot of toughness and bounced back quick," Saban said with a laugh. "Was out there rooting for the offense again."
Efforts to reach McElroy, now with the New York Jets, by phone were unsuccessful. Via text message, however, McElroy recalled: "That was brutal. I thought he was going to die."
Conyers said he was never in pain and returned to practice the next day. But when he arrived, in humorous keeping with a Saban policy that injured players wear black jerseys at practice, the team presented him with a black jersey with the name 'Conyers' on the back.
"I wore it that day for practice, and I still have it and treasure it," Conyers said.
As fortunate as Conyers was to begin officiating Alabama practices some 50 years ago, he considers himself even luckier to have kept the job for so long. He didn't have to make much of a case with Bryant successor Ray Perkins, because Perkins knew Conyers from his playing days at UA under Bryant. Gene Stallings knew Conyers from working on Bryant staffs, Mike DuBose knew him from Stallings' staffs, and Mike Shula remembered Conyers from his days as a quarterback under Perkins. That wasn't the case with Bill Curry, Dennis Franchione, or Saban, who didn't know Conyers.
In each case, Conyers was prepared to hear that the new coach did not want or need his services. In each case, his role was retained. Curry even brought Conyers into staff meetings for his input. He got word that he would be a part of Saban's support staff from Todd Alles, who was UA's director of football operations in 2007.
"That first day, Todd told us how they wanted it done," Conyers said. "Coach Saban wanted every penalty recorded, you make a note of it and turn it in every day. They pay close attention to it. Saban doesn't miss any bases."
Conyers has been married to his wife, Peggy, for 63 years. His officiating career began at the Alabama practice fields and will end there, but took turns in between through the high school ranks and the collegiate fields of the Gulf South Conference.
His reputed affinity for the Alabama offense began when Conyers asked Bryant what he wanted on his first day on the practice field. Bryant, Conyers said, mumbled something about offense, so that's the side of the field Conyers took. The next game, UA had no offensive penalties.
"That was coincidental to me being there, but coach Bryant believed in sticking with things that worked, so I got invited back," Conyers said.
Decades later, Conyers said UA Director of Athletics Mal Moore may have passed along Conyers' knack for favoring the offense to Saban. And with that, the reputation was unshakeable.
"I don't really favor the offense," Conyers said. "(Friday) at practice coach Saban kidded me that I haven't called one on the offense in five years. I told him I believe I called one in 1974. But I don't kid with coach Saban unless he kids with me first."
After Saturday's practice, Conyers turned in two penalties. And both, he noted for the record, went against the offense.
Reach Chase Goodbread at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 205-722-0196.