Bobby Bowden picks up the phone at his Killearn Estates home in Tallahassee and excuses himself, asking me to hold on while he moves to another room.
“I’m watching the Babe Ruth story,” he said. “I haven’t watched that in years.”
Not unlike the rest of us, Bowden is changing habits, doing some things he hasn’t done in years, perhaps ever, as we continue to follow guidelines that will help us get past the coronavirus pandemic that has the world in its grip. But for Bowden, who turned 90 in November, this is about as concerned as he has ever been when it comes to his surroundings and even his health.
“I don’t think there is a man or a woman in the United States of America that could envision something like this happening,” he said. “An invisible germ. ... If it was visible maybe we could handle it. We can’t even see the darned thing. And then we knew nothing about it. No history on it. No background on it.
“I’m really concerned about this. That’s why I’m staying home.”
Bowden can relate to one time in his nine decades when life came to a standstill. Similarly, it was a virus that forced young Bobby Bowden into a lockdown in his home in Birmingham, Ala.
Bowden was 13 when he was diagnosed with rheumatic fever. The year was 1943, the height of World War II. Bowden was bedridden for one year, about six months of that forced to lay on his back.
I would list the number of ways here that a 13-year-old in 1943 could be kept entertained while in his bed, but that list is short:
Forget cell phones, social media, streaming and any other devices teenagers have been able to access these last three weeks while finding ways to entertain themselves as their world has been in an upheaval. And televisions were not staples of the American household in the mid-1940s.
Bowden’s life for one year as a teenager consisted of reading and listening to the radio.
His reading choices were The Rover Boys, a series of books published between 1899 and 1926 but still popular in Bowden’s teen years; and Life Magazine.
His radio options included Bob Hope, “he came on Tuesday nights"; Jack Benny, The Lone Ranger, the Birmingham Barons minor-league baseball team and, of course, Alabama football.
“There were a lot of adventure stories on the radio,” Bowden said. “Radio was good because you could visualize what was happening. You couldn’t see it, but you could make it up.”
The news was dominated by World War II. Bowden kept up with the war by reading Life and listening to reports on the radio.
“My granddaddy lived with us,” Bowden said. “Granddaddy was German. I think he had relatives on both sides. He never missed listening to that war. He’d come into my room with the radio and I listened to it, too.”
Bowden became fascinated with World War II and turned it into a passion. He has visited war sites in Europe many times and once retraced the war from Omaha Beach to Battle of the Bulge and climbed a Sherman tank in Normandy, France. He has talked about how studying great military leaders shaped his coaching career.
Bowden can empathize what kids are facing nowadays, having to social distance and stay at home during a global pandemic, but ...
“We didn’t have everything they have,” he said. “It’s amazing what you can do now in your home.”
But during a war that killed more than 400,000 Americans and disrupted families and lives across the country, sports for the most part continued uninterrupted, though many sports legends such as Ted Williams, Jackie Robinson, Joe Louis, Joe DiMaggio and Bobby Jones took leaves to serve in the war.
Not even a world war paralyzed our nation – and the world – like the coronavirus.
“I’ve never seen things shut down like this,” Bowden said.
Bowden was allowed out of bed after a year, but he could not exercise or do anything strenuous because his heart had been compromised. Finally, after two years, he was cleared to resume activities, except for one thing: He was not allowed to play football.
So, he joined the band and played the trombone.
“I went to high school playing the trumpet,” he said. “The band leader said we got so many trumpet players, why don’t you try the trombone? I picked up the trombone and liked it a lot better than the trumpet.”
Finally, two years later, Bowden was on the football field, having been cleared to play.
Today, Bowden has a simple routine to stay as safe, occupied and active as possible.
“Watch the news a lot, take a walk around the swimming pool every day, read my emails, see what kind of news I got, answer them,” he said.
In other words, spending a lot of time in the house, just like 1943.