Breakfast with the Bears

Group of Bear Bryants Brad Green/The University of Alabama

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- There is a scene in the 1985 comedy "Spies Like Us" in which Chevy Chase and Dan Aykroyd, posing as doctors, enter a tent full of actual doctors. They greet one another by saying "Doctor ..." "Doctor ..." "Doctor ..." "Doctor ..." in a round-robin introduction that ends up with the title being used 24 times.

Twenty-four? That's nothing. Try 100. That's the number of IDs it would have taken to make the rounds at an invitation-only picnic in Tuscaloosa two weekends ago, before Alabama's home opener versus Arkansas State.

"What's your name?" "Bryant." "Well, that's my middle name!" "It's my daddy's middle name!" "What is?" "Bryant." 'Well, that's my first name!" "No kidding, it's my daughter's first name, too!" "Really? Because this is my wife and it's her middle name!"

"Bryant ..." "Bryant ..." "Bryant ..." "Bryant ..."

Welcome to the 23rd annual Paul W. Bryant Namesake Reunion, where the only requirement to attend is that you or a member of your immediate family is willingly and lovingly -- sometimes strategically -- named for the coach known as "Bear." Everyone gifted with some version of Coach's moniker wears a nametag, so as to keep them all straight.

"My name is Chase Bryant Duncan," said a teenager, proudly pointing to his nametag as he stood in the food line on the lawn of the Paul W. Bryant Museum with his family. "My dad says he named me Bryant so that I wouldn't grow up to be an Auburn fan."

As Chase Bryant's father nodded proudly, another teen, Bryant Wilson, shouted "Same! My dad wanted to set me on the right path as soon as I was born! And he did! Roll Tide!" Wilson's father added his own nod of approval, replying loudly, though muffled by a bite of hot dog, "Rollf Tfide!"

Overhearing this exchange was yet another teenager, Bryant Denny Turner, whose parents dared to go even a step further and give their son the name of the legendary Alabama football coach and the name of the arena where the Bear did his homework, Denny Stadium. "If you're gonna be in, be all-in," explained James Turner, Bryant Denny Turner's father. "This is Alabama football. We give 100 percent around here. Even with names."

In the Yellowhammer State, they've been giving 100 percent to the Bear Bryant name game for a very long time now. Bryant coached the Tide for 25 years, from 1958 to 1982. He died on Jan. 26, 1983, only a few weeks after his final game on the sideline, the '82 Liberty Bowl. According to Social Security records, since 1959 there have been 1,403 Bryants born in Alabama -- so many that it piqued the curiosity of the Bear's original namesake, Paul William "Bear" Bryant Jr. After a lifetime of hearing "I was named for your daddy," it was Junior who approached the museum that honors his father with the idea of compiling a database of those whose names do the same.

"We hear about people really almost exclusively through word of mouth," explained Ken Gaddy, director of the Paul W. Bryant Museum, located in the heart of the University of Alabama's campus. "But we have a registration process. People contact us all the time, and we ask them to fill out a form with their birthdate, a little family history and a specific section to fill out that starts with, 'This is the story of me or my child being named for Coach Bryant ...' That allows us to do a little research and verify it. We can't just have anybody who is named Paul or William or even Bryant showing up and trying to sneak into the group. It's certainly not too serious of a process by any stretch, but we really want to know people's stories and give them a chance to share those stories."

That's what the annual namesake reunion is all about, bringing the living tributes together to create a sense of crimson-blooded community among those linked by their labels. This year's reunion was the first to feature a carnival theme, complete with cotton candy, county-fair-style games and -- wait for it -- a teddy-bear-building station.

"My favorite part is meeting all the folks and hearing all the different name combinations they come up with," explained Curtis Paul Parker of Anniston. He was there with his daughter, Carlin Bryant Parker, who was obsessed with those carnival games. "Yes, sir, we've got Paul and Bryant covered right there in one house."

The database includes around 700 names, and the museum manages to track most of their whereabouts via both old-school correspondence and newfangled social media. By far the most common name (and most versatile, used by men and women) is Bryant. There are also a ton of Pauls and Paulas. Any William needs to be prepared to really make his or her case to be included, but many have successfully done so. And yes, there are some Bears, but none made an appearance during the first couple of hours of this year's reunion -- although at least two of the families in attendance said they had a dog named Bear.

"We had a dog named Bear as a puppy, but then we changed it to Bryant," confessed a family from Huntsville that also has two human Bryants on the roster. So why change the dog's name? "Because my wife's favorite movie is 'Sweet Home Alabama' and what's-his-name [Josh Lucas], his hound dog was named Bryant for Coach Bryant and our dog looked just like the dog from the movie."

There were also no Sabans at the reunion. Not yet anyway. One grandmother introduced her preschool-aged grandson, Hayden Bryant Kennedy, this way: "If I'd had my way, he'd be Nicholas Bryant Kennedy." Patsy Abbott said it pointedly -- like, literally pointing at her grandson as he waited to build a bear. "I said, 'Why would you name him after the greatest coach of all time when he could be named after the two greatest coaches of all time? But I got outvoted."

As high school student Cameron Bryant Collier mingled with incoming Alabama freshman Bryant Edward Rich (as you've likely figured out, the reunion crowds skew very young), Leonard Bryant Jackson joked that he was going to yell out "Hey, Bryant!" just to see how many people would turn around. "Then," he added, "I'll do the same with Paul."

Had he done that, one of those who answered back would have been Paul Francis Murray of Mobile. But unlike the others at the namesake reunion, his name wasn't merely a tribute. It was a hand-me-down.

"My dad says he named me Bryant so that I wouldn't grow up to be an Auburn fan." Chase Bryant Duncan

"Paul 'Bear' Bryant was my great-grandfather," the eighth-grader said with pride as he sat in his great-grandfather's museum, in a conference room decorated with oil paintings, bronze busts and even a marionette of the man behind his name.

Sitting with Paul Murray was his cousin, Mary Harmon Hilburn, granddaughter of Bear. The source of her name was Mary Harmon Bryant, the wife of Bear and First Lady of Alabama Football. Hilburn's mother was Mae Martin Bryant, and Paul Murray's mother is Mae Martin Murray, the daughter of Paul "Bear" Bryant Jr. and, like Mary Harmon Hilburn, the granddaughter of Paul "Bear" Bryant Sr. and Mary Harmon Bryant. Growing up, everyone called Bear Jr. "Papa," except for Hilburn, who called Papa's daddy "Papa" while everyone else called him "Grandpapa." Next fall, another great-grandson, Paul William Bryant Tyson, will be on Nick Saban's roster as a freshman quarterback.

Are you getting all of this?

"Oh, it goes so much deeper than that," Hilburn said, rolling her eyes and grinning. "I host the family holidays here at my house in Tuscaloosa, and we have so many Pauls and Marys and Mays that I have to draw up place cards for everyone and I have to use a very sophisticated system of last initials. Otherwise, we'd have no idea what was what and who was where."

Not unlike the lawn outside at the reunion, where the Pauls and Paulas and Bryants ate crimson-colored snow cones and craned their necks to read each other's nametags.

"It's exactly like that," Hilburn added. "It's crazy. But that's how it goes with family, and all those people out there today with Papa's name, that's what they are: family."