Former Alabama great David Palmer reflects on college football, the NFL, and a coach’s grace and mercy. Through it all, he’s got an important message for kids
Probably not much has changed over the last 25 years on Avenue F in Ensley, Alabama. There are a few sagging car washes, row after row of bungalow houses with leaning porches, and nightclubs with naked awnings stripped of their canvases–like a skeleton. There is a church called Serenity Chapel (with a sign written in sort of a half-calligraphy that says “A new concept to an old tradition”), brownstones with boarded-up windows and zig-zagging fire escapes, showy VIP lounges, yellowed Pepsi signs, and barbershops galore. But 25 years ago, there was one distinct difference: the town of Ensley was abuzz because of a football player named David Palmer.
Over the last fourteen years, it would seem that David Palmer has faded into obscurity. His name is not at the forefront of discussion when Alabama football is mentioned. His life beckons a “Where are they now?” segment on ESPN’s Outside the Lines—though there has never been one. He’s been quiet—awfully quiet—since retiring from the NFL at age 28, and most ‘Bama fans wouldn’t have a clue where he is, what he’s doing, or if he’s doing well.
But today, David Palmer walks onto the dead autumn grass on the football field at his alma mater, Jackson-Olin High School, wearing an Alabama Dri-Fit shortsleeve, charcoal windpants, untied Nikes, and a curved-bill Atlanta Braves cap. His haggard facial hair battles patches of grey, and he is an older facsimile of the player who once came in third in the Heisman Trophy voting behind Charlie Ward and Heath Shuler in 1993.
Most fans remember Palmer affectionately as “The Deuce.” The 5’9,” towel-flapping phenom, donning long(er) sleeves and shoulder pads as wide as a Datsun, added an electrifying element to an otherwise businesslike Tide offense (Toss Sweep Left, Toss Sweep Right). Deuce, synonymous with the number 2 pressed on his jersey, coaxed nightmarish images for opposing teams, as they watched him run, catch, and throw with the grace of a gazelle (seeing mostly the back of his jersey as he gashed the field like a Ginsu knife). He was the X-Factor, Hard Copy, Dallas, and Grand Master Flash all rolled into one. They (football aficionados) didn’t have a position to aptly describe his threat, so they simply called it “All-Purpose.”
When Palmer got the ball, fans would robotically rise to their feet and watch something they believed to be supernatural, a fleeting joy in pads that came to bless them, if only for a while. After the play, the legion of 70,000 strong would assent to his greatness, chanting in a long, low bass, “Deuuuuuuuce.”
The Deuce, simply, had a penchant for the spectacular.
David Palmer grew up in Ensley, watching his brother Robert play football for the Ensley Colts, a local Little League team. “I really learned how to play football by watching my brother,” Palmer says. “He was basically my role model.”
Palmer says that he developed his “moves” when Robert would often block him from getting into the house at supper time. “I gotta eat,” says Palmer. “So I had to dodge him to get in the house.”
Palmer also grew up watching the NFL, becoming particularly enamored with Raiders football (watched it with his uncle), and the Dallas Cowboys’ great bulwark running back Tony Dorsett. At age six, a spindly-legged Palmer would emulate Dorsett at Ensley Park, where he became one of the best players to ever come through the system.
“I’m still in the Little League record books,” Palmer laughs.
Palmer’s mother, Peggy, a single mother, worked two jobs to support Robert and David.
“Aw man,” Palmer reflects. “She had to do so much. She did all she could. We ate well. We never went homeless. My grandma was there, too. And she helped out. My uncle stayed with us also, which gave me a male figure in the house.”
Palmer decided to attend Jackson-Olin High School because he believed he could change the culture of an abysmal football program. The team practiced on a sodded field next to a horticulture building and played their games at Legion Field, the Birmingham Fairgrounds, or Lawson Field because they did not have a stadium of their own.
“J-O was always 1-9,” Palmer says. “I thought I could come in and change things.”
He did. By his senior year, the Mustangs were 9-2 and Palmer was being recruited by a flock of schools that included Florida State, Auburn, Arkansas, Pitt, and Alabama.
As his high school career came to a close, Palmer had whittled his choices down to two: Florida State and Alabama. “I chose Alabama because I wanted to get on the field and play my freshman year,” says Palmer. “Bobby Bowden at Florida State was talking about redshirting me, but I had three kids by the time I graduated high school. So I wanted to go ahead and start playing so I could take care of my kids.”
Palmer was recruited by first-year coach Gene Stallings, who would become an important figure in his life.
In Palmer’s freshman year at Alabama, the team went 11-1 and beat defending champion Colorado in the Blockbuster bowl, 30-25. Its only loss came on September 14, a 35-0 throttling against Florida in Gainesville. But Palmer believes that this ’91 team was perhaps Alabama’s best in his three years at the Capstone.
“The ’91 team was really the better team,” he says, comparing against the 1992 National Championship team. “We had a lot of in-house problems before the Florida game and we weren’t focused.”
That year, Palmer gobbled up 1,113 yards of offense and scored 7 touchdowns.
The year 1992 was a signature year for Alabama football, as it crowned a century of football. Anticipation was high and palpable, as several of Stallings’ recruits looked to pay dividends.
“We had our sights on a championship,” says Palmer.
Palmer believes that at the time conferences such as the Big 10 garnered more national respect, and that the SEC wasn’t viewed as THE power conference that it is today.
‘We were playing for reputation, for pride,” says Palmer. “After we won it, many of the guys got their ring sized for their middle finger, ‘cause they felt disrespected.”
As Alabama was enjoying an outstanding fall, shredding the SEC, things got dicey for Palmer off the field. Palmer drew attention for another “deuce”—by getting not one, but two DUIs (his second charge coming only two days after appearing in court on September 4 for the first charge.)
Now 42, Palmer is a man reflecting on those trying, long-ago events that seemed to hang too long in the minds of naysayers. “I couldn’t handle success,” he says. “I didn’t know what it meant to be a top athlete at UA, that people were going to watch whatever I did. I was there to play football. I didn’t think that people were watching me when I went out in public.”
Third-year coach Stallings held Palmer’s future in his hand. But Stallings had already gained experience with discipline for alcohol, watching Bear Bryant’s much-anguished suspension of star quarterback Joe Namath in 1962 from his vista as assistant coach. But instead of dropping the hammer on Palmer, Stallings suspended him for three games.
“If it weren’t for him, my career might have been over,” Palmer says of Stallings’ relative leniency. “People wanted to give up on me, but Coach Stallings wouldn’t let that happen. The whole thing cost me a whole lot, caused me a lot of off-the-field stress. But I owe a lot of my success to Gene Stallings.”
Palmer says that Stallings knew that if he had given up on him, Palmer might end up on the streets. And that wouldn’t have been good for a father of three with a potential future in the NFL. “He was like a father to us,” Palmer says. “He was there to show us, teach us, and lead us in the right direction. I have nothing bad to say about Coach Stallings.”
“[David] needed a little help,” says Gene Stallings, now retired and living in Texas. “We all need a little help from time to time. I think at the time, he needed my supervision. But I’m glad that he has gone ahead and done extremely well. He was a great player and is an outstanding person.”
During the ordeal, Stallings was quoted by the Orlando Sentinel: ‘I really think, in David’s career right now, he needs us,” Stallings said. ”He needs me, and I’m not going to turn my back on him. In all my coaching career, I don’t believe I’ve coached a player as gifted and talented as David. I think he’s got a problem . . . we’ve got to help him overcome. I know how important football is to him.”
So football went on, and David went on. Tennessee. Ole Miss. LSU. Mississippi State. All casualties.
That year, winning Alabama’s first championship in 13 years also meant defeating the axis of: Auburn, a Shane-Matthews-led Florida (in the inaugural SEC Championship Game), and the Evil Empire of Miami—in succession. The Miami game, played on January 1, 1993 at the Superdome in New Orleans, pitted ‘Bama’s defense against the daunting aerial attack of Heisman Trophy winner Gino Torretta and the near-elastic wide receiver Lamar Thomas.
Before the game, the much-lauded and defending national champion Hurricanes displayed a thick swagger both on TV and on Bourbon Street. “We saw them joking around in practice,” remembers Palmer. “And we’d run into ‘em on the strip. They thought they were going to shut us down.”
They didn’t. Once the game began, Alabama, a severe underdog, relied on a 38-yard punt return by Palmer after Miami was stuffed on their first possession.
“The butterflies was gone after that,” says Palmer.
The key to ‘Bama’s success, though, was a defense coarser than Stallings’ tweed jacket. Bulky bookends Eric Curry and John Copeland, linebackers Derrick Oden and Antonio London, cornerbacks George Teague and Antonio Langham clotted together to field perhaps the best defense in the history of its program, so Palmer would argue. Perhaps Miami’s severest transgression was that they failed to realize that the defense can score, too (its okay at this time to smile at the thought of George Teague high-stepping into the end zone.)
Offensively, the ’92 Tide was essentially a mistake-free, one-dimensional running juggernaut until passes were necessary. “We had a lot of talent on that team. We had a hell of a running game,” says Palmer. “We may not have had the most high-powered offense, but when it was time to make plays, we did it. Jay [Barker] didn’t turn it over. He took care of the ball. That’s fantastic football. We shocked the world.”
The highlight of Palmer’s career at Alabama came in 1993 (a 9-3-1 campaign for the Tide) against Tennessee. Mired in inertia across three quarters, the Tide offense couldn’t muster any more than three field goals, and the Vols led 17-9 going into the final quarter. Many fans had already exited Legion Field, giving up hope that the Tide could extend its seven-game winning streak against Tennessee. But the Tide galvanized a drive, finding itself within Tennessee’s 5-yard-line with Palmer lined up at quarterback. Outside the stadium, fretful fans gathered around small, grainy TV sets and watched The Deuce whip around right end to tie the game and add another 365 to UT’s misery.
Which begs the question in 2014: “Thinking retrospectively and considering the movement of college football to a more fast-paced, quarterback-oriented ground attack, does David Palmer think he would have still played receiver today?
“I probably would have still played receiver,” he admits.
Palmer decided to forego his senior year for the NFL Draft. He was drafted as a receiver in the 2nd round by the Minnesota Vikings and Coach Dennis Green (before his famous “We let ’em off the hook!” quote). His seven seasons under the bright lights of the Metrodome were festooned with hard arcing spirals from quarterbacks Warren Moon, Brad Johnson, Jeff George, Randall Cunningham, and Dante Culpepper. Palmer also ran back punts for Brian Billick’s offense with the same rampant wattage as the days he lit up Legion Field. Palmer played alongside NFL Hall of Fame wide receiver Chris Carter and the fast, leggy ball catcher Randy Moss. Palmer says that all of the players on the Viking team were “great guys” but there weren’t enough footballs to go around to keep the receivers content.
And Minneapolis? Well, Minneapolis was a loooong way from Ensley. “It was a great city,” says Palmer. “A beautiful place. It was definitely cold. I learned that when I was done with practice, if I had anything to do, I better do it, because I’m not going back out that night.”
Since retiring from the NFL in 2000, Palmer has been active, volunteering for several high schools to coach baseball and football. He also helps children with Down syndrome, yet another passion left in Stallings’ wake.
“I got to spend a lot of time with Coach Stallings’ son, John Mark, and ever since then I fell in love with kids,” Palmer says. “I’m blessed to work with them. I try to help them in any way I can.”
Palmer is also pursuing the bachelor’s degree that has eluded him for twenty years. He hopes that this degree can help him to achieve his new dream: being a high school football coach.
“I’d like to come back to J-O one day and try to teach kids how to play the game,” he says. “Lead them in the right direction.”
Reviewing his still young life, Palmer gives a bit of advice for today’s young athletes. “Watch your environment,” he says. “It will carry you a long way. Keep your nose clean. Listen to your parents, teachers, and coaches. They are teaching you things you need to know for your future. And keep God first, keep God first.”
Palmer was raised in church (at New Zion Bible Way) and says that his grandmother was a very Godly influence on his life. During the whole DUI saga (his valley of the shadow of death), Palmer says that his faith was critical. “God helped me through that whole situation,” he says. “I had to get on my knees and pray. The Lord kept me sound and humble.”
There is one last lesson Palmer teaches us, that if we don’t grab, we’ll surely miss as he zips by: Don’t drop the opportunities you are given.
When David Palmer was playing football, the ball wasn’t thrown to him every time he ran a route. At Alabama and for the Minnesota Vikings, he often wasn’t the number one option. “I didn’t get as many opportunities as some people,” Palmer says, “but when I did, I didn’t drop ‘em.”
Through the drops and fumbles of life, Palmer has learned a lot about mercy. He’s learned a lot about second chances, and appreciates those who have allowed him to lift himself off the turf and chase the goal line again. Those who never gave up on him. The Lord. Gene Stallings.
After spending a few minutes on the phone talking about the “David Palmer Incident” that occurred twenty years ago, Stallings, hanging up the phone, offers one last suggestion for this article: “Be kind to David.”
After all these years, the ball coach is still looking out for his players.
As David Palmer gazes out onto the new football field at Jackson-Olin High School in Ensley and the sun’s yoke spreads across the afternoon sky, he says, kind of to himself, “I wish I could have had this field to play on.”
He’s been to the apex of the sporting world, but he still knows where home is.
“This is where I’m gonna be,” he says in a low voice.
Not much has changed. 78
Photo by Al Blanton
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