Robert (as his family calls him) Skelton earned the nickname ‘Bullet’ as a quarterback for Alabama in the late 1950s. He came to Bama from Pell City in 1956 when J.B. Whitworth was coach and the Crimson Tide was mired in perhaps its worst period in history. He played a bit in 1957 on Whitworth’s last team. That winter a new coach came to town. Paul Bryant took charge.
Skelton came back to quarterback in 1959 and 1960, splitting duties with Pat Trammell in Skelton’s senior season. At one point, Bobby thought his career had come to an abrupt end, only to have an opportunity to resurrect it moments later.
In 1960, Alabama went to Grant Field in Atlanta to meet Georgia Tech. The Tide had a miserable first half of mistakes, and the Yellow Jackets of Coach Bobby Dodd had a 15-0 lead.
In the third quarter, Alabama began its comeback, and Skelton did a nice job in getting the Tide back in the game. Leon Fuller had a touchdown run, but a two-point conversion try failed. Then Skelton hit Norbie Ronsonet for a touchdown. Richard “Digger” O’Dell, the backup placekicker to an injured Tommy Brooker, made the first point of his career after the second touchdown to cut the score to Georgia Tech 15, Alabama 13.
The story gets a little murky here. In “Game-Changers, The Greatest Plays In Alabama Football History,” Skelton said he ran the play sent in from the sidelines “and I nearly got killed and I fumbled the ball. When I got up, I saw Trammell coming in.”
With Trammell coming in, Skelton headed to the sideline. “In those days, when you came off the field, you went directly to Coach Bryant,” Skelton said. “When I got to him, he told me to sit my ass on the bench and hat I’d never play another down for Alabama.”
Bryant’s memory of the incident was, “I called one play and Skelton ran another one. So I yanked him out of the game and told him he was fired, that he was finished as an Alabama player.”
Later in the fourth quarter, Trammell was injured. Skelton’s teammates told him Bryant was calling for him, but Skelton didn’t believe them. He was convinced he was finished. Finally, though, he answered the call.
Skelton said, “Coach Bryant was a few feet on the field and I went up to him. He put his arm around me. I was 5-11 and he was nine feet tall. I was expecting him to give me some real knowledge. He said, ‘I’m going to give your little ass one more chance.’ We were backed up and he didn’t even give me a play.”
Alabama had the ball at its own 20 with 3:21 to play. Twice in the drive, Alabama had to go for it on fourth down, making one first down on a Fuller run and another on a Skelton pass to Ronsonet. With the clock ticking under 30 seconds, Skelton completed a 26-yard pass to Butch Wilson to put Bama at the Georgia Tech 8.
O’Dell, who was like Skelton from the Pell City area, had tried two field goals the week before and missed both. But he wasn’t showing nerves, said Skelton, who was the holder on placekicks. “Digger called me ‘Rob,’” Skelton said, and he said, ‘Okay, Rob. Give me a good hold and lean ’er back a tad.’ Just as calm as you’d ever hear.”
The injured Brooker had a clear view from the sideline. He said, “I was watching the ball go over the bar, and as it did I saw the clock go to ‘Zero Zero Zero.’”
Skelton said, “Everyone said the kick looked like a wounded duck, but it wasn’t. He didn’t put spin on the ball, but he kicked it hard and straight and it went over the crossbar.”
For his career, Skelton completed 74-167 for 972 yards and 10 touchdowns with six interceptions.
In Alabama’s 10-0 win over Mississippi State in 1959, he intercepted two passes and threw a 36-yard touchdown to Stanley Bell.
In 1960 he had two touchdown runs in a win over Georgia.
But is it the Georgia Tech game of 1960 in Atlanta for which he is most remembered.
Years later, Bryant said, “I’ll never forget that game, not if I live three lifetimes. If it wasn’t the greatest comeback I’ve ever seen, it was certainly the greatest I’ve ever been involved in.”
Bryant added, “I learned that day to never make a vow, to never promise anything I might now have control over.”
Following his playing career and graduation from Alabama, he spent some time as a coach, but eventually wound up as an official in the NFL (and was a pioneer in developing the officials’ replay).
Gene Stallings, who was coach of the St. Louis/Phoenix Cardinals before taking over at Bama in 1990, told a funny story. Skelton, who had played on Tide teams when Stallings was an assistant to Bryant, was officiating a Cardinals game. Stallings had no problem expressing his displeasure to officials, then or later, and was giving Skelton a hard time. Finally, Stallings said, he told Skelton, “This must be the worst-officiated game in the history of the NFL.” Skelton replied, “Then it’s a perfect fit to the coaching.”
Stallings said he couldn’t help but laugh.
On a personal note, Tommy Brooker, Bobby Skelton, former Tide radio announcer Doug Layton, and I were a regular foursome in the annual A-Club Tournament, and we were often competitive, primarily because Bullet was a very fine player into his 70s.