The most gifted teenagers in Elmore County are expected to enjoy fame, prosperity and achievement but will nonetheless experience failure and despair at some point in their lives.
Some may get divorced or fired. Some may file bankruptcy. Some may be told they aren’t as skilled or as smart as their competitors and their ideas have no merit. Their loved ones will die, perhaps slowly with age or suddenly and violently.
They will do well to remember the night former University of Alabama football star Siran Stacy told them about glimpsing hell and finding the illumination to revive his hope.
Stacy’s life was over many times and somehow God kept bringing him back just to stand in a ballroom in Wetumpka last week and tell the finalists for the Joe Sewell Memorial Award and John Sewell Scholarship they will stumble, perhaps precipitously, but needn’t remain nose down in the dirt.
“You’re listening to a miracle tonight,” Stacy told them.
After nearly an hour of whispering and wailing, of opening the triumphs, tragedies and lessons of his life to public review, and with sweat and tears flooding his face, Stacy was given a standing ovation far more satisfying than the adulation of 70,000 people for scoring touchdowns.
The little boy from Geneva who looked into a black-and-white TV set, saw himself standing next to Paul “Bear” Bryant and was told he wasn’t good enough to do it left home with one bag, came back with the same bag and enough room for a crimson jersey, shredded his knee, became a pro, became selfish and decadent, then somnambulant and despondent when he lost almost his entire family in a wreck and contemplated suicide.
Then he began living when, as he put it, “I died to myself.”
“We’re called to do something,” Stacy said. “What I’m telling you now is I’ve lived it. This happened to me.”
Stacy told the teenagers their mission in life must include the end of divisiveness in America and even in Elmore County or wherever they go because a fractured country is only a larger manifestation of the decaying roots of decency and goodness at home.
“Young people, I hear all the time, ‘I’m proud to be this gender,’ or ‘I’m proud to be this sexual preference,’ but you don’t hear, ‘I’m proud to be a Christian,’” Stacy said. “To unify, you’ve got to die to yourself. You’ve got to be selfless. You’re the Me Generation. You take selfies. You post on Facebook that you just ate a hot dog. But Christ said, ‘You have to deny yourself to follow Me.’ We are perfect when we deny ourselves and come together. Nobody knows it all. Baptists don’t know it all, Church of Christ doesn’t know it all, Methodists don’t know it all. To unify there has to be love but we’re in a generation where we don’t love each other anymore.”
Stacy pleaded with the teenagers to resist the ordinary tracks of life.
“Who are you?” he asked. “We are brought up to be who we were told to be. You go to school, get a job, get married, have kids, get a mortgage, then sit in a rocking chair and retire someday. That’s who we’ve been told we are. … You’ve got to keep working. If you make the dean’s list, keep going higher. You can change this world.”
Stacy began changing the world by watching Alabama football games on TV at home in Geneva.
“On Saturdays, I’d watch on this little black-and-white TV,” he said. “Those were the days to get a good picture you’d go out and twist the antenna. Someone in here knows what I’m talking about. I saw Alabama on TV and I said, ‘I’m going to play for that man some day.’ I didn’t even know who he was. It was coach Bryant. Except I lived in ‘The Bottom’ and people on my side of town didn’t go to Alabama. I had to get someone to come into agreement with me that I could do it.”
Stacy didn’t find any such agreement.
“I did just enough to get by in school and it caught up with me,” he said. “My guidance counselor told me at career day, ‘Siran, you are not college material.’ I remember walking home feeling this tall, rejected, demeaned. So I went to Coffeyville (Kansas) Junior College with the dream still bubbling up. I got on the Greyhound bus one day with one little bag and I told my mama, ‘I’ve got to take my shot. If I stay in Geneva, I won’t amount to anything.’”
When Stacy got off the bus in Kansas after a 33-hour ride, it was alien and unwelcoming.
“Nobody was there to pick me up,” he said. “I stood there and watched those red lights on the bus pull away. I had one bag and started walking and knocking on doors at 4 o’clock in the morning. And I had a stuttering problem. This one guy answered the door and he was not happy and I was stuttering. He let me sleep on the floor.”
It would have been easy to stay on the floor had he known what was in store for him playing under coach Dick Foster.
“He was a tough guy,” Stacy said. “He was a disciple of Woody Hayes.”
But that was just what Stacy needed. He rededicated himself academically and became one of the nation’s best junior college running backs. By 1989, Bill Curry was Alabama’s coach and Stacy got his opportunity to come home — and not on a bus.
“They told me they wanted me in Alabama the next day and I said, ‘Uh, it took me 33 hours to get out here from Alabama’ and they said no, they were sending a jet for me,” Stacy said. “So I went to the airport. I had never been in an airport. I still had that one little bag and I saw the jet that said ‘The University of Alabama’ on it. It had leather seats and when we took off I had a Coke and a smile. It took an hour and five minutes. I remember when I saw the pine trees, tears came down my face.”
Starting wasn’t the most important thing in his first game at Alabama, against Memphis at Legion Field in 1989. Just being on the field was.
“I came out of that tunnel and saw the Million Dollar Band, Big Al, the cheerleaders,” Stacy said. “I see a goalpost and I freeze in my tracks. I’m thinking, ‘Twelve years ago I saw (Bryant) on that same goalpost on TV.’ It took 12 years for it to happen. I had tears and my teammates wanted to know why I was crying.”
Stacy came off the bench on the verge of hyperventilating.
“I got in in the second quarter and I kept saying, ‘Give me the ball! Give me the ball!’” Stacy said. “They’d tell me to calm down and I kept saying, ‘Give me the ball!’ The first two times I got it, I scored a touchdown. I ran for four touchdowns that day. This is the power of the unseen God I’m talking about.”
Stacy went on to become a two-time All-SEC running back in 1989 and 1991 despite tearing all three major ligaments in his right knee in the 1990 opener. He was drafted by the Philadelphia Eagles. He played in Europe and in the Canadian Football League. He met and married Ellen Bible, who played volleyball at Alabama.
With his athletic career over, something tugged at Stacy.
“There was always something inside me that wanted to help somebody,” Stacy said, so he began reaching out to people through the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and the Bill Glass Prison Ministry.
Stacy remembered going to a federal prison in Florida and telling the convicted criminals, “Your life is not over.” Then he had to prove it.
“An older inmate came up to me and grabbed me and asked, ‘Can I be forgiven? I did it. I raped that girl,’” Stacy said. “He sat there bawling. I’m thinking, ‘How could you do something like that? Rape a girl?’ But it hit me that he could be forgiven. We prayed right there.”
Still, Stacy admitted he hypocritically lived two lives.
“That love was not there,” he said. “I was living a selfish life. I wasn’t in agreement with my wife.”
The two lives he led were shattered during the 2007 Thanksgiving holiday when his wife and four of his five children were killed in a collision near his home in Dothan.
“I spent 10 days in the hospital and then they’re taking me to funerals,” Stacy said. “It was like a blur. They told me it was a miracle I was alive but I didn’t want to be alive. It’s only by the grace of Almighty God that I stand here tonight.”
By this point in his talk to the teens, Stacy had shed his jacket and waded into the crowd in Wetumpka.
His face contorted in anguish as he recalled telling Sidney, one of his three daughters killed in the crash, he wouldn’t be able to attend one of her events, perhaps resonating with parents and daughters in the crowd.
“She said, ‘It’s OK Daddy, you’ll make the next one.’”
The audience watched in stunned silence as Stacy confessed all the reasons he didn’t deserve to live.
“I lied,” he said. “I didn’t make it to see my daughter. I cheated on my wife. It’s over. Suicide became an option for me.”
He did die — to himself. He began sharing his testimony and started Siran Stacy Ministries.
“I’m not a reject,” Stacy said. “Old things pass away. I’m not going to live by yesterday. I am in agreement with the Word. Post-tragedy, I made a decision — I died to myself. I know God is in me. There is nothing you can say to me to tear me down. I have love inside of me. I want to pour it out. I don’t want to leave Wetumpka without pouring my love out.”
He exhorted the teens to remember the night he did just that and to call on their foundation, on those who raised them, taught them and loved them, when times inevitably get tough.
“You’ll go far if you honor the authority of your parents, your teachers, your coaches,” Stacy said. “Don’t ever forget where you came from and who is counting on you as you go on your journey.”
Jimmy Wigfield is the managing editor of The Herald.