Film set to premiere Aug. 28 in Tuscaloosa
Tim Card’s 50-year fascination with Alabama’s wishbone offense hits the big screen next month.
“The Wishbone Boys,” which tells the story of the Crimson Tide’s dominant football run utilizing that seemingly unstoppable offense from 1971-82 under coach Paul “Bear” Bryant, debuts Aug. 28 at the Bama Theatre in downtown Tuscaloosa. Card, a 57-year-old movie and television stuntman-turned-filmmaker who was born in Mobile and grew up in Atlanta, is the documentary’s creator, producer and director.
“When the wishbone started in 1971, that’s when my lights came on watching Alabama football,” Card told AL.com in a recent telephone interview. “I was eight years old and I listened to that first game vs. USC on the radio with my parents. I was hooked. I was just fascinated by the wishbone offense. As time went on, I knew there was something special about it. I always thought ‘I’ve got to make a film on this.’ I just knew I had to do something with it.”
Containing interviews with dozens of former Alabama players, coaches, fans and observers as well as archival footage, “The Wishbone Boys” was nearly a decade in the making. Though he did not attend Alabama (he is a University of South Alabama graduate), Card had a cousin who worked in the Crimson Tide’s athletic department in the 1970s and was able to broker a meeting with athletics director Mal Moore in 2011.
Moore — who was Alabama’s quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator during the wishbone days — was very receptive to the idea, Card said, and immediately pledged his support. Another relative, Wintzell’s Oyster House CEO Buffy Donlon, came up with the idea of holding a reunion of players and coaches from Alabama’s wishbone era at her restaurant’s Orange Beach location, an event that took place in 2014.
“The reunion at Orange Beach went over like a symphony,” Card said. “The players loved it. And that’s when we started production on the film. We interviewed 50 players and coaches that weekend.”
Still, funding issues slowed production. Moore died suddenly in 2013, with the filmmakers losing a key contact and early champion of their efforts.
And yet, Card and his small team — which includes executive producer Donlon, co-producer A.P. Steadham and social media manager/line producer Michelle Ryan — soldiered on, financing “The Wishbone Boys” almost entirely out of their own pockets. As with most other things, the COVID-19 pandemic put another kink in the works in 2020 (a companion book to the film, co-authored by Card and Robert Wray, was released in 2018).
Card — whose film and TV credits include “Stroker Ace,” “Sharkey’s Machine” and “The Dukes of Hazzard” (he was once stunt double for John “Bo Duke” Schneider) —said he is currently making final edits on the film, and will continue to do so until about a week before the premiere. As fate would have it, this fall marks the 50th anniversary since Alabama unveiled the wishbone offense, in a game at Southern Cal on Sept. 10, 1971.
“The plan was to have it out a long time ago, but it just happened to fall into place that way,” Card said. “We wanted to have it out last year, but couldn’t do it with COVID. But it was just like the grace of God that it’s coming out this year for the 50th anniversary. It’s perfect timing, almost like it was meant to be that way.”
Beginning with that 17-10 victory over USC at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, Alabama reeled off 123 victories (against 19 losses and one tie), nine SEC championships and three national championships in 12 seasons running the wishbone before Bryant retired following the 1982 season. It was the greatest era of sustained success at Alabama — or anywhere in college football, arguably — until Nick Saban arrived in Tuscaloosa some 35 years later.
The story of how the wishbone — so-called because the way the quarterback and three running backs are aligned prior to the snap resembles the eponymous fork-shaped chicken breastbone — was installed adds another level of intrigue to the story. Coming off back-to-back mediocre seasons in 1969 and 1970, Bryant visited old friend Darrell Royal at Texas prior to the 1971 season and learned the offense from Royal and Longhorns offensive coordinator Emory Bellard.
Bryant brought the wishbone concepts back to Tuscaloosa and told his team they were immediately scrapping the pass-heavy, pro-style offense they’d run for much of the last decade. The move came as a complete shock to the players, said Terry Davis, Alabama’s original wishbone quarterback.
“We went through spring training running the same pro set offense,” Davis said in a recent interview with Mobile’s SportsTalk 99.5 FM. “We had no idea they were going to change the offense. The first we knew about it was the first full team meeting we had with Coach Bryant. He walked in, said flatly ‘We’re changing offenses. We’re going to the wishbone and we’re going to sink or swim with it.’
“We had about six quarterbacks and we went down to the lower gym with Coach Moore and immediately started working on the mechanics. We had about three weeks before the first game. We went to work then and put that offense in. We were able to disguise it whenever the media came around. We just went back into the pro set offense and ran some plays so that they wouldn’t know. We had curtains around the (practice) field and Coach Bryant would pull the curtains so that people outside couldn’t see what we were doing. They checked the apartments across to the street to make sure nobody was spying on us. I don’t know how we did it, but nobody knew we were going to run that offense full-bore. Southern Cal was certainly surprised.”
Ballcarriers typically took a beating in the wishbone, which put depth at a premium. But with the combination of virtually limitless scholarships available during that time and the program infrastructure Bryant had already built at Alabama, the wishbone helped make the Crimson Tide into a machine.
“What people didn’t realize is during that time, we were four teams deep,” said Wayne Wheeler, an All-America receiver at Alabama in 1973. “And we could play and score against every team we were playing against. That’s just how much depth we had on the team. … We’d go in for the first series and score, and then we were out of the game and the next team went in. We shifted in full teams, pretty much — both offense and defense.”
The implementation of the wishbone at Alabama also dovetails with the program’s racial integration, as halfback Wilbur Jackson and defensive end John Mitchell became the Crimson Tide’s first African-American players in 1971. A few years later, Alabama had standout Black players — such as split end Ozzie Newsome, center Sylvester Croom and fullback Johnny Davis — all over the field.
“The Wishbone Boys” tells the story of an entire era, and thus the integration of Alabama’s team is only one aspect of the film — though an important one, Steadham said. The film will be more all-encompassing than past films on the Bryant era of Crimson Tide football, Card added.
“What we have in this film, no one has seen before,” Card said. “There has never been a documentary on the entire wishbone era at Alabama. We’ve got so many different players and coaches telling their personal stories of that time at Alabama and their relationship with the wishbone offense. And there are a lot of stories in there that will bring a tear to your eye. To me, it’s different than any documentary I’ve ever seen with Alabama football.”
Tickets for “The Wishbone Boys” premiere at the Bama Theatre can be purchased by clicking HERE. Card said he and his team have had discussions about additional distribution on broadcast or cable TV in the future, with CBS Sports expressing some interest.
Watch “The Wishbone Boys” trailer: