EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the fourth story in a series counting down the top five players in University of Alabama football history. Companion series are planned for Georgia (May 11-15) and Tennessee (May 18-22).
On Oct. 4, 1986, I was an Auburn University sophomore student trying to get motivated to make the short walk to Jordan-Hare Stadium later that day to watch Pat Dye's Tigers manhandle Western Carolina.
I never made it. Alabama versus Notre Dame at Legion Field was way too tempting.
On a road trip that proved to be short and incredibly successful, some buddies and I traveled up Highway 280 to Birmingham, somehow scored some face-value tickets and had just settled in during the first quarter when Crimson Tide linebacker Cornelius Bennett leveled Fighting Irish quarterback Steve Beuerlein. Alabama had been winless against Notre Dame in four previous tries, but Bennett's sack ignited the Tide to a resounding 28-10 win on 112-degree turf.
"I can't remember when a defensive player did the things that Bennett did to our offense," Beuerlein said afterward.
The brutal blow at Beuerlein's expense was the most memorable play produced by Bennett, and it was quickly commemorated in a Daniel A. Moore painting, but the 6-foot-4, 235-pounder from Birmingham was anything but a one-hit wonder during his days in Tuscaloosa. Bennett amassed 287 tackles and 41 tackles for loss in his four-year career (1983-86), with 19 of his lost-yardage stops occurring as a senior.
Bennett signed with the Tide amid the most emotional time in program history, with Paul "Bear" Bryant having announced his retirement and the university having announced Ray Perkins as his successor. Bryant's final game was Alabama's 21-15 topping of Illinois in the Liberty Bowl on Dec. 29, 1982, with Perkins introduced on Jan. 4, 1983.
Bryant died of a heart attack on Jan. 26, 1983, a day after he was checked into the hospital with chest pains.
Alabama had finished 8-4 in Bryant's last season and went 8-4 in the debut of Perkins, losing to Southeastern Conference rivals Auburn and Tennessee in each of those years. The Tide began their 1984 season ranked No. 9 but wound up 5-6, the program's first losing record since 1957, the year before Bryant's arrival.
Bennett was Alabama's only All-American as a sophomore in 1984, and he would attain All-America status again in each of his final two seasons, when the Tide went a combined 19-5-1 and won the Aloha and Sun bowls.
"I was hoping to have the opportunity to play for Coach Bryant, and I didn't get the opportunity to play for an SEC title or a national championship," Bennett said, "but there were a lot of good memories."
Bennett's showcase game against Notre Dame on ABC spearheaded his hardware haul, and he finished seventh in the Heisman Trophy voting. He was named SEC player of the year at a time when the league awarded one recipient and not an offensive and defensive winner, which has been the case since 2003.
No linebacker had ever won SEC player of the year before Bennett, and he also became the first linebacker to win the Lombardi Award.
Bennett was the second overall pick in the 1987 NFL draft, the highest selection for a Tide player since Harry Gilmer went first in 1948.
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