The original Italian Stallion
Jim Grammer, When it was a game
I was watching the old Rocky movie the other night on some movie channel. The movie, I believe, came out in the late 70s and was very popular at the time about a down and out boxer that is given the chance for the heavyweight title and wins on "pure heart." The American public flocked to see it. The true test of a movie at the time was the sequels that were made and I think there were five of the Rocky series. I was struck by the fact that Rocky took the nickname, "The Italian Stallion."
I'm sure moviegoers at the time thought this was an original nickname, but there is no doubt in my mind that Sylvester Stallone got the name from Johnny Musso, who was known by this name as he became one of the greatest running backs and greatest All-Americans in Alabama history. It was my good fortune to have played three years with Johnny, who was not only a great football player, but also a kind, polite, and humble person.
Let me tell about the original "Italian Stallion." Johnny Musso came out of Banks High School in Birmingham standing about 5-foot-11 and never weighing more than 180-pounds. He didn't have blazing speed or the lighting quickness that most great running backs possess, but as football fans across the nation would learn, he had the indescribable quality that very few possess and that is that he had a "heart" the size of New Jersey. That quality that coaches and fans have been attempting to put into words for a hundred years; that quality that is often called, "guts," "determination," "fortitude," "will to win," "drive," and sometimes just called "class." Yea, Johnny had it all and then some. He is still remembered and revered by Alabama football fans for all these qualities.
Off the field, Johnny Musso was the type of guy that moved slowly, spoke softly, polite and respectful to everyone and somewhat shy. With his dark hair, blue eyes, and his dominant Italian nose, he was, I'm sure, much sought after by the young ladies and justifiably so. But, his heart belonged to only one. He was such a mild mannered person that one could easily assume that these personality traits would carryover to the football field, not so.
Johnny was much like the rest of us as he entered the dressing room each day for practice. We would read the practice itinerary as we entered, complaining about what the coaches had scheduled for us that day. He would slowly dawn his gear, mumbling something about how we were going to get our butts worked off that day. Slowly make his way through the tunnel and onto the practice field. When he stepped on the field there seem to be a great transformation in his attitude and actions. He was all business. He was intense. He was full speed and tough.
Whenever we needed a couple of yards for a first down, Johnny got the ball. It was said that he gained more yardage after being hit than any other player in the history of the game. I have no doubt that this is true. He played hurt most of the time because he got hit and hit hard more than the average player, but he still played with the same intensity. I remember in the LSU game in Baton Rouge, he got hit near the sideline and the hit broke his nose. Coach Goosetree, the trainer for Alabama at the time, happened to be standing on the sidelines near the play and quickly stuck two cotton balls in Johnny nostrils and sent him back to the huddle. He never missed a play.
Another quality of Johnny Musso was that often when he would run the ball, glancing off tacklers and sometimes dragging one for a few more yards, he would come back to the huddle and pat us lineman on the back for making a good block. In reality, we didn't block anybody, he just ran through and around the defenders.
Yea, Johnny Musso played on "pure heart" and after thinking about it, I guess there were a lot of similarities between Rocky and the true "Italian Stallion."