A Good Ambassador

As we walked by, my wife nudged me, whispering in my left ear, gesturing to my right.

"Isn't that..." she said, "Charlie Peprah," I said, looking to my right, where the University of Alabama's excellent strong safety sat, complete with crimson-and-grey sweats.

Had this been Tuscaloosa, after a game or on a random Thursday afternoon, this would have been no big deal.

But we were in Chicago's Midway Airport, preparing to board Southwest Airlines Flight 1758 back to Birmingham after a long weekend of football and fun watching Iowa beat Purdue in West Lafayette, Ind.

In other words, it was pretty much the last place one would expect to see an Alabama football player, even on an off-week Sunday afternoon (which this was).

But there sat the charismatic Peprah, something we thought nothing more of as we made our way to the back of the full flight.

Southwest features open seating, and although our flight attendants were preaching "a tush in every cush," we thought our end-row status could keep us from two hours of sitting next to a stranger. So my wife took the window seat, and I plopped on the aisle, with our carry-ons between us, to better discourage potential passengers.

Sure enough, the flight filled up, leaving our middle seat as virtually the only unfilled space on the plane.

I looked up, saw Peprah moving down the aisle, and thought, "This should be interesting."

And as he moved towards us, his face lit up when he recognized me.

I moved over, shook his hand and introduced him to my wife, Mitzi, an Alabama season-ticket holder, Alabama native and lifelong avowed Tide fan.

I thought she was going to bounce out of her seat, she was so excited.

Turns out Peprah was coming back from Denver, where he'd been the best man in his brother's wedding, scheduled specifically for his off-weekend.

There are probably a thousand people a well-known college football player would rather sit next to on a plane than a sportswriter and his rabid-fan wife, but Peprah handled us with pure class.

We talked quietly for a few minutes, with my wife expressing her gratitude for his play during what have been a couple of down seasons for Alabama football, and her joy about the team's quick start.

"I just wish it could have happened quicker," Peprah said. "It could have happened a couple of years ago, but things happen, and we‚re enjoying it now."

It was mid-afternoon, and Charlie was going to have to hit the ground running to make part of Sunday's practice once we landed in Birmingham (rest easy, his late arrival was excused).

So my wife and I pulled out reading material, and Charlie relaxed, getting a little much-needed shuteye. I don't know how he did it, sitting straight up on a crowded plane, but Peprah dozed until the drink service came around.

Even our stewardess' error (he asked for apple juice, she brought orange) couldn't raise his ire; he merely took what was given and resumed his nap.

Just before we landed, he woke up. We talked for a few minutes about the difference between this flight and the Tide's normal charter flights - sitting next to us in cramped quarters must have been like being smashed next to a couple of offensive tackles, I figure - and when we landed and the crowds cleared, we said our goodbyes.

It couldn't have possibly been a more pleasant experience, and Peprah made my wife's day, giving her an amazing story to tell all of her Tide-fan friends for the rest of the season.

As we walked through the airport's concourse, we hung back and let Peprah walk by himself.

Naturally, he attracted far more attention than he had in Chicago. One gentleman in a black leather jacket recognized him immediately and close-talked him all the way to baggage claim, invading his personal space.

But Peprah didn't flinch. At every step, he had a smile for all of the fans who recognized him, handling the situation with an easy grace.

Whether it was us or a trio of policemen asking for football talk, he had a moment for everyone, even though he surely just wanted to get his luggage and drive to Tuscaloosa for practice.

You hear all the stories about athletes behaving badly, doing embarrassing things with firearms and taking booze-soaked cruises full of debauchery.

Then you spend an unlikely afternoon with Charlie Peprah, and you realize it doesn't have to be that way, that perhaps those miscreants are the exception, not the norm.

Either way, Alabama fans should know this: they're lucky to have guys like Charlie Peprah on their side, whether he ever makes another tackle or not.

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