It’s been a while since Tom Calvin played or coached football, but he’s still reaching milestones.
Today is the Decatur resident’s 90th birthday.
According to his wife Lenette, it’s going to be a low-key day. There will be a visit from friends from Sylacauga, where he coached for 21 years before taking over the program at Austin in 1978. There will be some birthday cake later in the day at Lenette’s gymnastics school, Calvin’s Twisters.
“Some of Tom’s players from Sylacauga wanted to have a big celebration, but Tom said he didn’t think he was up to that,” Lenette said.
Birthday cards started arriving last week. They are mixed in with the autograph requests. Because Calvin is one of the oldest living former Alabama and NFL players, he routinely receives autograph requests from around the country.
After a great career at Athens, Calvin starred at running back for Alabama from 1948-50. He was drafted by the Pittsburgh Steelers in the 25th round of the 1951 draft.
Calvin passed on the offer from the Steelers and started his coaching career at Baldwin County. The story goes that after the 1951 season, Steelers owner Art Rooney raised his contract offer to $8,000 and Calvin accepted. He played fullback and returned kicks for the Steelers for four seasons.
The NFL in 1952-55 was a lot different than it is today. The Steelers, which are still owned by the Rooney family, never had a winning record during Calvin’s four seasons. Two teams that have never played in the Super Bowl, the Detroit Lions and Cleveland Browns, ruled the league in the early 1950s. Detroit won the championship in ’52 and ’53. Cleveland won it in ’54 and ’55.
There’s a website, oldestlivingprofootball.com, which keeps track of former NFL players. The list of oldest living former pro football players, which was updated June 4, has Calvin at No. 68. Leading the way is 102-year-old Bill Glassford, who played for a Cincinnati team in 1937.
Some notable names ahead of Calvin include at No. 43 Johnny Lujack, the 1947 Heisman Trophy winner at Notre Dame, who is 91; at No. 51 is former Buffalo Bills coach Marv Levy, who is 90; and at No. 64 is former Alabama player Harry Gilmer, who is 90.
Also on the list at No. 55 is someone who often has visited Decatur. Former Mississippi State running back Harper Davis, who is 90, has a son and daughter-in-law, Andy and Grace, who are longtime Decatur residents.
In his first year away from the NFL in 1956, Calvin became head coach at Sylacauga. His teams went 134-69-10, won three state championships, had 15 straight winning seasons and produced countless players that played college football.
In 1978, Calvin took on the challenge of leading the Austin football program. The Black Bears had suffered through seven losing seasons when Austin Principal Bearl Whitsett talked him into taking the job.
“It was one of the best hires I ever made,” Whitsett said. “He was exactly what the program needed and I think coming to Austin was what he needed at that time in his career.”
The Black Bears ended the losing-season streak in 1979 with a 6-4 record. The Austin football program hit a high point from 1982-1984. The Black Bears went 31-6 with three trips to the playoffs, including playing for a state championship in 1983.
Calvin retired from Austin after the 1988 season. He served as a volunteer coach at West Morgan for several seasons.
“I think the world of Tom and Lenette,” Whitsett said. “They’ve both touched a lot of lives in positive ways.”