REQUIEM FOR A LEGEND
Posted On: 2014-4-29
As I sometimes do, today I turn over the keypad to Pop so that he, too, can share some thoughts on my blog. It’s been a rainy day with lots of storms passing through during the night so, since working at Rocky Creek is out of the question, the timing is perfect for him to stay inside and convey his missive.
Thanks Rufus. (I wonder when he learned the word, missive?)
I’m sure you’ve heard the controverted expression based on “a legend in his own time” that goes “a legend in his own mind“. It’s a connotation for an individual who has an undeserved high opinion of themselves. In my profession there are many deceased pilots who richly deserve the legend label and even some, like Bob Hoover, who are truly living legends. Although I am most certainly nowhere near that category of aviator, I have been both surprised and humbled by folks (who I don’t know) saying that they know me (be it through having read one or more of my books , knowing of me because of my status as an airshow performer or by virtue of some other connection) to myself and others. I view this as a high compliment and I’m always grateful when strangers speak to me (or about me to others) as if they know me personally. Most recently, I was visiting the National Flight Academy when a radio personality approached me and struck up a conversation, recalling a previous meeting of which I had absolutely no recollection. He was highly complimentary about my time flying the MiG. Shortly after that, I was speaking at an engagement where several folks asked for autographs on various pieces of aviation paraphernalia and expressed knowledge of aspects of my life about which I was intrigued that they knew.
The other end of that spectrum is seeing someone from bygone years whom, although I hoped they would remember me, seemed to have that “I think I recognize you” look on their face as I attempt to gracefully jog their memory of our connection.
Such could have been the case many years ago while I was on a layover during a Delta trip. The layover was short, typical of those 727 domestic rotations, and we had barely enough time to grab a bite to eat , sleep fast and lobby in 8 hours for the next day’s flying. We were in Birmingham where I have several friends and relatives but, because of the short duration of our stay, I hadn’t contacted anybody to get together for dinner or a visit. Dragging my bag and flight kit to the hotel room, I noticed a familiar face a couple of doors down the hall, also with a bag and business kit and fiddling for his room key. Although I figured he wouldn’t know me from Adam, I was compelled to say “Hey David!” and avoid the potential for an awkward response by introducing myself as a former Auburn football teammate. Much to my surprise, he recognized me, smiled broadly with his big toothy grin and gave me a firm handshake and a hug. The look on his face was sincere as he inquired as to how I was doing and remarked how spiffy I looked in my Delta pilot’s uniform. The hour was late and I could tell he was tired, too, but we both knew that we’d have to spend at least a few minutes catching up. So, I dumped my bags in my room, hung up my hat and coat and went back down to David’s room where we raided the honor bar and sat to commiserate.
I couldn’t help noticing the food stain on his shirt and the tear in his pants, indicative that he was, financially at least, not at the top of his game businesswise. He shared that he was selling office equipment for Pitney-Bowes and that times were, indeed, hard. We reminisced only briefly and when our glasses were empty we parted company with another firm handshake, expressing our wishes for success to each other. I reflected on that chance encounter a number of years later when, during a team reunion of our ’72 Amazins, David was in his element, dressed much better, and surrounded by adulation, barely acknowledged my greeting. I understood completely. David was, at that time, a living legend of Auburn football.
Three years older than me, about the same size but worlds apart in his confidence and ability, he was the defensive back that no receiver looked forward to being covered by. David was tough as a pine knot and mean as a snake. He relished in knocking the crap out of people in practice so you can imagine how much he enjoyed those opportunities during games. If the opportunities didn’t present themselves, he created them – usually by starting a fight. He would punch, kick, gouge and was even ejected from a game for attempting to cleat a guy in the face. He played for a while with a broken arm utilizing the cast as a weapon. He defied the physics of his size by sheer attitude. He would be ready to fight anybody, anytime, just for the way they looked at him. He intimidated the hell out of opponents and personified what Coach Jordan used to call “reckless abandon”.
But the real reason David was a legend was due to the fact that he was the primary hero of the 1972 Auburn/Alabama game. He returned two blocked punts, scoring 12 of the points necessary to beat Bama 17-16 and intercepted a pass at the end of the game that sealed the victory against the number one team in the nation. The game was not televised so you either had to have been there or listened to it on the radio to experience the electricity of that game. Auburn fans were starved for a glimmer of success over the Crimson Tide juggernaut under Bear Bryant. At a time when the Auburn faithful critically needed a booster shot of spirit, they got it from Langner. And so it was that, regardless of his personal success or lack thereof later in life, David was immortalized in the annals of Auburn football history. And if you know anything about college football in the south, particularly within the state of Alabama, you are aware that this is a very big deal.
At our last reunion two years ago, our 40th, David was, once again, the toast of the town. Few were aware that he would be coping with cancer and then gone from among us so soon. David died on Saturday.
There are a couple other of our teammates who are waging battles against cancer and other health issues that tend to plague those of us who enter our sixties with the exuberance of youth, still thinking that we could maybe strap on the pads and show today’s players a thing or two. Truth be told, even though they’re bigger, faster and stronger than those of us who played back in the day, there will never, ever be anything to compensate for the tenacity of guys who played defense like David Langner.
He was a living legend of Auburn football and now assumes his rightful place as a perpetual legend of the gridiron. “War Eagle, fly down the field, ever to conquer, never to yield” – Godspeed, my friend.