By J. Henderson
[You’ll pick up pretty quickly that I mostly wrote this for an audience mostly unfamiliar with Auburn football. So forgive the explanation of the Iron Bowl, Punt, Bama, Punt, etc… and full disclosure, as they say – I helped Thom with some of the research for the book. Fuller disclosure: this is long, but worth it I hope, so click the ‘keep reading’ link.]
Thom Gossom is telling me a story over the phone. I saw him tell it once on TV. He killed. Still, it’s better this time. It goes like this:
It’s the spring of 2004, a weekday afternoon in Los Angeles, inside a waiting room. It’s an audition for the television show Boston Legal. There is a black guy, about 50, sitting there, waiting to read for a part. That’s Thom.
He’s flipping through Sports Illustrated. There’s some svelte hipster, white, probably about 25, sitting across from him. The kid is wearing a vintage thrift-store t-shirt. It catches Thom’s eye. He puts the magazine down.
“… and I go, ‘hey man, let me see that shirt.’ So he stretches it out for me.”
The shirt reads: “Happy Birthday Bo, From Van Tiffin’s Toe: 25-23 – November 30, 1985.”
“I said, ‘Oh, wow man, d’you go to Alabama?’ He says, ‘oh, no, it’s just one of those vintage things.’ I said, ‘oh, so you don’t know what it means?’ He laughs a little bit, shakes his head no. He’s kinda freaked out a little bit, but you know, he’s really paying attention. I say, ‘well let me tell ya’ man, the ‘Bo’ is Bo Jackson.”
“He says, ‘oh, Bo Jackson?’ I said, ‘yeah man, this guy, Van Tiffin for Alabama, he kicked a field goal at the end of the Auburn-Alabama game that year and won the game and everything.’”
Thom said he explained a little bit more. The game was played on Bo Jackson’s birthday. It was his senior year. Tiffin’s kick was voted by Alabama fans as the greatest play ever in Birmingham’s Legion Field. It was a big deal. It was a knife in the gut to Auburn fans.
The kid goes, “Oh, so Bo went to Alabama?”
“Naw, man, Bo went to Auburn.”
They kept going.
“He was like ‘man, they take that stuff real serious down there don’t they?’ And I’m like, ‘oh man, yeah, if you went into the wrong place with that t-shirt on, you’d be in trouble like hell.’”
Ha ha ha.
“And so he asks me, he says, ‘well how come you know so much about it?’”
Thom tells him.
“I played football for Auburn.”
The kid gets quiet, then he looks the black guy in the eye. The black guy, Thom, looks back and says:
“Yeah, man, you’re about to get your ass kicked.”
Ha haaaaaaaaa haaaaaaaaa!
Ok, I wanted to start off with that story. I think it sets the stage, so to speak. Now let’s talk Thom. You might not know Thom’s name, but you probably know his face. He’s an actor, a “that guy.” As in, “oh, that guy.” He’s a black that guy, a good one, well respected.
For me, it was In the Heat of the Night. I snapped my fingers and said “that’s it!” That’s why he looked so familiar. Officer Ted Marcus – 20 episodes, his big break.
“People will tell me they recognize me, but they don’t recognize me from role to role,” Gossom tells me in between conference calls with his publisher (he’s got a book coming out). “I take that as a compliment.”
He’s been a salesman here, a pharmacist there, a coach, a dude. The detective in Fight Club? That’s Thom. The judge on Boston Legal? Thom again. The CEO in the new Citibank commercial, holding up a box with that “we did it, team” look on his face? That guy, Thom Gossom. He’s been at it a while.
“They might be small roles, but I try to take them all seriously.”
“I guess you didn’t have to try very hard to take things seriously back then,” I say.
“No, back then it was pretty damn easy.”
Back then was the early 70s. If you rewind his career back to back then, back to college, back to Alabama, back to when national culture and especially southern culture was being completely recast, that guy, Thom Gossom, found himself as one of the leads in an action-drama of singular significance.
Because Thom wasn’t just a black guy back then, he was a black football player; “1970s Black Football Player in Alabama” is the most serious part he’s ever played.
photo by B. Ashmore
Thom was a wide receiver, arguably the most segregated position in today’s version of the game (Chris Shelling Jr. recently joked in an e-mail that “Auburn’s Next Top White Receiver” would make great reality TV. “Hicks Poor and Justin Fetsko could host.”).
He was a star on the one stage our mutual home state of Alabama continues to care about above all others, but at a time when the spotlight of that humid autumn sun really brought out the color in your skin. Thom Gossom was the second black football player at the first Division I school in Alabama to break the gridiron’s color barrier.
That school was not the University of Alabama.