'He's been family': Auburn pays final tribute to its legendary voice

Rod Bramblett had been the radio voice of Auburn football and basketball since 2003. Todd Van Emst/AU Athletics

AUBURN, Ala. -- A handful of speakers walked onto a makeshift stage inside Auburn Arena on Thursday afternoon and tried to summon the right words to explain the lives and impact of Rod and Paula Bramblett. Five days removed from the tragic car accident that resulted in their deaths, friends and co-workers told stories of the man who gave voice to an entire community and the woman who was the rock that made it all possible.

Rod Bramblett, a legendary play-by-play announcer of Auburn football and basketball games since 2003, was described as the most kind, decent, professional man you could ever hope to meet. Fellow announcer and friend Sonny Smith called Rod a dreamer. He dreamed about his dream girl, his dream family and his dream job. And, Smith said, "Rod Bramblett fulfilled every one of those dreams and more."

Paula Bramblett, who made Rod an Auburn man because he went with her to college rather than attend Samford, was fine letting her husband stand in the spotlight. When fans would interrupt them in public and tell Rod about their favorite call of his or ask for his autograph, she'd play along. But as soon as they left, Paula would say, "You're taking out the trash when you get home, buddy." Her friend and former co-worker, Barbara Helms, said, "She was the light shining beside Rod."

There were laughs and tears throughout the memorial, which lasted more than an hour and featured hundreds of guests, including the voice of Alabama athletics, Eli Gold, and CBS's voice of the SEC, Gary Danielson. There were sweet stories about a marriage that spanned three decades and the two children they loved dearly. Auburn basketball coach Bruce Pearl teared up as he spoke for all the coaches in attendance. He couldn't bear the thought of not getting to chat with Rod exactly 90 minutes before every game.

"I couldn't wait to hear Rod describe something you just saw. It just sticks with you." Jason Herbert, a lifelong Auburn fan

But perhaps the words that resonated most during the service were Rod's own. After the final blessing and before a recording by Paula's favorite musician, Jon Bon Jovi, played everyone out to "Livin' on a Prayer," Rod's voice filled Auburn Arena once more.

"Chris Davis is going to drop back into the end zone," the recording began. "A single safety. I guess if this thing comes up short, he can field it and run it out."

The hundreds of mourners knew instantly what they were hearing. It was the final play of the 2013 Iron Bowl. It was the moment known forever as the "Kick-Six." In a career marked with several distinctive moments, this was Rod's finest call.

When Davis, who attended Thursday's service, fielded the kick and Rod counted the yards -- "10, 15, 20, 25, 30 ..." - you could feel Rod's energy surging. You could feel his disbelief as he shouted,"There goes Davis!" You could feel his unbridled joy when he hit the crescendo, "They're not gonna keep them off the field tonight!"

Rod did the thing every play-by-play man hopes to do. He painted a picture. He explained the moment. And above all, he made you feel what he was feeling.

An unabashed Auburn homer, he made Auburn men and women everywhere feel the same pride he felt watching their team compete.

Jason Herbert, a 39-year-old lifelong Auburn fan, took off work and drove nearly two hours from Birmingham to attend the memorial service. He'd only met Rod once or twice, he said, and even then it was just to say "War Eagle" in passing. But after all the years he'd spent listening to Rod's broadcasts, he felt compelled to pay his respects.

Theirs was a relationship that began in earnest in 2003 when Rod took over for the legendary Jim Fyffe. During that season's Iron Bowl, Rod's call of "Go crazy, Cadillac!" was a defining moment. And by the end of the following season, when Auburn went undefeated, Rod had settled in as the voice of the Auburn Tigers.

"He's been family ever since," Herbert said.

Even when he'd attend games or watch them on television, Herbert would seek out Rod's call afterward.

"I couldn't wait to hear Rod describe something you just saw," he said. "It just sticks with you."

It was that way for the "Kick-Six" when, after rolling Toomer's Corner, Herbert rushed back to his tailgate to hear how Rod had framed the biggest moment in Auburn football history. The video from the booth, which showed Rod's exuberance during the call, hugging his color analyst Stan White, was that of sports bliss. It helped lift a local celebrity to a national stage.

But listening to the call again on Thursday struck a different chord in Herbert. Afterward, he texted his wife, "That's the saddest I'd ever been in Auburn Arena."

"It hurts your heart," Herbert said later as he watched from the shade as the tandem white hearses left the arena.

Smith, who coached basketball at Auburn for 11 seasons and served as Rod's color analyst, tried to strike an upbeat tone when he spoke about his friend. There was a wry smile when he recalled last season's run to the Final Four and the debatable call that might have cost the Tigers a shot in the title game. Smith remembered jumping up with Rod and embracing when they thought the game was won, and then the sinking feeling when they saw the ref had called a foul.

"Nobody wanted us to be there any worse than Rod Bramblett did," Smith said.

But professionally speaking, Smith tried to make sense of a life that was cut short at 53. Rod got to call a football championship game, a College World Series and a Final Four appearance, and in that sense it was a sportscaster's life fulfilled.

That the Final Four game didn't end like they'd hoped didn't sour the experience, Smith said. Looking back, knowing that Rod got to check that box before he passed, was heartening now.

"You need to finalize a career -- and he didn't mean to, of course -- with something like that," Smith said. "He went out on a great ..."

Smith stumbled. He spun about for a second, having lost the word he needed.

For years, this was where his partner and friend would have helped him. Always, Rod would have been there.

Now Smith was on his own.

"Note!" Smith said when it finally came to him.

Whether it was Auburn's run to the Final Four or the "Kick-Six", Rod spent a career finding just the right words. As a young man, he looked up to play-by-play men Jim Fyffe and Larry Munson. And even though his career was cut short, it's safe to say that he has earned a place in their company.

How he used his voice and how he spent his life have earned him a place forever in Auburn history.