In December 1972, when most Auburn fans were still absorbing the glory following the Tigers' historic 'Punt Bama Punt' Iron Bowl win, 1966 graduate Ray Bean was being transported from one room to the next in a North Vietnam prison of war.
The guards typically confined the soldiers to groups who were brought into the prison at the same time to prevent them from obtaining knowledge from new prisoners. However, on the day Bean was moved, the guards made a mistake.
"When we moved into this room, there was one guy in there all by himself who had just been shot down, which was unusual," Bean said.
The group of men drilled the newcomer with questions, thirsting for information from the outside. Answers were given and questions tapered off, but Bean, who was in the company of an Alabama graduate, had one more inquiry.
"Finally, at the end of about an hour, it had kind of quieted down and I said, 'All right, let's find out the real important stuff. Who won the Auburn-Alabama game?'"
Forty-four years later, Bean is still the die-hard Auburn fan he was the year he asked about the Iron Bowl outcome in a Vietnam prisoner of war camp.
"My dad went [to Auburn], my brothers went there, I went there, and then my daughter went there," Bean said while explaining the Auburn roots that run throughout his family.
"My cousins all went there, and all their kids. So, it's a pretty big family connection."
After his release as a POW, Ray continued to serve in the Air Force for 30 years. He earned numerous decorations, such as the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Air Medal and the Defense Meritorious Service Medal. He later retired to Montgomery as a colonel.
But nearly one year ago, Bean braved battle again when he was diagnosed with cancer. On a week when he was out of town visiting family in Atlanta, complications from the illness sent him to Northside Hospital. He wasn't in his team's home state, but in a sea of bulldogs, Bean managed to find an other member of the Auburn Family.
"He was one of my patients, and I try to see and feel out some stuff with patients and see what they like," said Jenny Accarino, nurse at Northside Hospital and 2008 Auburn graduate.
"Turns out he was an Auburn fan, and since I went to Auburn, we just got on that topic."
As the conversation naturally turned toward football, Accarino mentioned to Ray she had a friend on the football team--defensive end Nosa Eguae. Accarino told Ray to look out for Eguae when he watched the game that Saturday, but left his bedside wanting to do something more.
"I just thought, 'What can make him smile? What can make my patient happy,'" Accarino said. "So, I thought, why don't I call Nosa? If I could get just him to talk to Ray, that would be awesome."
The Saturday of the Arkansas State game, Eguae was preparing to enter the Tiger Walk when he received a call from Accarino asking him if he would take the time to call Ray.
"I was all for it," Eguae said. "Stories like that [Ray's] put things in perspective for me. Any time I get the chance to make someone's day, I want to do it."
The day following the game back at Northside Hospital, Accarino walked into Ray's room and told him she had a surprise for him. "I thought they'd all know that my birthday had just passed, so I thought maybe it was something to do with that," Ray said. "Then, she said, 'Hang on,' and she dialed her phone and got [Eguae] on the phone." Lying on a hospital bed in a room full of nurses, Ray spoke to Nosa Eguae, D'Angelo Blackson, Dee Ford, and Keihl Frazier on speaker phone.
On the other end of the conversation, Eguae passes the phone from player to player, saying, "Hang on Mr. Ray, I've got one more for you."
Ray asked the players about how they were doing on defense, how the new freshmen linemen were performing and if they were going to be able to take Mississippi State the following week. The players assured him that they would.
The conversation ended with Equae thanking Ray for letting him and his teammates talk to him and hung up just after saying, "God bless, and War Eagle." "At the end of the conversation, everybody was crying," said Mindy Bean, Ray's wife. "All the nurses, Ray, me, Jenny--everybody was very choked up."
Though the phone call was an emotional experience for everyone in Ray's hospital room, it was compounded for Ray by the state of his health.
"What you've got to realize is when you're sick like I was, your emotions are real thin," Ray said. "I mean, they're just like right under the edge of your skin, and so it doesn't take anything to set you off to get weepy. I was excited to be talking to them, and at the same time, tearing up because it was such a big deal to me."
Months down the road, Eguae remembers the phone call as an opportunity to brighten someone else's life as well as his own.
"Mr. Ray was so grateful just to be on the phone with us for a few minutes," Eguae said. "It really put things in perspective and made my day. That's one thing about it that I will remember. It was just another day. We were trying to get better as a team, but at the same time we were trying to get away from it and realize there's more out there than just football. The chance to make someone's day and have them make yours is just part of it."
Editor's Note: The following video captures Ray's phone call with Eguae, Blackson, Ford and Frazier. While the visual quality may be lacking, the call is completely audible.
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