Pell’s story sheds light on dark subject

By Hunter Ford

A half bottle of vodka, a fistful of pills and a cloud of carbon monoxide would kill most people. It didn’t kill former Alabama football player and Florida Gator head coach Charley Pell. Pell died of cancer in 2001, but before he did he spent 17 years of his life fighting to help other people suffering from depression and other mental health problems. A documentary film about Pell recently won a national award.

Pell had suffered depression since his childhood, but excelled at athletics in spite of it.

After a successful stint as the head coach of Clemson, Pell was hired by the University of Florida and sparked the Gator’s rise to the top of the college football world. But it all came crashing down for Pell in 1984 when he was fired after Florida was put on probation for numerous NCAA violations.

The demise of his coaching career coupled with failed attempts in the business world led Pell to drink the liquor, swallow the pills, run a hose from the tailpipe of his car to the backseat, lay down and wait to die.

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Fortunately Pell’s life did not end there. Without his miraculous recovery we would not have the enduring story that will live on to help others.

The following is an excerpt from the press release about the documentary:

“The Alabama Department of Mental Health and Mental Retardation has been cited as an award recipient in the National Voice Awards for its documentary film The Legacy of Charley Pell. The 17-minute film is narrated by sportscaster Herb Winches of Birmingham, Alabama and Ward Pell of Gadsden (Charley Pell’s widow).

“It includes footage from Coach Pell’s interviews on the Oprah Winfrey Show and ABC’s Dateline with Stone Phillips. Charley Pell played football under the legendary Alabama coach Paul (Bear) Bryant and later became the youngest major college coach in the country. He led Jacksonville State University to a national conference and ultimately national championships. His drive to win was, however, a mask for a deeper problem, the illness of major depression.

“After his departure from coaching and several business ventures, his illness manifested itself more intensely. Charley spent a year meticulously planning suicide. He attempted suicide and miraculously failed. Following that attempt Coach Pell went to an inpatient residential treatment program for 17 days and his life began to change dramatically. In his recovery he became an advocate for people with mental illness and fought against the unwarranted stigma associated with the disease.

“This film presents Charley’s struggle and recovery in a dignified, respectful, and accurate manner. It delivers the message loud and clear that mental illness is not a character flaw or sign of weakness. Rather, it is a treatable psychological and biological disorder that even the toughest athlete and coach can experience and overcome.

“The Alabama High School Athletics Association has distributed the film to its affiliate Athletic Directors and will feature it at its upcoming summer conference for coaches. With depression being a major problem among youth the film may help reduce stigma and encourage students to seek help if symptoms occur.

“Alabama Department of Mental Health Commissioner, John Houston said, “We are very proud of receiving an Honorable Mention Citation in the Voice Awards. We had to compete in the ‘entertainment industry’ category whose recipients include programs like ‘Law and Order’ and ‘Monk.’ Coach Pell’s story delivers a powerful and compelling message and that substantive element makes the film unforgettable.”

For more information about the Department of Mental Health and to see The Legacy of Charley Pell, visit