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The facts of life consists of many things both good and bad. Hope is sometimes predicated on an object that we show the most affection for. Citizens of Tuscaloosa, Ala., will embark upon the four-year anniversary of the April 2011 tornado this week. Monday will be a time to reflect not only on the tragedy, but also the triumph in the aftermath of the storm.

The calm before the storm

The sun was shinning, children were being bused to school and parents were heading to work. The morning of Wed, Apr. 27, 2011 seemed peaceful. It was the week of final exams at the University of Alabama, as seniors and graduate students anticipated their first steps into the future. New York City was in a frenzy for the NFL Draft that was set for the following day, Thurs, Apr. 28, 2011. Mark Ingram, Julio Jones and Marcell Dareus all brought joy to Alabama fans. All three players were instrumental in Alabama’s return to glory in 2009.

They helped the Crimson Tide capture its first Southeastern Conference championship and a national title under head coach Nick Saban. These three gentlemen were selected in the first round of the 2011 NFL Draft, but the devastation that would occur in a city each of them called home made the accomplishment suddenly insignificant.

James Spann, 58, is the chief meteorologist for ABC 33/40 in Birmingham, Ala. A distinguished man, Spann provides the daily forecast with a smile, a red tie, a white shirt and some suspenders. He’s been involved with the company since 1978, and has accumulated much recognition, including an Emmy Award in 2001. Spann is a decorative character, but Apr. 27, 2011 was a day in which many regret having the news on their television screens.

A lot of people prepared themselves for the matter by purchasing supplies, but in the back of their minds, there was an uncertainty as to whether the storm would actually occur.

In the face of adversity

April 2011 tornado

April 2011 tornado

For Tuscaloosa and Birmingham, the storm was a category EF4 tornado. It tore through Tuscaloosa between the hours of 4-6 p.m., destroying homes, jobs and lives. Nothing was worth beholding when the smoke cleared. 80.7 miles of fear, pain, frustration and despair was left behind for three counties: Tuscaloosa, Greene and Jefferson.

64 people died and more than 1,500 individuals were left with haunting memories and injuries. The parents of six graduating seniors were sick to their stomachs. The dream was to watch their children march across the stage to obtain a degree, but instead it was the parents that received the award on behalf of their deceased child in August of 2011.

Former Alabama player Carson Tinker was consoling his girlfriend, Ashely Harrison, during the storm. He told her that everything would be fine; however, things would only be fine for him. The storm left Tinker with some bruises, but it took the life of his 22-year-old girlfriend as her body was found in a field.

It hurts to lose a loved one, yet the attention sharpens when money is lost. Tuscaloosa was without $2.4 billion of infrastructure after the storm. Help came from everywhere, including a place that Crimson Tide fans were taught to hate as children, Auburn, Ala. President Barack Obama and his family came to Tuscaloosa to help on Apr. 29, 2011. Obama met with Mayor Walter Maddox to discuss a solution. Generosity came from many people, but the citizens of Tuscaloosa still lacked hope. The task fell on Alabama’s athletic department to restore pride to its people.

Alabama football, The healing starts

No one likes bad news, but sometimes it can be the motivation to spark a change. Alabama football lacked leadership in the 2010 season. It finished with a 10-3 record, following an undefeated season (14-0) with a national championship the year before. Coach Saban challenged his players to help those in need after the storm. He wanted them to bond with people in the community, and in return, regain the passion it had in 2009.

The players responded, and under sophomore quarterback AJ McCarron, Alabama appeared in the 2012 BCS National Championship Game. Its defense, captained by Dont’a Hightower and Courtney Upshaw, led the nation in all five major categories: scoring defense, total defense, rush defense, pass defense and pass efficiency defense.

Alabama finished the 2011 regular season at 11-1. Its lone blemish came at the hands of the LSU Tigers inside Bryant-Denny Stadium by a score of 9-6. The Crimson Tide dominated in its second meeting with LSU. Its defense allowed 92 yards of offense, placekicker Jeremy Shelley made five field goals, wide receiver Kevin Norwood burned the Tigers’ secondary and running back Trent Richardson finished the deal with a touchdown. Alabama defeated LSU 21-0, and secured its second national championship under Saban. Hope started to resurface after Alabama’s 2011 national championship season, but it took on full form in 2012.

AJ McCarron was now a junior. He matured from a third-string quarterback to a solidified leader. He threw for 30 touchdowns and totaled 2,933 passing yards. The Crimson Tide had a balanced run game (Eddie Lacy and T.J. Yeldon) and an explosive freshman wide receiver (Amari Cooper) that would later re-write the history books. Its defense was anchored by C.J. Mosley and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix. Like 2011, Alabama suffered one loss in 2012 (Texas A&M, 29-24), but made it to a national title game. The Crimson Tide defeated Georgia 32-28 in the 2012 SEC Championship Game. It spanked Notre Dame 42-14 in the 2013 BCS National Championship Game. Alabama was a back-to-back national champion.

Tuscaloosa is known as a football city, but during the start of its healing process (2011-12), every venue pitched in and got involved. This was the beginning of the “Built By Bama” moniker.

Alabama gymnastics: Catching the wave

gymShe stands as the lone coach that has tied Paul Bryant in national championships (6), but former Alabama gymnastics head coach Sarah Patterson was rarely discussed in conversations. Bryant hired Patterson in 1978, and she spent 37 years recruiting, marketing and establishing a program based on excellence. Patterson saw the hope that Alabama football gave to fans, and wanted it to continue. Patterson had a strong team in 2011 that included three freshmen: Sara DeMeo, Diandra Milliner and Kim Jacob. Alabama gymnastics won its seventh conference title in 2011.

It appeared in the NCAA Regional Championship and accomplished its 26th NCAA Regional title in the same season. Alabama finished its goal in 2011, as it won its fifth national championship in program history. The gymnastics team became the second sporting venue to win a national title in 2011. Alabama gymnastics, like football, was back for more in 2012.

With DeMeo, Milliner and Jacob leading the team, Alabama won its 27th NCAA Regional title and its sixth national championship. Football and gymnastics stand as the two venues that won back-to-back national championships for Alabama, during 2011 and 2012.

Alabama softball–One for Patrick Murphy


Patrick Murphy became the head coach of Alabama softball in 1999. He’s animated at times, but at the heart of it all, Murphy wants his ladies to be successful. Murphy, 47, has built a powerhouse in Alabama softball, but it took him a while to capture his first national championship. He’s guided the Crimson Tide to five conference titles and four SEC Tournament Championships, yet everything didn’t fall into place until 2012.

Jaclyn “Jackie” Traina was a protégé. Her pitches fazed the opposition with speed, velocity and location. She led by example, but wasn’t afraid to voice an opinion. Kayla Braud and Kalia Hunt were consistent at the plate. Braud was more of a slap hitter, while Hunt was all power.

2012 saw Alabama softball compile a 60-8 record. The Crimson Tide were regular season and tournament champions of the Southeastern Conference. It came up short in the 2011 Women’s College World Series, but Alabama brought the trophy home in 2012. It defeated Oklahoma two games to one, becoming the first SEC softball program to win a national title.

Other venues

Football, gymnastics and softball generate a lot money, but Alabama’s had other venues that achieved success in 2011-12. Mitch Gaspard, head coach of Alabama baseball, has guided the Crimson Tide to three NCAA Regional appearances (2011, 2013-14).

Alabama women’s golf won a national championship in 2012 and a conference title in 2013. Jay Seawell, head coach of Alabama men’s golf, has witnessed five SEC titles, including three since the tornado (2012-14). Men’s golf won back-to-back national championships in 2013-14.

06-02-13 MGO NCAA National Championships  Final Round The University of Alabama Men's Golf Team celebrates their win over Illinois in the final round of the NCAA National Golf Tournament.  Photo by Amelia J. Brackin

Men’s golf 2013 National Champs

Former Alabama men’s basketball coach Anthony Grant wasn’t consistent in his six season in Tuscaloosa (2009-15); however, he did contribute one NCAA Tournament appearance in 2011-12.

The University of Alabama even takes pride in its adaptive sports. Brent Hardin, athletic director of Alabama’s adaptive sports, has seen six national championships. Women’s wheelchair basketball has won four, including two in 2011 and 2015. Men’s wheelchair basketball claimed its first national title in 2013. Alabama’s wheelchair tennis team won a national championship in 2013.

In conclusion

Alabama’s athletic department gave back what the tornado took away. Funds poured in as Alabama kept winning championships. The monies went toward the infrastructure. In four years, Tuscaloosa has gone from a city in peril to a risen phoenix. It’s now busier than ever as Mayor Maddox recaptured old favorites (Krispy Kreme), while building new opportunities.

“This is not the end. This is the beginning,-Alabama football head coach Nick Saban.

Saban said this after Alabama football won its 15th national championship in 2012. Six other programs took what he said to heart and dominated. The Crimson Tide didn’t win a national title in football last season, but it accomplished its 24th SEC championship.

Sarah Patterson handed the baton to Dana Duckworth in the summer of 2014. Duckworth guided Alabama gymnastics to its ninth conference title, a 30th NCAA Regional championship and an appearance in the Super Six finals. Alabama softball is in search of its second national title, and Avery Johnson looks to put Alabama men’s basketball back in the national spotlight.

Monday will be filled with emotions. A sense of sadness for the things and individuals lost, but also a sense of pride in what the athletic program did to restore Tuscaloosa to its former state…A City of Champions.

Stephen Smith is a 2015 graduate of the University of Alabama. He is a senior writer and reporter for Touchdown Alabama Magazine. He has covered Alabama football for 10+ years and his knowledge and coverage of the Crimson Tide's program have made him among the most respected journalist in his field. Smith has been featured on ESPN and several other marquee outlets as an analyst.

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