Alabama football became more than a sport ten years ago: It was a healing tool

Nick Saban smiles after winning 2020 CFP National Title
Mark J. Rebilas - USA TODAY Sports

Before the ink dried on my first article to Touchdown Alabama Magazine, I was a senior at Francis Marion High School.

Before starting the illustrious career of covering Alabama football, I could only think about college life as I was about to enroll at the University of Alabama in the fall. The show, In My Own Words, had not been conceived. It was the month of April in 2011.

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The morning of April 27th started like all others for someone in the Perry County School system.

It was a random choice of what I wanted for breakfast, listening to school devotions, going through classes, and hoping no one would irk my nerves as I prepared for track and field practice after school. We listened to the news, we heard what the meteorologists predicted, but we thought ‘meh, that is not going to happen.’

We had heard the word “tornado” so many times that we became immune to it. The elements within the atmosphere started to change between noon and 1 p.m., however, we still did not believe a tornado would occur.

I was scheduled to be at Wednesday night bible study and then watch old Alabama football videos on YouTube, but Mother Nature had other plans. A serious tornado outbreak started on Monday and by Wednesday, it affected Tuscaloosa, Birmingham, and surrounding areas in the state of Alabama in ways I never imagined.

As a category EF-4 storm, it turned buildings, homes, jobs, cars, and infrastructure into rubble.

Hurricane Katrina was a natural disaster, but the tornado left areas in Alabama like entering a horror movie. People were killed, including six students that were scheduled to graduate from UA the following week.

In growing up one hour from Tuscaloosa, I knew it to be a thriving city. The morning after the storm was a different story. Emotions of pain, anguish, despair, fear, and frustration were felt beyond the sensory meter. Alabama did not feel like itself.

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Tuscaloosa had experienced a national championship in football just two years prior, and it looked deserted. In the midst of tragedy, there had to be a way to pick up the pieces. The residents of Tuscaloosa knew and Nick Saban, who was in his fifth season as the Crimson Tide’s head coach, knew too. He challenged his players to help restore a community that supports them.

Whether it was building houses, repairing schools, serving at the Salvation Army, or helping with Nick’s Kids, the players did everything possible to put smiles on each face. It is great to be involved in the community, but Saban also knew the best way to restore the pride to Tuscaloosa. The people wanted football and lots of it. They love championships and needed a healthy distraction, as the powers that be worked to make the city thriving once again. “T-Town Never Down” was a slogan created by the residents, but the players made it a mission in 2011.

AJ McCarron was a redshirt sophomore; nevertheless, people believed in him as a first-year starting quarterback. He had talent around him, including a superstar running back in Trent Richardson. Alabama’s defense set a tone that year, and it has not been repeated. Despite one loss on its record, the Tide allowed just 8.2 points per game.

It led the nation in all five defensive categories and earned a spot in the 2012 BCS National Championship Game.

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After dominating its rematch with LSU, something special was happening in Tuscaloosa.

Blueprints for new building projects were being drawn up. Old restaurants were coming back, and new ones were opening too. Saban and the Tide would win its second straight national title in 2012, and more infrastructure popped up.

Apartments were coming, shopping duplexes were prepared to go in, and Tuscaloosa started to look like the risen phoenix. As jobs opened back up, the residents took more pride in the football program. Coach Saban gave people something to cheer and brag about during a highly critical moment at the time.

During my freshman and sophomore years at UA, I covered both national title teams as a young reporter. I was immersed in the joy of the players, but it was the joy of fans seeing their city restored that caught my attention.

Today was an opportunity to reflect. Saban spoke to reporters via Zoom about the tragedy.

Regardless of how bad it was, Saban was thankful for the life lessons it taught the players. He was proud of how the young men took ownership in the community.

“I think it is a really important lesson in life for these guys to learn how to give back to the community,” Saban said. “To give back to the fans and to the people who supported us, which was exactly what I said to the players 10 years ago. Their response to that was phenomenal, in terms of the things they did in the community to help others. I know the players helped Miss Terry with Nick’s Kids. Thompson Tractor gave bulldozers and she had [D.J.] Fluker on the bulldozer. I think it galvanized our team, and I think our team wanted to accomplish something special for the community by winning a championship. I think the community supported the team in a different kind of spirit than we ever had. They were motivated by a horrific event. I think there were a lot of positive lessons learned, and certainly, I was proud of our team for winning the Disney Spirit Award for community service.”

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To sum it up, Saban said the players’ commitment to the community “was special.”

Since the tumultuous day, Alabama football has won five national titles. Each one was a healing mechanism to remind people we are strong together. What happened 10 years ago was scary. I think about it a lot, but then a smile creeps in as I ponder on the love of people and the power of athletics bringing all things to order.

Tuscaloosa is now better than ever, and it took football to become more than a sport to see it.

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Stephen M. Smith is the managing editor and senior writer for Touchdown Alabama Magazine.  You can “like” him on Facebook or “follow” him on Twitter, via @CoachingMSmith.

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