TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — It’s amazing how fast it can all come back to you.
Maybe the reminder comes while driving down the road and suddenly seeing a gap that has yet to be rebuilt. Perhaps it’s an awful smell or when a pet hides in terror from a small storm passing through the area.
It’s been more than 1,000 days since a tornado cut through the heart of Tuscaloosa, where the horizon still has a hole that will take years if not decades to fill. Nobody who was here that day will ever forget the tragedy or how people then rallied together.
Some of them were University of Alabama athletes, including members of the football team who aided in the physical recovery and then helped as much emotionally by winning the national championship.
It was a perfect tale of triumph over tragedy, followed by the women’s golf and softball teams winning titles and the reigning national champion gymnastics team successfully defending its own. Men’s golf lost in the NCAA finals but won the next two titles, and football won another championship in 2012.
Beforehand, Alabama had only won national titles in football and gymnastics, but everything changed after the tornado, even Nick Saban.
People looked to him after the storm if for no other reason than simple inspiration, and the leader of the nation’s most successful football program became a true leader of the community. It's something those outside of Tuscaloosa will never fully understand, but by the way he responded and told his players to forget football and help others, Saban would be beloved here even without the championships.
One of the ways the coach and his wife Terry helped was to have their Nick’s Kids Foundation team up with Habitat for Humanity to rebuild a neighborhood with the 15-for-15 initiative, a house for each championship that Alabama claims.
“Because of this organization, we were able to do much more for people affected by the tornado than we ever thought we might,” Saban said at the recent golf fundraiser for Nicks’ Kids—a charity named in honor of his father that primarily helps children in need.
“Rather than put self-imposed limitations on what we can do, that made us feel like there’s more out there for us to be able to do. We’re going to continue to support the state of Alabama and the young people in the state, try to create some opportunities for them in the various ways.”
Saban changed as a person as well, though, which former Sports Illustrated writer Lars Anderson, who composed the tornado cover story that had Javier Arenas on the front of the May 23, 2011 issue, writes at length about in his upcoming book, The Storm and the Tide (due out Aug. 12).
In it, he chronicles what happened that day, how Saban and the Crimson Tide reacted and realized how they were playing for a lot more than themselves. It also follows former Alabama long snapper Carson Tinker and the families of his then-girlfriend, Ashley Harrison, and Loryn Brown, the daughter of a former Crimson Tide player.
Anderson dedicated the book to “the memory of the 53 lives lost in the Tuscaloosa tornado, and for those who still suffer from the tragic events of April 27, 2011.” Tinker also wrote about his experiences in his book, A Season to Remember: Faith in the Midst of the Storm, and is donating all proceeds from the book's sales to charity.
After receiving an advance copy of Anderson’s book, I found the first 100 pages extremely difficult to read but can honestly say he nailed it.
For full disclosure, I lived through the tornado and am familiar with nearly every person or place Anderson wrote about. I knew Harrison, consider Tinker a friend and still get a gut-wrenching feeling whenever one of those regular reminders occurs.
Tinker, of course, has moved on and is now with the Jacksonville Jaguars, but a handful of his tornado teammates remain.
Anthony Orr is the last player from the recruiting class of 2009 still on the roster. From the 2010 class there’s wide receiver DeAndrew White, safety Jarrick Williams, guard Arie Kouandjio, fullback Jalston Fowler, tight end Brian Vogler, safety Nick Perry, quarterback Blake Sims, tackle Austin Shepherd and nose tackle Brandon Ivory.
Of the early enrollees in 2011, linebacker Trey DePriest is the lone holdover.
That’s it, 11 players, and there’s no more talk about how they have to win to help others get over the tragedy. They can finally be free of that burden, although like with Saban they’ll never be quite the same.
Part of me wants to suggest that everyone else on the roster should be given a copy of Anderson and Tinker’s books, while the rest of me feels otherwise, that hopefully they’ll never have a clue to what it’s like to go through something so horrific.
Perhaps that’s part of the recovery process as well.
Christopher Walsh is the lead Alabama football writer for Bleacher Report. All quotes and information were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.