Tornado tragedy fueled Alabama's run to title game - NBC Sports

Tornado tragedy fueled Alabama's run to title game
After April's devastation, team wanted to give diversion to a state torn by the catastrophe
Sydney Maxwell looks for his belongings in his apartment destroyed in April 27's deadly tornados in Tuscaloosa, Ala.
January 7, 2012, 10:01 pm

It was the second question many people in Alabama had after a devastating tornado ripped through Tuscaloosa on April 27. The primary concern, of course, was for the human toll, the deaths and injuries and thousands of people suddenly and shockingly left homeless.

Then came the instinctive follow-up question, the one prompted by terrifying live television footage of the tornado carving a path of destruction near the University of Alabama campus:

"Was the stadium damaged?"

The stadium was not affected by the storm, providing a tiny respite to a community and a state that had been shaken to its core. A total of 62 tornadoes pounded Alabama that day, killing 248 people, injuring thousands more and destroying or seriously damaging approximately 14,000 homes. Damage estimates statewide have topped $1 billion. Tuscaloosa itself was especially hard hit, with 53 deaths - including the girlfriend of Crimson Tide deep snapper Carson Tinker - and more than 7,000 structures destroyed or damaged in a community of approximately 93,000 people.

So in the wake of all this wreckage, there was a small sigh of relief that Bryant-Denny had been spared. The physical scars sliced across the Alabama landscape were surpassed only by the emotional scars inflicted upon the state's stunned residents. And there was no doubt that for many people, part of the healing process would come from watching their beloved Crimson Tide play football. That was evident in the weeks following the tornadoes from the not uncommon sight of "Roll Tide" flags sticking stubbornly out of the rubble.

This has, without question, helped motivate the Tide to an 11-1 record and a meeting with LSU on Monday in the BCS Championship Game in New Orleans. Before the season began, as the state continued to remove debris and rebuild lives, Alabama players said they wanted to do what they could on the field to help people feel good again.

Or as star running back Trent Richardson said, "We want to bring joy back to the town."

The players are not alone. Assistance has come many sources. Several players from Kent State, Alabama's first opponent this season, showed up in Tuscaloosa in July to aid in the rebuilding and to help conduct a football clinic. A few weeks later when Kent State took the field at Bryant-Denny Stadium, they were met by a loud ovation from appreciative Tide fans.

"That situation, it was devastating. Lots of people lost everything," safety Mark Barron said in July. "They lost material things, but they also lost hope. When the season starts, they follow Alabama. So if we go out and have a great season for them, we can give them a little something back."

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Alabama coach Nick Saban has been instrumental in the recovery, partly through his charitable foundation called "Nick's Kids Fund," which has worked with Habitat for Humanity to build homes to replace those destroyed by the tornadoes. Country music singers Kenny Chesney and Taylor Swift are among the people who have contributed to the fund, while current and former Alabama players have pitched in to help however needed.

"We can't just be a team on Saturday. We have to be a team in the worst of times," Saban said early in the season. "I was really pleased at how our players did a lot to support and help the community."

Across the state, fans of rival Auburn University, which was not hit by the tornadoes, contributed money through a Facebook page called "Toomer's for Tuscaloosa" (Toomer's Corner has been a traditional gathering place for Auburn fans after victories). Auburn coach Gene Chizik declared solidarity with the Tide, stating emphatically, "It's not about an Alabama or an Auburn thing. It's the state that has been devastated. This is real life."

True, but often when life is at its worst, is when people need diversions the most. The New York Yankees provided that following 9/11, as did LSU and the New Orleans Saints after Hurricane Katrina. Teams have a way of uniting a community. And as Tuscaloosa and the rest of the state tried to pick up the pieces of lives splintered by the tornadoes, cheering for the Crimson Tide became a way for people to come together.

A football team can do only so much. Many lives were lost on April 27 and countless others altered forever. Small Alabama towns such as Pleasant Grove and Phil Campbell were practically blown away. Numerous businesses along busy 15th Street in Tuscaloosa were wiped out in a matter of seconds. A single day created a lifetime of change for the state.

But the one constant remains the Alabama Crimson Tide football team. They have been raising national championship banners in Tuscaloosa for nearly 90 years, and on Monday they will try to add yet another to the collection,

And in the process, as Richardson said, they will attempt to bring joy back to the state.

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