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CHRIS DUFRESNE / ON COLLEGE FOOTBALL

Alabama, No. 1 in preseason football rankings, a healing force in Tuscaloosa

With Tuscaloosa still recovering from a tornado in April, it will be hard for the Crimson Tide to win the national title, but it will be easy to root for them.

August 30, 2011|Chris Dufresne
  • An Alabama football jersey hangs in the rubble of a Tuscaloosa, Ala., neighborhood after a tornado struck the city on April 27.
An Alabama football jersey hangs in the rubble of a Tuscaloosa, Ala., neighborhood… (David Bundy / Associated…)

From Tuscaloosa, Ala. — Cecil Hurt agreed to drive the rental through the tornado zone. It was his town. These were his tears.

His daddy played football in the 1950s for "Ears" Whitworth, famous now only for being Alabama's coach before Bear Bryant.

Hurt is a sports columnist for the Tuscaloosa News, but what ripped through his city April 27 made everyone chroniclers, first responders and teammates.

The tornado struck shortly after 5 p.m. and roared, a mile wide in some spots, four miles from the city's southwest corner to its northeast tip.

Hurt watched it touch down from his porch. With no basement shelter, he ran to the hallway and held on for dear life. It sounded, like almost everyone says, like a freight train. The twister uprooted four trees at Hurt's home, but the nails in his roof won a heroic battle against the updraft.

Others weren't so lucky. The Tuscaloosa death toll was recently raised to 50.

Like a zombie, Hurt walked into the street and began assessing the damage.

Half of Rosedale Court was wiped out.

Three months later he took a visitor around.

"If you were in the funnel right here," Hurt said as he slowed the car, "it blew up your house. It just blew up your house."

He drove past what used to be a lakeside community, stopping at a pile of roadside rubble.

There was no reason to speak.

His voice catching every now and then when he did have something to say, Hurt maneuvered down McFarland Boulevard and pointed to a portable trailer sitting on a cement slab.

"That," he said, "was the Krispy Kreme."

At one point along the pitiful path, anticipating a question, Hurt said, "From here to Nick Saban's office is six blocks."

Saban is head football coach at Alabama and, inarguably, the most famous person in the state.

Somehow — thankfully, mercifully — the campus and Bryant-Denny Stadium were spared. Alabama's players were all accounted for, although walk-on snapper Carson Tinker was seriously injured after being thrown 50 yards from his home. Ashley Harrison, his girlfriend, died.

The fine line between Alabama not fielding a football team this year and Alabama being The Times' preseason No. 1 is the arbitrary variance of a compass degree.

Post-tornado life in Tuscaloosa is bad enough. Life without football would have been intolerable. In a state with no major professional sports, college football is the fulcrum of recovery.

"Lots of people lost everything," Crimson Tide safety Mark Barron said. "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."

Saban might be college football's least touchy-feely coach, but this tornado transformed him.

He bristles that anybody would deem Alabama No.1 when all he can think about is replacing his starting quarterback and star receiver and dealing with the myriad distractions that come with hands-on disaster relief.

Not long after the tornado, tragedy struck home again when Crimson Tide offensive lineman Aaron Douglas died from what the medical examiner said was an accidental drug overdose.

Everyone looked to see how the state's most important citizen responded in crisis. Saban led with his usual square-jawed, laser-beam focus. He has spearheaded the recovery effort. Players from Kent State, this year's opening opponent, even came to Tuscaloosa in July to help rebuild houses.

"There's no question that some of these things sort of put all the things we focus on, the expectations, in perspective," Saban said during a rare quiet moment at the Southeastern Conference football media days late in July. "And it changes how you feel.

"I mean, I never had a player die before, OK? And I have a tremendous amount of respect and a completely different feeling when I walk in front of our team now. Maybe you take it for granted that they're always going to be there, probably the same thing with your children at home if you ever lost one."

If the tornado deposited a speck of worthwhile residual, it was tamping down emotions in a football state that had lost its bearings.

Alabama versus Auburn has always been heated. The motto of the intrastate rivalry is "it's 365 days," but more recently it needed a few days off.

"It really comes down to there really is nothing else to do here," said Chadd Scott, an Auburn graduate and Atlanta-based radio host. 'It's not like you've got Dodgers, Angels, the beach, the mountains. You've got this. And you've got this year round."

The state of Alabama, with fewer than 5 million people, has won the last two Bowl Championship Series titles. The Crimson Tide claimed the top prize two years ago, beating Texas at the Rose Bowl, and Auburn countered last year with a last-second win over Oregon in Glendale, Ariz.

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