This week is harder than most for the Douglas family.
Their son, Aaron Douglas, would have returned to Neyland Stadium this Saturday to face Tennessee as a member of Alabama’s No. 1-ranked football team. It would have been his first game back in Knoxville since starting his career with the Vols and earning Freshman All-America honors in 2009.
Tragically, though, Douglas died of an accidental drug overdose before he ever had a chance to play for the Crimson Tide. He was 21.
While Douglas might be gone, he certainly hasn’t been forgotten by the Alabama football family.
When the Crimson Tide handed out their 2011 national championship rings this year, they sent one to Douglas’ family -- complete with his name and 77 jersey number engraved on it. His parents, David and Karla, and 8-year-old sister, Ashley, returned home on March 11 after dedicating a scholarship in Aaron’s name that day at Maryville (Tenn.) High School to find the ring waiting on them.
It had been almost a year to the date since Aaron’s death (May 12, 2011), and even now, it’s difficult for David or Karla to express what that gesture meant to them, not to mention the outpouring of support they’ve received from the entire Alabama football family.
“It was one of those acts of kindness that just said, ‘Hey, we’re thinking about you and still have you in our hearts and our thoughts,’” Karla said. “In our time of need, they have been there for us above and beyond.”
Aaron Douglas was at Alabama for only five months. He’d transferred there from Arizona Western College, but went through spring practice in 2011 and was making a bid for the starting left tackle job.
“I think it’s a testament to what kind of teammate Aaron was that they would want us to have a ring,” Karla said. “Ask anybody who ever played with him, and they will tell you what kind of teammate he was. It’s humbling that he could touch that many people in such a short period of time, but that’s who he was.”
Alabama coach Nick Saban said the decision to send Douglas’ family a national championship ring was something that everybody in the program wanted.
“To all of us here at Alabama, Aaron was a part of our team,” Saban said. “It’s only fitting that his family receive anything that came as a result of what our team accomplished.”
Douglas knew, too, that Alabama was on the verge of a special season. He told his mother as much soon after arriving on campus.
“He was so excited about being there,” Karla said. “He told me in February that he’d never been around a group of athletes that all they cared about was working hard, working together and winning. He told me in February that they would be national champions. He knew that in February 2011. He’s still a part of that team. We all are. It’s a special place.”
Alabama’s players all wore a No. 77 sticker on their helmets last season in memory of Douglas, who grew up a huge Tennessee fan.
Both of his parents were athletes at Tennessee and both won championships. David was an offensive lineman on the Vols’ 1985 SEC championship team and later played in the NFL. Karla was a member of the Lady Vols’ national championship basketball team in 1987. They still live in Tennessee and still contribute to the Vols’ athletic fund.
But despite their Big Orange heritage, they will also forever be indebted to Alabama.
Karla just recently wrote Saban a letter soaked with tears.
“I was just now able to do it,” she said. “I’d start to write it and couldn’t get through it. It was just too hard. But I wanted to thank him for being there and making us feel such a part of the Alabama family.”
Karla and David are unsure if they will attend the game Saturday. They did go to the Alabama-Tennessee game last season in Tuscaloosa, and the emotion of it all was overwhelming.
“The pain was so intense,” Karla said. “Last year was really difficult. I don’t know that it’s better, but the pain’s not as intense.”
For the time being, they have Aaron’s ring stored away in a safe spot, but it’s not going to stay there forever.
“Some day, we’ll be able to put out his jersey, his helmet and all of his things,” Karla said. “Right now, it’s just too hard.”