Family tied

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- The thing that brought Vinnie Sunseri to the University of Alabama is gone. The house his family owned in town is empty, the familiar booming voice of his father no longer echoing in the halls. His mom doesn't shuffle around in the kitchen any longer. His sister isn't there either.

Two years ago, Vinnie committed to Alabama, and in a way, he committed to his family. Now, it's only Alabama that remains.

Sal, Roxann and Ashlyn are all gone, all three in Knoxville. When Alabama travels to Tennessee on Saturday, Vinnie will be on the other side of the aisle.

Sal, a former assistant coach at Alabama, is now the defensive coordinator at Tennessee. Ashlyn, a freshman at Tennessee, plays volleyball for the Vols. Mom is caught somewhere in the middle. She might not even go to the game.

"I just got off the phone with her," Vinnie said of talking to his mom. "I said, 'How are you doing?' She said, 'Oh, you know, I'm all right.' I'm like, 'Yeah, I know exactly how you feel. I'm going up to talk to the media right now. It's tough. It's really tough.' "

Never has a matchup on the third Saturday in October tested one family more. There's no excitement in Vinnie's voice. Sal's doesn't have the passionate ring we're used to.

Sadness, melancholy, something bordering on regret comes out. Something doesn't feel right to either of them.

"A lot of mixed emotions," Vinnie explained. "Hard. Hard, hard, hard."

Vinnie came to Alabama because of his dad, and now that he's gone, he misses him. The feeling is the same in Tuscaloosa as it is in Knoxville.

"It's been a very, very hard week for both of us," Sal told reporters. "… It's going to be hard on Saturday night when that kid walks out on the field."

Family means everything to the Sunseris. So does football. That's what makes this weekend so difficult.

"I mean, I never thought I'd have to go against my father," Vinnie said. "And I never realized how tough it'd be until this point right now."

The realization came somewhere around 6:30 p.m. on Saturday in Columbia, Mo.

"About 10 minutes after the Missouri game it kind of hit me," Vinnie said. "It hadn't really hit me that I'm going to play against him until that moment when coach [Nick] Saban brought us in and said, 'This is Tennessee week. This is a rivalry that's gone back before I was even born probably.' I was sitting there and I was like, 'Wow. I've got to play against my dad this week.' "

When Vinnie was in high school at Northridge High (Tuscaloosa, Ala.), he never saw his dad. He was either off on recruiting trips or busying himself watching film on campus. Vinnie understood. His focus on football is similar, the passion for the game passed down from father to son.


I mean, I never thought I'd have to go against my father. And I never realized how tough it'd be until this point right now.


-- Alabama DB Vinnie Sunseri

So when Vinnie, a former four-star outside linebacker, got an offer from Alabama, the decision was simple -- join the Tide and spend time with dad.

For a year, the plan worked beautifully. Then, life got involved. Shortly after Alabama won the national championship, Sal accepted an offer to become the Vols' defensive coordinator.

Suddenly, the idea of staying in Tuscaloosa seemed difficult for Vinnie. As a freshman, he'd become a special teams star. He led all freshmen in tackles and was poised to step in as a safety/nickel cornerback as a sophomore. But without dad, what was the point?

As it turns out, Saban was the answer. The thought of leaving, however fleeting, was cut short when he thought about his head coach. If there's anyone qualified to teach a defensive back, it's Saban. The sixth-year head coach of the Crimson Tide doesn't spend much time at practice overseeing things from a distance. He stays with the defensive backs and coaches up the safeties, hands-on at all times.

"He is someone I really ended up looking up to the whole time I've been here, especially with my dad leaving. Once he left, I was trying to figure out why I wanted to be here, why I'd stay here since my family was all leaving," Vinnie said. "Coach Saban is the reason I stayed here. He's one of the best DB coaches out there, and I just wanted to learn from the best."

Vinnie has morphed into a playmaker on defense, playing primarily as the team's star cornerback. He's fourth on the team in tackles and tied for the lead in interceptions. Saban called him a "very instinctive player" who took well to the position of defensive back.

"He's a really bright guy and I think football's really important to him," Saban said. "He works hard at it all the time. He loves to play. But he's actually playing a new position here. He never played defensive back before and he's really worked hard at becoming the kind of disciplined, eye-control player you need to be when you play in the secondary. That's one of the things he's made the most progress on and I think that's helped him continue to develop and play well for us."

Fellow safety Robert Lester has watched Vinnie grow under Saban. The two room together before games and he's become accustomed to hearing Vinnie talk about his dad. Since beating Missouri, though, he's been quiet.

"Only I've heard him talk about that is when we aren't playing Tennessee, when they are playing someone else," Lester said. "I haven't heard him say anything this week."

Trey DePriest and Vinnie were stars on special teams as freshmen last season. Now, like Vinnie, DePriest is playing starter's minutes. Like everyone on the team, DePriest thinks Vinnie can handle the emotions of the game, but that doesn't mean it won't affect him one way or another.

"I'm sure it will kind of do something to Vinnie," he said. "I haven't seen it yet, but I'm sure he'll be fired up about that."

Whether he's fired up or subdued by the gravity of the moment, quarterback AJ McCarron expects the best out of Vinnie on Saturday night in Neyland Stadium. Sal will be there, but he'll be wearing orange, not crimson.

Sometimes it's as simple as that. Blood ties can come into play later.

"He's still going against Tennessee," McCarron said matter of factly. "I know Vinnie, and he's preparing for a win."