Community embraces football season

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- The physical wounds that Alabama long-snapper Carson Tinker suffered when the tornado struck on April 27 are nearly gone. The gash that opened his right ankle has diminished to a scratch. The scar on Tinker's right wrist, where he underwent an operation to reattach a ligament to the bone, is red and raised. It is ugly, and it is healing.

"I got scars all over my body," Tinker said. "It's not like I focus on that or anything. But when I look at myself in the mirror, I know that God has blessed me with another day."

Tinker is not unlike the city itself. The tornado left a 6-mile-long gash through this university community of 93,000. More than 1 million cubic yards of debris have been removed. That's enough to fill 101,000-seat Bryant-Denny Stadium, empty it and fill it again.

And empty it and fill it a third time.

The debris is nearly gone. But the path, more than a mile wide in places, has left scars all over Tuscaloosa's body: a foundation awaiting a building, a building awaiting reconstruction, a homesite awaiting a home. And those are just the scars you can see. The mental scars, the ones that come from the loss of 7,000 homes, 600 businesses and 50 lives, are healing, too.

In a state that long ago lost its perspective about college football, the season opener is a signal that life has begun anew. It is bigger than deer season, bigger than summer. On Saturday, when No. 2 Alabama kicks off the 2011 season against Kent State, it will be bigger than Christmas. The Crimson Tide will arrive with armloads of gifts for a city that has lost so much. The $17 million that a home game infuses into the local economy can't arrive soon enough.

Every morning at 8:15, Mayor Walt Maddox holds a meeting with city officials to discuss the ongoing rehabilitation of his city. Every morning, he reminds his staff how many days have passed since April 27.

"One hundred twenty-seven days ago," Maddox said after his Thursday morning meeting, "I'm not sure any of us would have thought that this coming Saturday would be possible. It's been a monumental challenge to get us to this point. But football is going to be a welcome relief economically, psychologically and emotionally for this community."

Football players live in a bubble. They are of the student body and only occasionally in it, an unfortunate byproduct of the size of the sport and, at Alabama's level, the stakes associated with it. But the bubble in which the Crimson Tide exist could not withstand 195 mph winds. To a man, just like every other resident who lived through the terror, they have stories to tell.

Redshirt sophomore offensive lineman D.J. Fluker returned to his apartment complex to find a car sitting on his bashed-in roof. Fluker lived on the second floor. He salvaged a pair of penny loafers. Shoes are tough to find when you have Size 22 feet.

"That was it," Fluker said. "No clothes. One pair of shoes. I never did find anything. I couldn't get to it. I really didn't mess with it. There was a car right on top of it. There ain't no way I'm going in there."

He had been through this before. The summer before ninth grade, Fluker and his family left the Lower 9th Ward in New Orleans two days before Hurricane Katrina made landfall. They went to stay with family in Mobile, Ala. They never went back.

Junior offensive lineman Barrett Jones knows he shouldn't have been watching the tornado from the balcony of his apartment. He couldn't help it. It passed within a quarter-mile of him.

"It's hard to describe something that massive and that powerful," Jones said. "It was weird because right before the tornadoes, everything was calm. The tornado was loud, very loud, [like] a train. But I think the weirdest thing was knowing, having seen things like that on TV, that people were probably losing their lives."

Tinker huddled in a closet with his girlfriend, senior Ashley Harrison, and their two dogs. The tornado ripped through the house and flung the four of them through the air. Only Tinker survived. Six students were among the fatalities.

"Of course I've had my dark times," he said. "I don't have bad days anymore. ... I feel like what I've been through comes with a lot of responsibility on my part because I feel like I can affect a lot of people in a positive way when they see me and see what I've been through. To see that I don't have the 'Poor mes' and I'm not sitting around feeling sorry for myself; I'm out trying to get better every day in everything I do."

After the students returned last month to begin a new school year, the university held a memorial service. Head coach Nick Saban spoke. Saban is not known for his warm, fuzzy qualities. A laser focus, a master motivator, yes. A hand holder, not so much.

Yet Saban understood this tragedy for what it was. He has held hands. Early on, Nick's Kids, the foundation that he and his wife, Terry, created, held a dinner for 700 people. They gave out 1,000 shirts.

"The most impact it made is -- the whole [football] staff went, Terry went, I went -- was that we sat around and talked to the people," Saban said. "Just the presence you have to support and listen to what they have to say and what they lost, that's what people underestimate."

Saban implored his players to help. Their bubble had been pierced. He urged them to reach out.

"I think that sometimes, especially in athletics, guys are so self-absorbed with how everything affects them," Saban said. "You know, the greatest positive self-gratification that you ever really get is really what you do for somebody else, not anything that you ever do for yourself. I'm not saying they didn't know that. A lot of them do know that. A lot of them do a lot of good things. But this was an opportunity for them to learn more about that and to do something to be of service of other people."

Terry listened and added. "It doesn't cost a candle anything to light another candle," she said. "Actually, it makes you both brighter."

The Sabans went Thursday to the ribbon-cutting of a Habitat for Humanity home in Holt, a community 15 minutes from campus. Through their foundation, the Sabans are sponsoring the building of "13 for 13": 13 homes for 13 national championships.

"Someone called Nick's Kids and said, 'We have some sleeping bags,'" Terry Saban said. "I said, 'That would be great, but we could really use a bulldozer.' By the end of the week, we had one."

Holt absorbed the brunt of the tornado. Cedric Burns, Saban's assistant, drove through a desolate area. The car came upon what was left of a solitary house. A tree that fell on the left side of the structure stretched across the breadth of the caved-in roof and well through the yard on the right side.

"There's still sooo much to be done," Terry said. "Ugh. This is what the whole neighborhood looked like."

In fact, this desolate area had been a subdivision.

Burns made another turn and steered through cars parked on either side of the street to the ribbon-cutting. Throughout the summer, athletes from several Alabama sports participated in the project. Nearly every Saturday, Crimson Tide strength coach Scott Cochran brought carloads of football players. Some weeks, he brought a dozen or so. One Saturday, he brought 60.

One weekend in July, four Kent State players and a few athletic department officials came down to participate. One of them, senior running back Jacquise Terry, is from Phenix City, Ala., on the Georgia border. He played AAU basketball with Crimson Tide corner DeQuan Menzie.

"I have done Habitat before," said Jacquise, who is minoring in construction management, "but I have never done it with players I compete with. That was the good part about it. We were able to put aside what we were about to do a month later and go in and help for a good cause. We fell right in together. They told us they appreciated us coming down. We bonded with those guys."

After the ribbon-cutting, Bob Dowling stood in the driveway several feet from where Saban talked to the beat reporters. The new home belongs to him and his wife, Dana. They have two children. The family had been living in an RV outside a relative's home.

"There's so much negativity in sports," Dowling said. "There's very little brought out about the good in young people. They weren't out here posing for pictures. They were out here working."

The Alabama-Kent State game Saturday is, depending on your perspective, either a return to normalcy or an escape from it. Infrastructure is crippled. Housing is insufficient.

"Our recovery is going to take years," Maddox said. "This is a marathon and not a sprint. And our progress is going to be measured in inches and not miles."

On Saturday, however, progress will be measured in smiles. By that measure, Tuscaloosa will make a lot of progress.

Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com and hosts the ESPNU College Football podcast. Send your questions and comments to him at Ivan.Maisel@ESPN.com.