Five years after the storm: How the 2011 Tuscaloosa tornado shaped a community, a football team and me
Sixty months, 1,825 days, 43,800 hours. It has been five years since a mile-and-a-half-wide tornado ripped through the heart of Tuscaloosa, Ala., the home of the Crimson Tide, on April 27, 2011. Since then, not a day has gone by without the sound of those terrifying winds haunting the memories of the storm's survivors.
On that fateful spring day, no one could have predicted what would happen during the weeks and years that would follow. In the moment, everything felt surreal; even now, the fear and the pain remain fresh. For those who walked through Tuscaloosa's rubble and devastation, life would never be the same. That was true for many members of Alabama's football team. It was also true for me.
There isn't a week that passes that Javier Arenas isn't grateful to be alive. The punt returner and defensive back on Alabama's 2009 national title team was sitting in his house on the border of McFarland Boulevard and Alberta City when the reality of the impending catastrophe set in. Like many former Tide players, Arenas, then a rookie for the Kansas City Chiefs, lived in Tuscaloosa during the off-season, because he says, "it's where I've experienced the best memories of my life." The Tampa, Fla., native would go on to grace the cover of Sports Illustrated the following month, under the worst possible circumstances.
"I was in my house at the time when the tornado touched down," Arenas says of that day in 2011. "It was just two miles away and I thought I could avoid it, but I couldn't. The winds surrounding it were just too strong. That was the most helpless I ever felt, standing in the bathroom by myself."
It would take months for the gravity of the storm to sink in. Only then would one of Tuscaloosa's crimson-clad heroes, who was a consensus All-America selection in 2009, realize how lucky he had truly been.
"You hear a lot of stories about how guys go through life-altering experiences and they're happier afterwards," Arenas says. "There's a realization that within seconds your life can be changed, and that makes you more grateful. That's exactly how it was for me. … It was perfect timing for someone my age. Someone who thought he couldn't be stopped by anything.
"I'm from Florida and I know hurricanes. But tornadoes, they're completely different. You have no control."
Arenas now lives in Buffalo, a city that sits 950 miles away from Tuscaloosa. The cornerback for the Bills realizes that day shaped him into the stronger man and player he has become.
"Back then, no one understood what I was going through," Arenas says. "On the field, it was the aftershock that lingered. Every year is important in the NFL. You need to get better every year. Did it hinder me? I won't say that. But it definitely lingered in my mind.
"I'm a religious person, and I know it was God speaking to me, telling me that everything can be taken away. I sat out of football last year [after being waived by the New York Jets]. And football is my life. That hurt me. But going through what I've been through with that tornado helped me deal with sitting out. I knew things could be a lot worse."
Five years after the storm, Arenas knows how profoundly it changed him. But his biggest takeaway is this: A team with a purpose—and a community in desperate need of hope—resuscitated Tuscaloosa.
"[Football] gives the town pride," he says. "The city was looking to coach [Nick] Saban, and he and the players were there to help. … They dedicated the  season to the town, and without it, the city wouldn't be the same today. It wouldn't have recovered like it has today if Alabama football wasn't what it is."
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New England Patriots fans know Dont'a Hightower as the linebacker who saved their 2014 season by tackling Marshawn Lynch at the one-yard line in Super Bowl XLIX, setting the stage for Malcolm Butler's title-clinching interception. But it was just shy of four years earlier that the first-round NFL draft pick was saving his best friend from literally being sucked out of his apartment bathroom in Tuscaloosa.
"At the time I was living at University Downs, and me and my best friend had a couple friends over hanging out," Hightower says. "One of the girls there said that her aunt told her a tornado was coming but I didn't pay too much attention. We always got warnings."
When the lights flickered off and didn't come back on, however, even one of the toughest members of the Alabama defensive front grew scared.
"We heard the sound of a train and then a strong gust of wind came under the bathroom door," he recalls. "It pulled my buddy toward the door. I pulled him back. After it passed, we went out and saw everything. There was glass everywhere. I had to carry my best friend on my back because she didn't have any shoes on."
Hightower would go on to make history for the Tide, securing the first of two back-to-back championships for a community that was in desperate need of inspiration. Alabama avenged a Nov. 5 loss to LSU by defeating the Tigers 21–0 in the BCS title game following the 2011 season.
"After Katrina, New Orleans and the Super Bowl saw the same effect," Hightower says. "Going out and playing football and winning laid a lot of people's sorrows to rest. It didn't make people forget, but it brought joy and it brought people together. We were playing for more than ourselves. We were trying to make Tuscaloosa, Tuscaloosa again."
Hightower looks back on the tornado with a mix of emotions, many of which still hurt. Yet he takes solace in the fact that the trauma forged a brotherhood that has endured.
"The guys that I played with, I still talk to those guys every day," Hightower beams. "I talk to them sometimes more than my teammates now. A lot of that is because of the tornado. Us going through that together is something that doesn't happen every lifetime. That made us even closer."
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Any weatherman south of the Mason-Dixon Line has begged viewers not to go outside when severe weather hits. But on the day of the tornado in 2011, Crimson Tide offensive tackle Barrett Jones, a Memphis native, ignored that advice and headed for his roof.
"Like a lot of others, we had heard the news and we weren't taking it ultra seriously," Jones says. "Finally, we turned on the news … and saw it was heading right toward the downtown Tuscaloosa camera. The power went off. And I actually went up to the top of my building; I walked out on the roof and I could see it.
"I stayed up there, which wasn't the smartest thing to do. I lived on 9th Street and it came within six blocks of us. [I just remember] the feeling of watching it go across and knowing people were losing their lives, homes and possessions. It was such a real feeling."
Jones, who now plays for the Philadelphia Eagles, was one of the Tide's unquestioned leaders in the 2011 campaign. He is quick to note that seeing the devastation and its aftermath fueled him to get out and help.
"Everyone remembers the first time they saw [the destruction]," he says. "It takes your breath away. It was really emotional for me and the guys. For everyone, not just football players.
"There were definitely some over-dramatized mentions of me with a chainsaw," Jones continues. "I had a chainsaw, but in no heroic fashion. I was just trying to clear limbs and stuff from houses. We all just wanted to help people out. I was one of hundreds lending a hand. … The response was everything. The way they got organized so quickly, I've never seen anything like that. The city rallied around itself and it brought a certain closeness I'd never known before."
Jones served as a key cog on the offensive line that brought a 14th national title to Tuscaloosa in 2011—a feat, to this day, he believes transcended a normal championship. Looking back, the feeling of unifying the town was unmistakable.
"Everyone in the stadium that season was affected that day," Jones says. "There was a special feeling in the stadium. A unity. There was a sense that we wanted to win for the city of Tuscaloosa. People who weren't there might think that's cheesy, but there was definitely something bigger going on there."
(Marcus Smith and the author, Kelsey Hendrix) Courtesy of Kelsey Hendrix
Marcus Smith may not have been a member of the Crimson Tide football team, but he was truly one of a kind. Our paths to Tuscaloosa could not have been more different when we arrived as freshmen in 2008. Still, as we navigated the mysterious world of Greek life together and stepped through the gates of Bryant-Denny Stadium for the first time, I knew he cared about me in a way no other friend had before.
"Marcus was always looking for the best in people and never felt he was too good to be anyone's friend," his mother, Jackie Smith, says. "He was compassionate, serious in his direction, yet he could make you laugh in a minute."
As is the case with many friendships, we drifted apart during our time on campus. Our worlds parted almost as quickly as they had once collided, but my affection for my first college friend never faded.
It was 91 hours after the EF-4 level twister ripped through Tuscaloosa that my whole world came tumbling down. My best friend and I followed the masses into the sanctuary on Sunday looking for an answer, or at the very least, a glimmer of tangible hope. It was in the second-to-last pew, shoulder to shoulder with fellow survivors, that I learned of a missing student in the management and information systems department.
"His name is Marcus. Marcus Smith, I think."
Those eight words will never get easier to recall. I knew immediately it was my friend.
His body was found buried beneath the remnants of his apartment later that afternoon.
Recounting that story a year later to my professor, Lars Anderson, who wrote a one-year review of the tornado and a cover story for Sports Illustrated, would mark the first time my name would ever appear in SI. Five years later, I've learned our past and present are never far apart. I accepted a job with SI in 2015, and I'll always associate it, in some way, with the tornado that changed everything.
Far beyond that, though, Marcus and my love of Alabama football will remain forever intertwined. In the same way my mind sometimes drifts to our first game together, fumbling through the lyrics to the fight song, so too does his mother's, when she can muster up the strength to watch the Crimson Tide take the field.
"I tend to look into the stands and wish Marcus was there watching the game," she says.
Tattered trees—torn apart by Mother Nature's cruelest winds—are the only visual reminder of less fortunate times in Tuscaloosa. With three national championships under the football team's belt since then, it can be easy to look forward and forget the events that led to this. These days, only emergency sirens instantly bring me back to the worst week of my life.
But just as Hurricane Katrina survivors can vividly recall their experiences during that storm, almost every Alabama fan I meet can summon the painstaking memories—and the lasting emotions—that accompanied the tornado. It's sharing those memories with guys like Arenas, Hightower and Jones that brings me hope: What was lost can never be regained, but it will never be forgotten, either, and its legacy lives on.
Five years later? Ten years later? Fifty years later? The impact of the tornado will last. But one thing is for certain: This Tide, through all of its trying times, is only getting stronger.