Eight days after everything changed in Tuscaloosa, Ala., I sent the following email to the top editors at Sports Illustrated: "I would like to write a bonus-length story on the April 27 tornado in Tuscaloosa. There are so many storylines: how football players saved residents from the rubble; how sports (no doubt) will help save this town; how the devastation has brought people closer together ... As you all know, I teach a journalism class at Alabama. So this stuff is real, personal to me."
Within minutes, Terry McDonell, the editor of the magazine, replied that we should pursue the story -- immediately. And so I headed from my home in Birmingham to Tuscaloosa to report and write what would become an SI cover story, a piece that without question has been the most important of my 18-year career at the magazine.
Twelve months later, in many ways, the storm continues to swirl in Tuscaloosa. In places like Alberta City, which is only a few miles from downtown Tuscaloosa, there are still blocks of damaged buildings, mounds of debris and rubble and houses cleaved by downed trees. The F-4 level tornado narrowly missed campus, but it decimated T-Town and killed 50, including six Alabama students. The horror of what everyone associated with the university experienced that day is still as vivid and raw as it was one year ago.
"Out of nowhere you heard the roaring sound of the tornado," said Jonathon Whitworth, a senior in my sportswriting class who was in an apartment complex that was in the direct path of the tornado. "I felt the floor vibrating and we could hear debris hitting the sides of the apartment. The girls in the closet started screaming after a huge crash. For a split second I wondered how I'd feel if they died and I survived...
"You see things like this happen on television, but you never actually understand the emotion until you experience it yourself. It's easy to see the destruction of a place you aren't use to, but it really hurts to see an area that you're familiar with, such as your home, look as if a bomb had just hit it. I have always loved bad weather and I still do; but, to be honest, whenever I see news footage of tornadoes now, I start to tear up."
For another one of my students, senior Kelsey Hendrix, the tornado introduced her to a new concept: tragic death. "It was four days after the storm that the tornado ripped through my heart," she said. "I'll never forget sitting in a pew, surrounded by people looking for guidance and hope, when I heard the news. Before the sermon began, a friend of mine mentioned that a young man in her department at UA was still missing. As horrible as it sounds, I thought nothing of it. At that point, hundreds were still missing and every day, the list was growing shorter, so I very casually asked her what his name was. She said, 'Marcus Smith.'
"I was almost sick. As common as the name could be, I knew that instant that it was my Marcus. Marcus -- my first friend in college ... That was the first day that I lost a friend. They found Marcus' body the next morning, buried underneath the remnants of his apartment. Death was a fairly new concept to me that year, but now that I know its gravity, I know that dealing with it will never get easier."
For senior Miranda Murphy, it's a sound that always sends her back into the eye of the storm. "On May 22, 2011, I had to remove myself from the room with my family and friends," she said. "It was my birthday, so why was I crying in a room by myself? It was the first time I'd heard tornado sirens since the tornado hit Tuscaloosa. My family knew I'd been having nightmares so bad I had to start sleeping with a mouth guard at night, but I don't think they expected this. I wasn't affected physically by the tornado in Tuscaloosa, but I was emotionally."
All of my students -- indeed, all of Tuscaloosa -- still look to the example of Carson Tinker for inspiration. Tinker, Alabama's starting long snapper, was in his house on April 27th with his girl friend, Ashley Harrison, and his two roommates when the tornado hit them directly. Tinker and Harrison were both thrown some 75 yards; Tinker suffered minor injuries. Harrison, with barely a scratch on her, died of a broken neck.
Tinker, who will be a senior next fall, and I have talked many times over the last year. When we first met 10 days after the storm in a lounge at Bryant-Denny Stadium, he detailed, with tears in his eyes, every moment of April 27th. Four months later, when we chatted again on a sunny August afternoon, I was stunned by what I saw. The limp, the bandage on his right ankle, the cut above his left eye, the gash on his right thigh -- they were all gone. But most strikingly, the sadness had vanished from his eyes. As he walked through the school's football offices days before Alabama's season opener against Kent State on Sept. 3, his face was aglow, and his smile was back.
"I don't allow myself to have bad days anymore," Tinker said. "When people hear my story and see what I've been though, maybe they think I should be moping around and have this poor-me attitude. But I'm the complete opposite. When I see the huge banners around town that say, 'We're Coming Back,' it fires me up. Because we are."
I saw Tinker again in early January on the Superdome field moments after the Tide had defeated LSU 21-0 to win the BCS national title. He spoke of how his thoughts -- at this, the greatest moment of his athletic life -- were tethered to Ashley and the thousands of residents of Alabama who had lost loved ones in the tornadoes of the 27th. "This isn't just a win for us, but this is a win for Tuscaloosa and all of Alabama," he said. "We've been through so much this year, and I'm at a loss for words to describe what I feel. Just happy."
A few days ago I gathered with my students for a class party at a restaurant in Tuscaloosa. We talked of the tornado -- nary a class went by during the semester when we didn't -- but there was also a sense of promise in the room as the students spoke of their futures and their dreams for their lives.
Yet they all understand the cost of being in Tuscaloosa on April 27th, 2011. Because long after the rebuilding of the city is done, the tornado's terrifying winds will continue to haunt their memories.