TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Across the scope of college athletics, a common trope that is frequently brought up is programs are just simply teams comprised of coaches, players and personnel.
In reality, they are much bigger than that. Teams are families.
Over the past week here at BamaCentral, we've comprised a series of stories highlighting the moments experienced collectively by University of Alabama coaches and players across multiple sports during the devastating EF-4 tornado that ravaged the community and caused widespread death and destruction.
Tuesday marked the 10-year anniversary of that tragedy.
If you’ve read the other stories in the series, you’ll notice a common theme among the ones where coaches and players were interviewed.
From coaches, you’ll observe a serious concern for the wellbeing of their athletes.
For players, you’ll notice a caring worry about the safety of their teammates.
Crimson Tide football coach Nick Saban harped on those themes Tuesday. Speaking with the media regarding the 10-year anniversary of the tragedy, he highlighted what went through his mind on that fateful day.
“I think a lot of it was — they said there was gonna be a storm, I got in the car, I drove home,” Saban said. “There was probably, I don’t know, 20 — Kristen was in school, Nicholas was in school here at the time — there was probably 20 girls from Kristen’s sorority at the house. Boots everywhere, umbrellas everywhere, backpacks everywhere. Concerned for our son and his safety because his house was significantly damaged in the storm.
“And then of course you got your team and you got your players and how did they get affected by what happened? It was a pretty anxious time to be honest with you. That anxiety didn’t really let up until the next day when we sort of could assess the damage. One of the players lost his fiancé, which was certainly something that was very difficult for all the players to deal with but there was also growing out of that anxiety a tremendous response to help people in the community. It was a pretty anxious day, no doubt.”
The tornado ultimately resulted in the deaths of 53 people — including six Alabama students — and injured over 1,200 others. In the days, weeks and months to follow, the community came together to help rebuild.
At the forefront of the rebuilding effort was Alabama athletics.
While teams are indeed family, the same can be said of the Tuscaloosa community. In the moments after the tornado marched with its deadly force through the town, neighbors emerged to lend any assistance to their brothers and sisters.
While the destruction caused by the tornado, still to this day, hasn’t fully been repaired in certain parts of the city, the community came together to handle the situation.
To Saban, the efforts following the storm brought the city closer together.
“I also think that because of this storm, it really galvanized the community in a lot of ways,” Saban said. “A lot of people came together to really help each other. A lot of people contributed to what we had to do to rebuild our community. It’s actually better now than ever before, but certainly something that our presence was really necessary. We try to do a lot for a lot of people — Terry and I, Nick’s Kids — but I think our presence, just being there for people was probably one of the most important things that we did and I think it’s a lesson for a lot of us to learn that when something bad happens, people need the support of other people and it’s something that really made us feel a part of the community.”
Following the April 27 tornado, the Sabans committed to building 13 homes across the city to honor the team’s 13 national titles. Since that date, the Crimson Tide has added five more national championships to its trophy case, and with each one the Sabans have added a new house to the city.
After winning the program’s 18th national title this past January, work is already underway on the next home.
The houses being built are not just an opportunity for Saban and his family to give back to Tuscaloosa, but also an opportunity for his football family to give back as well.
“I do think it sort of galvanized us in this community in a lot of ways,” Saban said. “A lot of relationships that were formed and forged from what happened on that tragic day. All the people that support Nick’s Kids became friends and family and we became a part of the community and I know Miss Terry is working on the 18th house and that all got born out of this whole tornado in terms of 13 houses that we built pretty immediately and the players’ contribution to those houses. It’s pretty amazing when we’re building a house and Tua’s [Tagovailoa] up on a scaffold and I got to tell Miss Terry, ‘Can he do something on the ground?’
“Those memories and having all these young people knowing that they contributed something to helping somebody else is a really good feeling and I think it sort of galvanized us as a part of this community.”
Less than a year later, Alabama football won its 14th national championship following the 2011 season and then again in the 2012 season. In a time where the people of Tuscaloosa were at its lowest point in history, the Crimson Tide lifted their spirits by succeeding on the gridiron in addition to its efforts in the city.
Saban said that the motivation for winning those back-to-back titles was the team wanting to give back to the Tuscaloosa community.
“I think first of all I was really proud of our team,” Saban said. “I think it’s a really important sort of lesson of life for these guys to learn how to give; how to give back to the community, give back to our fans, give back to the people who supported us — which is exactly what I said to the players 10 years ago — and their response to that was phenomenal in terms of things that they did out in the community to help other people.
“I know the players helped Miss Terry with Nick’s Kids. Thompson Tractor gave bulldozers and she had [D.J.] Fluker on the bulldozer and I think it galvanized our team and I think our team really wanted to accomplish something special for the community by winning a championship and I think that the community certainly supported the team in a different kind of spirit than we’ve ever had, motivated by what was a horrific event in terms of something that we all had to deal with. I do think there was a lot of positive lessons that were learned. Certainly was really proud of our team for winning the Disney Spirit Award for community service for all the things that they did to help people in the community so it was pretty special.”
The Tuscaloosa family and the Alabama athletics family are one in the same, forever intertwined by the hardships that they have gone through together. Though the effort to pick up the pieces from the tragedy that occurred one decade ago has been a difficult task, the end result was a tightly-knit community that emerged even stronger than it was prior to the tornado’s wrath.
To Saban, he’ll always remember April 27, 2011 as the day that created an opportunity to help others and to grow together as a community.
“I think this tragic event just created such opportunity to help so many people in so many ways,” Saban said. “I couldn’t be prouder of how our team responded to that and we still have lots of guys who do a really good job in community service and trying to help other people in the community. I think compassion for other people is a quality that sometimes gets a little undervalued but it is probably one of the best qualities anybody can have.”
This is the eighth story in a weeklong series about the 10-year anniversary of the Tuscaloosa tornado.