TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — His joy infectious. His energy contagious. His love abundant.
The University of Alabama, city of Tuscaloosa and the rest of the Crimson Tide family is still hurting over the loss of Luke Ratliff, a 23-year-old senior public relations major who passed away last Friday night due to a brief illness.
Ratliff, a product of Wadesboro, North Carolina was more than an Alabama basketball fan. He more than just that jovial guy people saw on their television sets going crazy during games.
Ratliff and I shared plenty of in-person moments together during my tenure at the Capstone as a student and even now in my post-grad life, working as a sports writer.
My first interactions with him came on Twitter, where his rise to celebrity fandom began. 'Fluff' was witty, clever and just flat-out hilarious.
He knew the right buttons to press for opposing fans. He knew how to make everyone laugh. More importantly, he knew how to bring people together and unite them together on that silly website.
Before I graduated, we would run into each other at local watering holes, either lamenting or celebrating after a Braves or Crimson Tide hoops game.
Of course, Ratliff was enjoying a Budweiser, his favorite beer. A few cans were placed outside Coleman Coliseum along with flowers and a portrait of him on Saturday afternoon for a memorial service that saw Alabama athletics director Greg Byrne and university president Stuart Bell and members of the men's basketball team in attendance.
Even in those small interactions then, I could tell there was just something different about this individual. There was something more to him. He was always positive, with a smile on his face and not a worry in the world.
After hearing the news of his passing, I couldn't stop thinking about our first real sit-down meeting, which took place last year at a local coffee shop for about two and a half hours.
I was there to do a profile on him and he was eager to get the word about Crimson Chaos, the university's official student support group. At this point, Ratliff was in the process of becoming a household name but it was not quite to the point where he is now, or was.
We talked about his journey from a basketball-crazed state to a football-crazed state that he was trying to turn the other way around. We joked about his run-ins with South Carolina coach Frank Martin and LSU coach Will Wade. We discussed his future and how long he wanted to stick around in Tuscaloosa after he graduated.
Above all else, and what still sticks with me now, is our conversation surrounding mental health.
See, Ratliff was a fighter.
He battled anxiety, panic attacks, homesickness, other mental health issues during his freshman year and he was very open about it after the fact. To understand why he gave his all for Alabama basketball, one has to think back to what that program did for him in his time of need.
He slept in his car for two months that season so Coleman Coliseum became his sanctuary. It became his "home."
“[Alabama basketball] gave me something to work for, instead of working towards,” Ratliff said at the time. “I know I have two nights of the week to look forward to. It is like a reward to me. Whenever there were times where I could not go anywhere and feel safe, Alabama basketball was always there for me."
A champion of mental health, Ratliff also took the time to help friends and strangers get through their own battles. Ask anyone close to him, he took the time to listen to anyone willing to talk.
That might have been Ratliff's best attribute. No matter who you were, when talking to him, he made you feel like a million bucks and that you mattered.
Only so few people in this world have that ability and he had it with the best of them. Those couple hours I had with him that day, hearing his story, felt like 10 minutes.
Knowing where Ratliff was and how he used Alabama basketball to overcome those obstacles, makes what happened this season for the Crimson Tide even more special.
He rarely missed a game. Of Alabama's historic 2020-21 year that saw them win the SEC regular season and tournament championship, he went to 25 straight.
Overall, he went to 44 of the Crimson Tide's 45 last conference and postseason games, including 42 in a row.
Ratliff's reaction to Alabama clinching the regular-season title against Mississippi State back in February is something that will play on in my head for as long as I live.
Ever since that day we got coffee, and after every home game since then, Ratliff made an extraordinary effort to come over and chat with me. We'd catch up or talk about what we just witnessed and I'm going to miss that like crazy next year.
He was so gracious with his time and came on our podcast on multiple occasions, even when he didn't have to.
The point is, Ratliff wanted everyone around him to feel special and valuable because he was reciprocating what Alabama basketball and the university had done for him.
Our final interaction came in Indianapolis at the first round of the NCAA tournament at halftime of the Crimson Tide's first-round game against Iona inside Hinkle Fieldhouse.
We joked about how of all teams to shoot poorly inside a "shooter's gym" that it would indeed be Alabama. He was incredibly nervous but still over the moon and confident that his team would pull away from Rick Pitino and the Gaels.
After that in fact did happen, two days later at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, Alabama destroyed Maryland with a belly of 3-pointers, I watched from afar in the media section, Ratliff celebrating with other Crimson Tide fans.
Not knowing that this would be the pinnacle, I could truly tell that no matter what happened next in this epic journey that it was going to be hard to top what had just occurred for him.
Not one Alabama fan deserved that moment more than he did.
The next few months and years to come are going to extremely challenging for his family, friends, and the school as a whole. It's been incredibly encouraging to see nearly $50,000 raised for his family over the last three days on a GoFundMe page that was started by Crimson Tide assistant Bryan Hodgson.
Byrne stated at Ratliff's memorial that the school will find an appropriate way to honor him. In the meantime, what better way for anyone who knew Ratliff, or "Fluff" as he was known as by many, to live like he did?
Cherish every moment you are on this planet and live like it's your last. Love everyone you come in contact with, no matter what they can or can't do for you.
It's what Ratliff would want you to do. And of course, watch every second of any Alabama sport, and maybe, treat yourself to a Budweiser or some Buffalo Trace bourbon, while you do it.