It was hard talking that morning we first met. Less than two weeks had passed since an F-4 level tornado had torn through Tuscaloosa, Ala., killing 50, including six Alabama students, and now Carson Tinker and I sat in a lounge high above the field at Bryant-Denny Stadium. Tears welled in his eyes.
I told Tinker, Alabama's starting long snapper, that I was going to ask him to go back to the worst afternoon of his life, and that we could stop at any time. "No," he said. "I have to do this. Have to do this for Ashley."
So then we returned to April 27. Tinker was with his two roommates and his girlfriend, Ashley Harrison, that day in Tinker's off-campus house. He had just hit golf balls in the wide-open, grassy field across the street -- one of his favorite spots in T-Town -- when he returned inside to see his roommates and Harrison huddled around a television. A weatherman was saying that a tornado was on the ground, and before they knew it, the twister was on top of them.
Tinker, 6-foot-1, 220 pounds, and Harrison ran to a closet. He wrapped his arms around her, holding her as tight as humanly possible, but then the wind roared. In an eye-blink, the house disintegrated and, next thing Tinker remembers, he was wandering around that field, in a daze, desperately calling out for Ashley.
Both Tinker and Harrison had been thrown some 75 yards. He suffered minor injuries; she passed away from a broken neck with barely a scratch on her body.
"She was such a beautiful, wonderful person," Tinker said. "I miss her every day."
Four months after Tinker and I first met for what turned out to be an SI cover story on the Tuscaloosa tornado, we got together again on a sunny, late 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 what was most striking about Tinker from when we had chatted before was that 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."
So far Tinker has had a flawless season: not one bad snap. But that's not why he's my pick to be SI's Sportsman of the Year. In the face of heartbreaking tragedy, he's showed courage, strength and character -- the pillars, I believe, of what this award should be all about. He's not only one of the most admired players on the team (when has a long snapper ever achieved that?) but also the emotional heart and soul of Alabama football and, in a larger sense, of all Tuscaloosa, which all this time later is still healing from the events of April 27.
"I look up to Carson because of how he's handled himself with such amazing dignity," said senior wide receiver Brandon Gibson. "We all do."
One more reason why he's my pick to be SI's 2011 Sportsman of the Year.