A sharp crack of thunder startled Carson Tinker from his sleep. He peered through the west-facing window of his wood-frame house in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. It was 5:30 a.m., April 27, 2011, and flashes of lightning fractured the dark sky. He watched mesmerized as the bolts danced and skittered.
The storm passed quickly, though, and soon the air outside turned quiet and calm. Carson, a 21-year-old junior at the University of Alabama, began his morning routine. He left his house, a four-bedroom rental at 611 25th Street, and headed for campus, where he attended class, and then met up with his girlfriend of 11 months, Ashley Harrison, a senior honors student. The two had been introduced the previous spring, and Carson’s immediate thought was that he had no chance with this girl, a lovely brown-eyed brunette whose soft smile made him weak in the knees. But soon afterward, he asked her out, and it wasn’t long before the two of them were constantly at each other’s side.
Ashley and Carson were in love, and they talked of a future together. She prophesied to Carson that in January, on the day before they would celebrate her 23rd birthday, she would watch him play for the national college football championship in New Orleans. She was a fan, if not an aficionado—when Carson told Ashley that he was a long snapper on the team, she had called her father in Texas and asked, “Dad, what’s a long snapper?”—and she would be there in the Superdome as Carson helped lead the Alabama Crimson Tide to the title. That was Ashley Harrison’s vision.
After their classes on April 27, 2011, they drove to Carson’s house, where they spent the afternoon building a flower bed in the front yard. The sky had turned gray again, but there was no rain. After taking a shower, Carson returned to the living room and saw that Ashley and his two roommates—Alan Estis and Payton Holley—were fixated on the TV screen. A weatherman declared that a tornado was bearing down on Tuscaloosa.
Just after five o’clock, Carson and Payton stepped onto the porch and searched for a funnel cloud; all they saw was a darkening sky. Seconds later, Carson’s cell phone rang. It was his grandfather Jim Cartledge, calling from Hoover, Alabama, about 50 miles northeast of Tuscaloosa. “Carson, you need to take cover now!”
“Yes, sir,” Carson replied.
The young men dashed inside. What they didn’t see was the danger lurking four miles to the west. The most powerful long-track tornado ever to descend on Alabama was on the ground—a huge twister with winds of 190 mph, roaring toward Tuscaloosa. Quickly the four students, with the boys’ two dogs, wedged themselves into a closet. Carson wrapped his six-foot-one, 220-pound frame around Ashley.
“We’re going to be OK,” he whispered into her ear.
Five miles away, in eastern Tuscaloosa County, electrician Bob Dowling and his family scanned the skyline from the front door of their mobile home. Dozens of their neighbors were running to an underground shelter, located in the middle of Chalet Ridge Mobile Home Park. At that moment, 13-year-old Marilyn Dowling raised her right hand to the sky. Bob looked up and froze in astonishment: A van was spinning in the air 300 yards above them—a van!—soaring past like some Hollywood special effect. Then, lowering his eyes, he saw, for the first time, the twister. It was only a quarter mile away. Worse, it was hugging the ground, charging directly into the valley where they stood, and he could see that they didn’t have time to reach the shelter. “We’re in big trouble!” he yelled. “Let’s move to the laundry room—now!”
Cowering in the closet, Carson Tinker held Ashley tight. As the winds roared, they could hear the walls creak. “I’m scared,” Ashley said, trembling.
“It’s going to be OK,” he shouted above the noise as the house began to disintegrate. He wrapped his arms around Ashley like she was the most precious thing on earth. “It’s going to be OK, Ashley,” he shouted again.
But it wasn’t. Seconds later, Carson was sucked out of the closet, catapulted into the air like a stone from a slingshot, and thrown 65 yards into a field across the street. He blacked out, concussed. When he opened his eyes moments later, he didn’t recognize anything. His house had utterly disappeared; there was now just a big pile of indistinguishable rubble on the other side of the road. And Ashley was gone.
In the sudden perfect silence characteristic of the aftermath of a tornado, Carson stood and wandered around the field, looking for Ashley. He had a broken right wrist, gashes in his head, and a severe cut on his right ankle. Blood covered his face. His body moved in slow motion, as if in a desperate dream. “Ashley, where are you?” he screamed. “Ashley!”
At around 7 a.m., Carson, still in his bloodstained clothes and with tiny fragments of glass in his hair, awoke in a private hospital room, chaos still filling the halls outside.
His mom, in tears, was at his bedside. He immediately asked if they’d found Ashley. She told him that Ashley was gone.
“No, she can’t be,” Carson said. “You’re wrong. You’re wrong.” His mother gently explained that Ashley’s body had been found, her neck broken. Carson cried until he had no tears left.
The next day, Carson demanded to attend the memorial service for Ashley. But the doctors, citing his head trauma and the potential for infection in his ankle wound, refused to release him from the hospital. Carson would not relent. He kept begging and badgering until the medical staff finally agreed. With his family at his side, he was strapped onto a rolling bed and wheeled into the back of an ambulance, which carried him to where Ashley lay in her casket. His bed was tilted up so that he could see her. Looking at her through watery eyes, Carson softly offered his everlasting goodbye to the girl he’d been certain he would marry one day. It was a moment so profoundly painful that he would never want to speak of it—or think of it—again.
It was just after daybreak on April 28, the Day After. Nick Saban, the already famous coach of the University of Alabama’s exalted football team, the Crimson Tide, had spent the early hours at home with his daughter and her sorority sisters, who were desperately trying to contact Ashley Harrison, not realizing she had died. At first light, Saban drove to the football offices to meet with Thad Turnipseed, director of athletic facilities. “We’ve got to do something,” Saban said. “I’m going to change clothes, and then we’re going out there to do whatever we can.”
The two men filled the back of Turnipseed’s white pickup truck with 20 cases of Gatorade and bottled water that had been left over from spring practice. With Saban riding shotgun, Turnipseed drove to the Ferguson Center, the hub of student activity
in the center of campus. More than 300 scared, confused students had gathered outside the building. Upon seeing their anxious faces, Saban stepped out of the truck and climbed to the top of a small brick wall. The students fell silent, stunned by the sudden appearance of their beloved coach.
“Your time will come,” Saban began, “when you will be able to help and volunteer. We’re going to need everybody’s effort for a long time to get our city back on its feet. Life is all about challenges, and now we’re facing a really big one. But working together, we will get through this. Remember, we have to do this together as one team.”
The tornado had missed the campus, but less than a mile away, Turnipseed and Saban discovered a wasteland. Nearing 15th and McFarland, their truck rolled close to the intact home of Saban’s 24-year-old son, Nicholas; just one short block away, every structure had been obliterated. It was then—on this soft, blue-sky morning—that Saban fully comprehended the terrible capriciousness of the Tuscaloosa tornado. The final death toll from the storm would be reported as 53, including six students.
Saban understood that he was now more than a football coach. He was the person whom others looked to for assurance, the one people wanted to tell their story to. His wife, Terry, said that the days after the tornado were the first time in his professional life that he stopped thinking about football.
Nick Saban stood in front of his team in the large recruiting room at Bryant-Denny Stadium, the only space with electricity where the coaches and players could meet. It was two days after the storm and the first time the team had been together since the tornado. As the players ate a catered meal, Saban’s voice was emphatic: “I know you all have seen a lot of things in the past few days, and if you have any issues, come see us. I’ve found through the years that professional help can get you through major things. But we’ve also got a community to support. We can’t just be a team for them on Saturdays. The fans are with us in the best times, and we have to be with them in the worst of times. Just by your presence and being with them, you can help people.”
After the meeting, Saban went to the hospital to try to comfort Carson Tinker. He had no magic words—they simply didn’t exist—but he emphasized to his player that he wasn’t alone. “You have to have gratitude for being alive,” the coach said, gathering Carson’s hand in his. “We are here for you, all of us, everyone on the team and the entire university.” More than 50 of Carson’s teammates and coaches would visit him at the hospital.
Football player Barrett Jones was out on the streets at the first blush of sunlight, some 36 hours after the tornado had struck. He was riding shotgun in a souped-up golf cart known as a Gator, with a chain saw lying across his big thighs. His younger brother, Harrison, drove him block to block; wherever they found a downed tree that had barricaded a street or cleaved a house, the six-foot-five, 305-pound left tackle would yank the chain saw to life and go to work, slicing the trunks and branches into movable pieces. As the brothers moved through the destruction, a steady flow of ambulances rolled by, carrying the dead away.
Barrett soon organized a group of his teammates to help. For three 12-hour days, the football players were fixtures in the hardest-hit areas, attacking the downed trees like a pack of Paul Bunyans. “It was not the textbook, safest thing to do, but we felt like we had to do something meaningful to help,” he said a few days later. “Alabama football is just so big here. Next season we’re not going to play for ourselves, I promise you; we’re going to play for Tuscaloosa. That will be the biggest motivation we’ve ever had, to do something special on the field for this town.” Saban’s mandate had become a mantra.
Ground was broken at 4214 5th Street Northeast in July, less than three months after the tornado destroyed the Dowlings’ trailer. The family had survived without injury, and now Habitat for Humanity was building a new house for them, with help from Nick Saban’s charity, Nick’s Kids. Two weeks after the first shovels dug into the dirt, Bob Dowling’s wife, Dana, greeted the fresh-faced college kids who’d come to volunteer. Her eyes were drawn to a hulking fellow who looked as if he could single-handedly lift a small house and set it down on the site. D. J. Fluker, it turned out, was a lineman for the Tide, and seven other Alabama players were with him, including Barrett Jones.
Over the next six weeks, the players would return again and again. So would members of the gymnastics team, along with rowers, soccer players, and scores of other athletes. The female Crimson Tide cheerleaders would stand on the shoulders of the male cheerleaders to paint the higher reaches of the single-story structure.
On the first day of September, two days before Alabama’s home opener against Kent State, a dedication was held at the Dowlings’ new home. With Saban and several of his players standing in the front yard, Pastor Kelvin Croom of College Hill Baptist Church spoke to the gathering. “I anticipate the Alabama nation coming together,” he said, “and remembering how good God was to bring us through such a powerful storm. We, of course, will remember those who lost their lives. They will always be a part of us. Healing has to occur. What is a better way to heal than with Alabama football?”
It is visible from nearly ten miles away, rising above the Tuscaloosa skyline the way the Colosseum towered over ancient Rome. Bryant-Denny Stadium is a place so holy to Alabama fans that hundreds—perhaps thousands—have secretly scattered the ashes of loved ones on its grass field. From the highest reaches of the sold-out stadium, fans who’d come for the season opener could look out and see clearly the long scar of destruction from four months earlier, the stark detritus of lives shattered and painful evidence that the rebuilding of the city had only just begun.
Inside the locker room, Saban delivered a simple message. “This is when it all starts,” the coach told his team. “How do you want to be remembered? Play hard, and play smart. Let’s do this for our city, our state, and our fans.”
The teams ran onto the field for the opening kickoff. Photos of the starters flashed on the scoreboard; when the picture of Carson Tinker appeared, the student section roared its loudest cheer of the afternoon, and it continued for 15 seconds, rocking the stadium. It wasn’t just a salute to the athlete in recognition of all that he had endured, though it certainly was that; it was also a cheer for Tuscaloosa, a signal that the people and the city were on the mend.
From their seats, Bob and Dana Dowling hugged at the sight of Carson Tinker. Dana’s smile never left her face during the three-and-a-half-hour game, relishing a dominating performance by some of the young men who had helped build her house. Alabama won 48–7. It felt to the Dowlings like they’d regained something they’d feared they might never have again: the joy of feeling normal.
For the Dowling family, like so many others in T-Town, the games were a kind of group-therapy session, a chance to come together and release their emotions, to soak themselves in the sweet ecstasy of Alabama football.
On December 14, two weeks before leaving for New Orleans and the Bowl Championship Series national title game, Barrett Jones sat in the football offices. The Alabama–Louisiana State rematch had moved squarely into the hot center of the national sports spotlight. Earlier in the season, on November 5, LSU had beaten Alabama in overtime. In addition to the usual media inquiries—How will this game be different from the first? Can Alabama protect its quarterback from the fierce LSU rush?—everyone was asking about the Tuscaloosa tornado and the impact it might have had on the team. By now, the players had become not only passionate about the subject but also increasingly articulate.
Barrett Jones explained again what those days after the storm had meant to this championship quest. “When we as a team went out there into the community of Tuscaloosa and did everything we could to lend a hand in the recovery from the tornado, it definitely made us closer,” he said. “It gave us the opportunity to know each other in a different way. It strengthened our bond as teammates. And it definitely made us want to do something special on the field for our town.”
With 4:44 remaining in the fourth quarter, Alabama was up 15–0; all those points had been made on field goals. Then the Tide scored the only touchdown of the game, clinching the title. As the clock ran out, the scoreboard showed the shutout: Alabama 21, LSU 0. Carson Tinker gazed in the direction of Darlene and David Harrison, Ashley’s parents, who sat in the Superdome stands. Ashley would have turned 23 at midnight—only 90 minutes away—and she’d promised Carson that this game, this victory, would be the beginning of her birthday party. Accompanied now by a reporter, Carson walked along the field, tears in his eyes, his mind on Ashley.
“There’s not a day goes by that I don’t think of her,” he said as he looked up at the still-cheering fans in the stands. Moments later, a few players grabbed Carson, hugging him hard and bellowing, “This one was for you!”
Saban and his team crammed into the tight locker room. They had won their second national title in three seasons, but this one was different, and they all knew it. Saban raised his right hand, and the locker room fell perfectly silent. The coach waited, his eyes slowly scanning one by one the faces around him, and then he finally declared, “We buried the pain tonight.”
The players showered, filed out of the stadium, passed a swarm of cheering Alabama fans held back by police barricades, and climbed onto the team buses. Darlene and David Harrison stood in the crowd, wanting a last glimpse of the team, to feel connected one more time to this emotional night. Darlene checked the time: It was a few minutes before 12:00. The Harrisons had determined earlier that they wanted to be by themselves at the moment Ashley would have turned 23, so they turned together and walked away.
At exactly midnight, Darlene’s cell phone chimed with a text message. It was from Carson.
Happy Birthday Ashley, it said.