He's different now. The limp, the bandage on his right ankle, the cut above his left eye, the gash on his right thigh, they're all gone. But the most striking change in Carson Tinker—Alabama's starting long snapper, who on April 27 was hurled 50 yards through the air by the tornado that destroyed his off-campus house and took the life of his girlfriend, Ashley Harrison (SI, May 23)—from when SI met with him 14 weeks ago is that the sadness has vanished from his eyes. As he walks through the school's football offices just days before the season opener against Kent State on Sept. 3, his face is aglow and his smile is back.
"I don't allow myself to have bad days anymore," says Tinker, a 6'1", 220-pound junior. "When people hear my story and see what I've been through, 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."
Indeed, Tinker is a lot like Tuscaloosa: The player and the place are both healing four months after an EF-4 tornado leveled a large swath of the town of 90,000, killing 50 (including six Alabama students), destroying or damaging 5,749 homes and forcing more than 6,000 people to apply for disaster-related unemployment benefits. "The tornado changed Tuscaloosa forever," says Mayor Walt Maddox as he stands in the decimated neighborhood of Forest Lake, less than a mile from campus, where mounds of rubble are all that remain of hundreds of houses. "About 85 percent of the debris has been removed, and that's enough to fill Bryant-Denny Stadium from the bottom of the field to the top of the lights three times. Everyone here is really looking forward to the season opener. Not only will that game have an overall economic impact of bringing $17 million to the city, but it will also have a huge psychological impact. It will let us know that it's O.K. for us to live our lives again. For a few hours we can have some fun and enjoy ourselves."
Tinker was enjoying himself at a recent practice, firing off one perfect snap after the next. It's not often that an undersized long-snapper is a team's most admired player, but that's precisely what Tinker has become. "Carson walks around here with a smile on his face every day," says Brandon Gibson, a senior wide receiver. "He's an example of coming back and being strong."
At a candlelight vigil this summer Mayor Maddox met Tinker for the first time since the tornado blew through their lives. They hugged. Maddox says he hasn't yet allowed himself to cry, but as the two men who have become the faces of the Tuscaloosa tragedy kept embracing, he came darn close.