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Eleven days after the white dress was recovered, on a mild, sunny afternoon in Tuscaloosa, Rosecrans got the final two outs in Alabama's 9--0 win over LSU. The crowd of 4,019 at Sewell-Thomas thundered as the team surrounded Rosecrans on the pitcher's mound. Here, for a few sweet moments, all felt normal in T-town.
NICK SABAN STOOD IN FRONT OF HIS PLAYERS IN A LOUNGE at the Mal Moore football complex two days after the tornado, his voice thick with emotion. "I know you all have seen a lot of things in the last few days, and if you have any issues, come see us," Saban said. "But we've also got to support the community. We can't just be a team for them on Saturdays. The fans are with us in the best of 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."
And hundreds of athletes have. Grant, the men's basketball coach, has worked on rooftops all around Tuscaloosa repairing damage. Courtney Upshaw, a linebacker, signed thousands of autographs to raise $25,000 for tornado victims. Carlos Taborga, a tennis player from La Paz, Bolivia, has spent hours acting as an interpreter for Temporary Emergency Services. Barrett Jones, a 6' 5", 311-pound offensive lineman, lugged a chain saw around town for a few days helping people remove trees from their homes and yards. And hordes of athletes from every sport have been handing out water and food and—most significant—simply listening to stories of survival and loss.
Three weeks after the tornado touched down, the athletic department had donated more than $1 million to the relief effort. And more money was expected to pour into Tuscaloosa come Sept. 3, the date of the Crimson Tide football team's season opener, an event fans in T-town start anticipating the minute the previous season ends. "When people come to that game, if they haven't been here since the tornado, they'll see that this community will need a lot of support for a long time," Saban said. "Hopefully, an indirect thing—a football game—will lead to a direct thing: more help for Tuscaloosa."
The night of the tornado Saban hosted a dozen confused, fear-stricken students at his home in Northport. His daughter, Kristen, is a Phi Mu—and a sorority sister of Ashley Harrison's. All through the night, Harrison's friends huddled in the Sabans' living room texting, calling and sending messages on Facebook, trying to determine if she was O.K. Even as the morning sun rose over a radically changed Tuscaloosa, the young women continued to reach out to their friend. Saban joined them at 5:30 a.m., taking a seat in a reclining chair. They prayed for the best.
IT'S BEEN TWO WEEKS SINCE THE TUSCALOOSA TORNADO struck. In the field across from where Carson Tinker's house once stood are three small wooden crosses marking where the wind had left the three victims of 611 25th Street—one for Tinker's dog, one for Harrison's dog and one for Harrison. Her body was found on the morning of April 28. She died of a broken neck, with barely a mark on her.
About 100 yards from the three crosses someone has nailed a crimson-and-white University of Alabama flag to the trunk of a tree that had been split in half. Brandon Gibson, a rising senior wide receiver, is standing close to that flag fluttering in the warm spring breeze. He was one of several Tide football players to search for survivors in the immediate hours after all hell was unleashed on Tuscaloosa. Surveying what's left of Tinker's house—a few bricks, a few books on the ground, a lawn chair—his voice cracks.
"You look at Carson's place and you wonder how he's still alive," he says. "Ashley was such a wonderful girl, beautiful, always smiling, the kind of girl you wanted to be around. I look up to Carson. He's such a positive guy and he's so strong. I go up against him every day in practice because I have to block the long snapper, and he's just damn tough. But all of us athletes are going to have to be tough in the next few months. We can help carry this community. We can give them something to be proud of, give them something that can bring us together as one. We are going to be there for them, and we are going to work our butts off for the people of Tuscaloosa. We're going to help bring this place back."