Tide honored to represent community
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Sit in the grandstand at the University of Alabama's Rhoads Stadium and you can see the traffic moving along McFarland Boulevard out beyond right field, the road curving as it skirts the edge of campus just north of one of the city's commercial districts.
It's a major thoroughfare, and, at one point during a recent game between Alabama and Stanford, two flatbed trucks passed each other in the gathering dusk, somewhere out beyond the banner proclaiming the stadium home of the best fans in college softball.
The southbound truck appeared to be loaded with new lumber, the telltale right angles and bright shades of construction material. The northbound truck carried what looked like utility poles, too perfectly round to be tree trunks in their natural state.
Maybe both loads were unrelated to anything that happened a month earlier, when a tornado tore through Tuscaloosa early in the evening of April 27. Maybe those same deliveries would have been made on another day in another year. But as the new materials headed in the direction of the splintered and shattered landscape no more than a mile south, it seemed appropriate that something bearing such a striking resemblance to debris headed the opposite way.
Alabama came from behind to beat Stanford and advance to the Women's College World Series, winning the final two games in a best-of-three series on the one-month anniversary of the tornado. But the individuals who make up the Crimson Tide know better than many that two softball games do not constitute a comeback. Not here. Not now.
A comeback is what is only just beginning in Tuscaloosa, what will continue in the weeks, months and years ahead.
It's that comeback that defines this team, playing now as ambassadors. As intertwined as town and gown always were at Alabama, rarely more than in coach Patrick Murphy's softball program, this team is now the Tuscaloosa Tide.
Not long after Alabama clinched its place in the World Series, Murphy received an email from two longtime season-ticket holders, two of more than a couple of thousand who are part of a softball community like few others.
"First of all, congratulations for winning the super regional. World Series bound. Andy and I want to thank each of you for the support you have given and continue to give for the tornado victims. We fall in that category, even though we have been blessed. Rather than the focus being on our great team heading to the World Series, you all continue to keep the focus on Tuscaloosa, our hometown. The support that it provides to our city is not measurable. We have been members of the softball family since the beginning. There is no other family we would want to belong to. We love you all and appreciate all you are doing for us. It can't be expressed in words. We'll be cheering you on from T-Town. We are proud to be a member of the Alabama softball team. Thank you, thank you, thank you and God bless."
The fans, Melinda and Andy Ramage, lost their home in the tornado. The reason they consider themselves blessed is because they are alive.
As Alabama travels to Oklahoma City for what it hopes will be the program's first national title in seven trips to the championship round of college softball, it does so without illusions that it can heal a city in which the storm claimed scores of lives and left so many more homeless and possessionless. You can't climb on top of a desk under a spring sky in the rubble of what was once a law office to help someone look for a leftover shred of order amid the chaos, as senior Kelsi Dunne did, and believe otherwise. You can't help a stranger transfer salvageable items from what was once a home into a car, as junior and Tuscaloosa-area native Jazlyn Lunceford did, and presume to think that the wooden championship trophy awarded at the World Series will go very far in rebuilding a community.
What the Tide can do is represent a city, those residents who might not even be aware there is a softball tournament in Oklahoma City this week and those, like the Ramages, for whom softball is a cherished diversion.
They can represent a community because it is their community.
"As cliche as it may sound, it's almost an honor," senior shortstop Whitney Larsen said. "It's amazing that a softball team, because we're so close with the fans and our community, that we're able to keep Tuscaloosa in a positive spotlight right now, and we're able to bring awareness that we still need help here. We've been given this platform as a student-athlete to keep this community together.
"It's amazing the support they've given us, and we're trying to do the same in return."
In the immediate aftermath of the tornado, which the softball team rode out in a subterranean level of Coleman Coliseum, a weekend series against Kentucky was canceled and the players were dispatched to their various hometowns for four days. Some didn't even wait to begin making a difference -- in the short time she was home in Missouri, sophomore Courtney Conley organized a relief drive that enabled her to make the return journey with an 18-wheeler full of supplies. But the morning after the team returned to campus, the players, coaches and staff traveled en masse to Alberta City, a Tuscaloosa neighborhood near campus that was almost completely destroyed. The first destination was a pile of rubble that a week earlier had been a law office owned by two more softball season-ticket holders, Nettie and Gar Blume. In the building at the time the tornado hit, Nettie had been pinned under a filing cabinet, Gar knocked to the ground while trying to turn off his wife's computer. Both survived, literally pulled from the rubble afterward.
On that morning six days later, Nettie told Murphy that the sight of all the players walking toward them, 20-plus pairs of batting gloves on hands waiting to help, made her week.
From there, the players fanned out, helping puts tarps over property that might prove salvageable, preparing food in an emergency services center and delivering it where needed.
"It was uplifting, but at the same time, it just broke your heart," Larsen said. "We felt very fortunate in the position we were because we were all safe. Nobody [on the team] had any damage to their homes or apartments or anything like that. We felt fortunate, but at the same time, it was just devastating. We drove [McFarland Boulevard, which also marks the western boundary of Alberta City] every single day coming to practice, and when you're on that street and you can't even recognize where you are because it's just completely gone, it was very shocking. It just put a lot of things into perspective for us, that we have a lot do for this community after they've given so much to us."
For several years, Alabama has ranked at or near the top of the national leaders in softball attendance, depending on whether the number is measured by total attendance or per-game averages. For a program that is just 15 years old, it's the result of success on the field but also outreach beyond the gates of Rhoads Stadium. Players deliver season tickets by hand, form bonds with local youths in clinics and camps, and get to know names and faces of fans from almost the moment they arrive on campus.
Members of the team are expected, as Murphy puts it, to have an "attitude of gratitude" toward those who make the softball experience at Alabama unlike almost any other college setting.
But in the past month, even as the Crimson Tide returned to the field, captured an SEC regular-season title and advanced to the World Series, something more profound than appreciation emerged.
"You recognize how important this town really is to you and your college experience," said sophomore Kayla Braud, an Oregon native. "And you maybe take it a little bit for granted before, how supportive they were of this program and this university, and then you see something devastating happening to this town and they're hurting. All you want to do is be there for them and help them pick up the pieces because you realize how much they've given to you.
"I've had the best experience of my life coming to play here, and that's partly because of the support from this community."
An hour or so before the first game of the super regional against Stanford got under way, Bill and Marti Walker sat with their teenage daughter Lauren in the stands behind the Alabama dugout. Residents of Northport, a town just across the Black Warrior River from Tuscaloosa, they started coming to games three years ago and became season-ticket holders for the first time this year.
"It was a great sport to do a family event for," Marti said. "It's small, but yet there's a lot of camaraderie here. Everybody just loves everybody. We just got our family together, and we started coming."
When the tornado hit, Bill and Marti were away in New York, frantically trying to reach Lauren, still home in Alabama, as they watched on television as the storm followed a path that seemed to put Northport in the line of fire. They got lucky, the tornado tracking south of Northport. Yet, like just about everyone, they know people who weren't as fortunate. Friends warned them not to drive back into town alone, the sight of the devastation too much to comprehend. What they saw in town indeed reduced them to tears.
But they saw something else as they approached that suggests this city will complete its comeback, if for no other reason than that people believe it.
"Coming in, there was a double rainbow at the Mercedes plant [a few miles east of Tuscaloosa], a sunset like you wouldn't believe," Bill said. "It was like God going, 'Everything is going to be OK.'"
These are the people of Tuscaloosa. And as the World Series begins, more than ever before, this is their team.
Graham Hays covers women's college softball for ESPN.com. Email him at Graham.Hays@espn.com. Follow him on Twitter: @grahamhays.