Commentary

Tragedy brings Tigers, Tide together

Originally Published: May 4, 2011
By Gene Wojciechowski | ESPN.com

It isn't a rivalry. Ohio State-Michigan is a rivalry. USC-UCLA is a rivlary. Texas-Oklahoma is a rivalry.

[+] EnlargeAuburn
Courtesy of Todd Van EmstAuburn coach Gene Chizik and some of his players made the trip to across the state to help with the recovery effort.

Alabama-Auburn is an all-consuming football holy war. It is more primal, more organic and more self-defining than anything else in college sports. It's forgotten more about intensity and an addiction to bragging rights than, say, Florida-Florida State or West Virginia-Pitt will ever know.

Forget about table manners; it doesn't have any. It also doesn't care what you think … especially what a Yankee thinks. It is unabashedly and unapologetically over the top in a jump-the-shark, provincial kind of way.

Babies are taught to say "Roll Tide," or "War Eagle" at the same time they learn, "Mommy" or "Daddy" -- maybe earlier. The entire state counts the days -- each and every one of them -- until the annual, season-ending Iron Bowl is played. And then they start over again.

"The best thing about this game is also the worst thing about this game," said then-Auburn equipment manager Frank Cox in the definitive Tide versus Tigers book, "A War In Dixie." "It's too important to too many people."

And then last Wednesday a monstrous, unforgiving band of killer tornadoes dragged their funnel spouts through parts of the South, including Tuscaloosa, home of the Bama campus. Now almost nothing, most of all a football game, seems too important anymore.

They called it a natural disaster, but there wasn't anything natural about the carnage and despair the hundreds of twisters caused. Wind speeds on the most vicious tornadoes reached about 200 miles per hour -- or more than 85 mph faster than what Kyle Busch averaged to win a NASCAR Sprint Cup race in Richmond on Saturday.

[+] EnlargeAlabama Tornado
Jessica McGowan/Getty ImagesThe tornado that hit Tuscaloosa was estimated to be a mile wide.

Entire neighborhoods were pulled apart like cotton balls. Houses vanished. Cars were flicked away. Forty of the 236 Alabamans who lost their lives last week were in Tuscaloosa -- the latest victim a 22-year-old student from UA. More than 300 people in the city are unaccounted for.

The figures change each day. And in a heartwarming and wonderful way, so does the relationship between those who wear Bama crimson and those who wear Auburn blue and orange.

There is no war in Dixie. A football game pulled two football nations apart. Tragedy has brought them together.

Late last week, a 70-person Auburn contingent including coach Gene Chizik, players and administrators traveled in two waves to the Birmingham area -- a Bama stronghold -- to assist with the relief effort. They weren't dressed to the nines in Auburn gear. They didn't burn up their Twitter or Facebook accounts with updates. It was just 70 Auburn folks trying to help those in need.

Chizik did the same sort of thing when he coached at Iowa State. When a tornado tore through little Parkersburg, Iowa, in 2008, Chizik and about 30 players and staff members drove unannounced to the town.

The devastation throughout Alabama and five other southern states could melt a heart made of dry ice. But then you stumble across Toomer's For Tuscaloosa on Facebook and you discover the goodness of those at Auburn and beyond.

Toomer's Corner is the legendary gathering place for Tigers fans after an Auburn victory. And Toomer's Trees are its signature landmark. No trees have been draped in more celebratory toilet paper than those oaks.

When a Bama nut job recently poisoned the trees, Crimson Tide fans expressed their disgust with the chemical sabotage mission and created a fund to save or replant the oaks. The simple gesture of sympathy didn't go unappreciated by Auburn followers.

Toomer's For Tuscaloosa is a simple idea too: provide a human chain of support and relief for those tornado victims whose stories of loss make you want to sit on a curb and cry.

[+] EnlargeAlabama Tornado Relief
AP Photo/Dave MartinDonations to the ravaged areas have come in from all over the state and country.

A young mother needs clothes to wear to her children's funeral.

A triage center needs blankets for its injured patients.

A call for prom dresses goes out -- just so a devastated high school and its senior girls can have a moment's worth of normalcy.

There are diaper drives. Food drives. Fundraisers. The Auburn University Psychological Services Center has provided a hotline number.

Buy a houndstooth magnet in support of the tornado victims. Buy an "A United -- Two teams. One State" T-shirt and a chunk of the sales proceeds go to a relief fund.

Auburn alum Charles Barkley flew to Birmingham to personally thank volunteers and Red Cross workers. And the highways don't lack for relief trucks and cars making the nearly three-hour drive from Auburn to Tuscaloosa.

In a show of solidarity, the Tigers' baseball team wore state of Alabama stickers on the back of their batting helmets last weekend. When the Auburn and Bama baseball teams play each other next weekend at AU, count on a collection fund. And count on Auburn fans happily reaching into their wallets to help.

Chizik and Bama coach Nick Saban stood side by side on the stage of Radio City Music Hall on Thursday as NFL commissioner Roger Goodell asked for a moment of silence in honor of the tornado victims. They were joined by the likes of Auburn's Cam Newton and Nick Fairley and Bama's Mark Ingram, Julio Jones and Marcell Dareus.

"We will move mountains to help each other," wrote a woman named Pam Crawley on the Toomer's For Tuscaloosa site. "We are family -- father, mother, sister and brother. Thank God we live in such a great state. Where people give their all no matter what it takes.

"Roll Eagle and War Tide."

It would be nice if the truce between these two programs would last long after the Red Cross trailers leave. Or at the worst, if the unhealthy holy war was downgraded to a healthy rivalry. But it probably won't happen.

Too bad. The Tigers and the Tide have more in common than they'd like to admit.

It's called the state of Alabama.

Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at gene.wojciechowski@espn.com. Hear Gene's podcasts and ESPN Radio appearances by clicking here. And don't forget to follow him on Twitter @GenoEspn.

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Gene Wojciechowski | email

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