Football Plays Vital Role in Tuscaloosa's Healing From Tornado

Alabama kicker Cade Foster put the ball on a tee moments before opening the Crimson Tide’s 2011 football season, his teammates hopped up and down on the sideline. They smacked one another’s helmets and cracked one another’s shoulder pads and bounced around like preschoolers who had eaten too many cupcakes.

The moment of silence had long since passed. This was a moment to go bananas. Bryant-Denny Stadium, alive with excitement, was a rolling, rollicking, buzzing, boisterous ocean of red and white. Tuscaloosa goes crazy for every home opener, of course, but this one was different, more anticipated than any opener in recent memory because the city is still struggling to recover from an April tornado that left 50 of the county’s residents dead.

From players to politicians to aid workers to victims, residents of Tuscaloosa looked forward to this game because it meant, at least for a while, they would no longer look back at the tornado. Being a distraction is not the only way football has helped the community heal, but on this day it was the most obvious. For at least a few hours, fans would focus on football, which is to say, they would be normal, have their old lives back. A summer without football is always too long; this one was interminable. Finally, glory of glories, football was here.

But first, Foster had to kick off.

Just as he appeared ready to approach the ball, he stopped.

Wind had blown the ball over.

He ran up to where the ball had fallen, grabbed it and set it right.

A few hundred yards to the north and west of where that ball lay after it fell, Priscilla Nail was working at a souvenir stand. Normal for her had returned at midnight, when she started setting up in advance of the 11:20 a.m. kickoff. That is, if it is normal to be lining up hats and shirts on a table as drunks wander by. When you’ve been through what she has this summer, dealing with frolicking frat boys in the wee hours is pleasant. Nail craves the normalcy that comes with the Crimson Tide crazies.

Among the people killed in Tuscaloosa was one of Nail’s neighbors. Two other neighbors were picked up and thrown around before they landed, battered and bruised, on her front lawn, where she discovered them when she emerged—with her two kids, her parents, her sister and her sister’s two kids—from her basement. Nail’s house was destroyed. So was her parents’ house. She lost her job; the gym at which she worked as a trainer was wiped out in the tornado. She is one of the approximately 7,000 people who became unemployed in the span of six minutes on April 27.

As it did for much of Tuscaloosa, the tornado forced Nail to show perseverance, to pick herself up and start over no matter how hard she had been hit, no matter how much she had lost. She and the rest of Tuscaloosa also have had to put their faith in the idea that things will get better. The hard part is putting that faith into action, living as if life is normal when it’s anything but. Once they grabbed hold of faith, they used it as a shield to beat back fear and uncertainty and outlast the tough times. It hasn’t been easy, and it’s not over. Living arrangements for many lack permanence, and work opportunities seem to come and go. No, life is not normal, not yet, but it’s getting there, slowly returning to routine, and football is a big reason.

Something as simple as hawking a T-shirt brings with it newfound power and meaning. The financial impact of football in Tuscaloosa is massive, and the healing power of commerce, as crass as it might sound, cannot be missed, especially for people like Nail who lost their primary sources of income. A home game brings $12 million to $15 million in revenue into the area, according to the Chamber of Commerce of West Alabama. As the home opener and a greatly anticipated game, the Kent State matchup was expected to be on the high end of that.