Confetti fired through cannons, slowly fluttering back to the Superdome turf. Everyone was hugging. Nick Saban didn’t even seem to mind the icy orange Gatorade bath in the closing seconds of Alabama’s methodical deconstruction of LSU.
That January night brought a second national title in three years to Tuscaloosa. Through the chaotic celebration, Crimson Tide receiver Brandon Gibson quickly found the perspective.
“With everything that happened in April,” Gibson said after the 21-0 win over LSU on Jan. 9, 2012, “it was sad, but I think the fact we brought this trophy back to Tuscaloosa, it means a lot. I can’t ask for anything better than this.”
Just 257 sunsets separated that celebratory New Orleans night from the worst day anyone in Alabama could remember. Of the 248 killed across the state in the April 27, 2011 tornado outbreak, more than 50 were in Tuscaloosa.
Five years later, Gibson remembers that spring evening in vivid detail. He recalls the moment being an Alabama football player didn’t matter so much. Tragedy didn’t discriminate that day.
And in the aftermath, every survivor had a role. For Gibson, he can chuckle remembering how important his T-Mobile cell phone service became that evening. All the other providers lost service, so his phone became an important link to the outside world. Over the days and weeks, utility for Gibson and his teammates evolved to include chain saws and water bottles.
Saban knew their role went beyond the ground game. The next day, safety Will Lowery remembers sitting in the team meeting room of the football complex spared by less than a mile from the storm’s scar.
“I remember Coach Saban specifically talking about the fact that Alabama football means so much to so many people in the area and just how important it was to everybody,” Lowery said five years later. “The opportunity that we had to be a bright spot, winning, being successful and just positive energy in general during tough times was very important to be there any way we could.”
At that moment, one of their teammates was not in the auditorium. Long snapper Carson Tinker was in a hospital bed just up the road from the football complex. He’d been thrown from his house when his fragile structure took a direct hit from the EF-4 twister. His girlfriend, Ashley Harrison, was killed.
Gibson said he could barely recognize Tinker when visiting his injured teammate in the hospital April 28. Though a starter, Tinker was fine with his nearly anonymous role on the team. Soon, though, he became the most recognizable face of a state riddled with identical tragedies. Gibson was struck with the faith Tinker displayed through previously unimaginable circumstances.
Tinker chronicled his long physical rehab and emotional journey in the 2014 book “A season to remember: Faith in the midst of the storm.” The tornado left him with a badly injured ankle, but he didn’t miss a game when the season started in September.
“We didn’t talk much about it,” Gibson said. “We just made sure he knew we were there to support him and if he needed anything, we’re there for him. Nobody was going to blame him if he had some struggles with getting back to being healthy.”
Through it all, a football season emerged from a long Alabama summer. After a disappointing three-loss 2010 season, the Tide entered the year No. 2 in both preseason rankings. The 49-7 mauling of Michigan State in the Capital One Bowl in January made it clear a generational defense would be the engine of the 2011 run.
It was the offense that faltered in a 9-6 loss to LSU in a November game billed as the “Game of the Century.” The undefeated run had ended — that ultimate goal was in peril.
Playing for two months with the hopes of a recovering state wasn’t the issue. Lowery said it was the opposite of a burden.
“I wouldn’t say it was pressure,” he said. “I would think of it more as pride. It wasn’t like ‘Do this or something bad would happen.’ It was like, these people care about us and it’s an opportunity for us, in a way, to give back to them.”
This is Alabama, after all. Every season is pass/fail — championship or bust — for this football program.
“Coach Saban may have felt that,” said 2011 kicker and current UA law student Cade Foster, “because he puts so much pressure on himself to succeed in the first place. But he didn’t transfer that to us at all.”
And the title hopes didn’t fade for long.
Less than two weeks after the once-deflating LSU loss, help arrived. Alabama had only fallen to No. 3 in the BCS standings after the defensive struggle with Les Miles’ team. So when No. 2 Oklahoma State was upset by Iowa State the Friday night before Alabama faced Georgia Southern, unrestrained joy emptied rooms into a hallway celebration at the team hotel.
After taking care of the FCS team and blitzing Auburn 42-14 the following week, Alabama was headed back to New Orleans for another shot at LSU.
The resulting 21-0 beating became a victory lap by early in the second half. The Tigers only once briefly crossed the 50-yard line that night. The Alabama half of the Superdome started the party long before Trent Richardson scored the only touchdown in eight quarters and an overtime played between the two.
With it, the confetti, sticky sports drink and all those hugs.
“I feel like we owed it to them,” Gibson said, given five years to ponder the team’s impact. “That town, that community leans on football. So what better way to bring some excitement and some good emotions back to Tuscaloosa other than to win a national championship.”
Alabama football didn’t solve the state’s issues that night. The mangled towns looked no different when the sun rose the next morning. Five years later, rebuilding work continues.
But, for a little while at least, a group of college students in football helmets made Alabama feel like itself again.