A funny thing happened on January 1, 1926: A hardscrabble coal city, in a destitute state, in the poorest region of America -- long the butt of coarse jokes and historical opprobrium -- had enough.
They punched back. Hard. And the word of collegiate athletics was changed forever.
For nearly 90 years, Alabamians would recall that game. They would relive moments predating their birth. An entire state took pride in their athletics, when there was so little else to rally behind.
I don’t think we would’ve responded the same way as a community without us winning that championship and having continued success," Gibson said. "Because when people look at Tuscaloosa, at least from my viewpoint, they see football, they see the University of Alabama.
"So at the center of the town, it’s what’s going on, it’s the happening thing in Tuscaloosa so I really don’t feel like the community would have bounced back this much or this quickly without the success of the university -- not just the football team -- but the university as a whole."
In 2011, the end goal was very much the same as 1926: to play for something much larger than yourself -- to play for a people and a place that needed you. And the clarion call was answered repeatedly for 18 months across men's and women's athletics.
It started, but did not end, with Alabama's 2011 football team:
Not knowing where to go, Arenas then walked to a mall, which seemed to be untouched. He sat on a curb for nearly an hour, trying to process what he had just seen. What he didn't know—but would learn later—was that three bodies lay on the mall's roof, thrown there by the storm.
"You couldn't have made a tornado that big even in the movies," says Arenas, standing in front of what remains of his house 10 days after the tornado, the putrid smell of dead animal and rotten food heavy in the air.
"Afterward everyone was walking around like zombies. It's hard. I'm trying to get my head together. It's going to take time."
A day after the tornado struck, Arenas drove 11 hours to his home in Kansas City, wanting to leave the destruction and heartache behind. But he couldn't. So he steered his 2008 black Denali to a Sam's Club, purchased $1,600 worth of necessities—bottled water, baby food, toothpaste—and returned the next day to Tuscaloosa.
It progressed to the 2012 Women's gymnastics national title, where a focused Crimson Tide would win back-to-back titles.
It’s been more than 1,000 days since a tornado cut through the heart of Tuscaloosa, where the horizon still has a hole that will take years if not decades to fill.
Nobody who was here that day will ever forget the tragedy or how people then rallied together. Some of them were University of Alabama athletes, including members of the football team who aided in the physical recovery and then helped as much emotionally by winning the national championship.
It was a perfect tale of triumph over tragedy, followed by the women’s golf and softball teams winning titles and the reigning national champion gymnastics team successfully defending its own.Men’s golf lost in the NCAA finals but won the next two titles, and football won another championship in 2012.
Beforehand, Alabama had only won national titles in football and gymnastics, but everything changed after the tornado, even Nick Saban.
People looked to him after the storm if for no other reason than simple inspiration, and the leader of the nation’s most successful football program became a true leader of the community. It's something those outside of Tuscaloosa will never fully understand, but by the way he responded and told his players to forget football and help others, Saban would be beloved here even without the championships.
It moved to Women's Golf, then to Men's Golf, where three titles over two years were won between them.
Then, in an emotional, rain-soaked performance from Coach Pat Murphy's squad, Alabama would take home its first national title for the juggernaut softball program in the best damned deciding game you could want:
But, above all, it was football that, as in decades past, invigorated a state badly in need of uplifting:
"We have the best fans in the country and to be able to give back to them was something that meant a lot to me," Gibson said.
"Just like I always say, we felt responsible to bring the morale, to bring some excitement back to the community by winning a national championship. We definitely felt the pressure of it, but it was bigger than us.
"It was bigger than Brandon Gibson, it was bigger than AJ McCarron or Trent Richardson or anything like that. It was bigger than our names on the back of our jerseys. It was bigger than the University of Alabama. It was for the people that support us, for the people that were in the stands and rooting for us or watching on their couches every single Saturday night. We felt the pressure of it, and we just wanted to work hard enough to deliver."
Embed disabled by request: But, the crowd was absolutely electric, not only for the Tide, but for the efforts of the beyond-classy Kent State players, which had helped Tuscaloosa rebuild:
Later that season, there would be a bump in the road, as the two best teams of the 21st century would clash twice in one season. Divine providence seemingly smiled on the Tide in November, however. Alabama would be the most improbable beneficiaries of three losses by three teams ahead of them in the BCS standings, setting up a rematch with conference and divisional rival, LSU.
And, still angry, there was no doubt how this would end:
Now, five years later, we still have heavy hearts. But, we grew as a community, as a state, as fans. We learned the humanity of others and of ourselves. We took pride in an athletics department that needed us as badly as we needed them. And they delivered.
But, as Coach Saban rightly says, "we are stronger." And that makes all the difference in the world.
"The first thing that struck me when I got back was how proud I was of our players and what they were doing," Saban said. "They were out helping people move trees, delivering water, talking to kids. I didn't tell them to do it. Nobody had to tell them. They just did it."
In the five years since the storm, that effort has continued.
"It was a terrible tragedy," Saban said softly. "Nothing replaces lives that are lost. But we wanted to do what we could. Terry got involved. Nick's Kids (the Sabans' charity) got involved. We helped any way we could. "I was proud of my community. Everybody stepped up. I'm certainly happy we could be a part of it, that we were in a position to help, but the way everyone contributed, it's been a heartfelt experience for me. We are stronger, the whole community is stronger."
For Saban, in his professional life, every season, every game is its own lesson. The tornado was far larger, far more meaningful than any game – but just as revealing.