Editor's note: This is part of the Missourian's "SEC Road Trip" special section.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Inside the Bryant Museum, just down the street from the University of Alabama, spotlights shine on souvenirs of the school’s football tradition.
The crystal replica of Paul “Bear” Bryant’s houndstooth fedora shimmers as it rotates inside its glass display. A glare hits the chest of the legendary coach’s bronze bust. Wide-eyed faces glow in the LCD of the museum theater, where a history of the football program repeats over and over again.
No matter how many times museum attendant Diane Griffin sees it, she still gets goosebumps watching the opening scenes alone in the morning. Then, she opens the museum doors to visitors, many who do not live here in Tuscaloosa. In the parking lot, cars have license plates from eight different states including North Dakota, Pennsylvania and Kansas.
This place is a shrine.
Other peripheral details of the museum deserve note, too. For example, there are no windows. A few feet beyond each exhibit, the room is dark. Large gray pillars give the room a sense of sturdiness, and the lattice of black air ducts makes the roof seem lower than what it is. The room feels isolated from the town around it.
You can’t help but think this place might make a pretty good storm shelter, too.
• • •
On April 27, 2011, a twister with winds of 190 mph devastated a six-mile long, almost one-mile wide area of Tuscaloosa. Fifty-three people, including six Alabama students, died.
One year after the most destructive tornado in state history, Tuscaloosa continues to recover. The majority of debris has been removed, but an absence remains. Empty skies instead of century-old oaks make up the horizon.
Bryant-Denny Stadium, home of the Alabama football team, wasn't visible from some areas struck by the tornado. Now it is.
The storm spared the university, and life thrives around campus — especially on Saturdays in the fall. Alabama has won two of the last three national championships after a 17-year drought, the longest in school history. In a college town that epitomizes fanatic SEC football, this is a big deal.
Even last season, more than 100,000 fans filled the stadium each home weekend, and for big games nearly as many packed places along The Strip like The Houndstooth Sports Bar. On the 22-acre Quad, among the oaks and between the Gorgas Library and Denny Chimes bell tower, tailgates persisted.
The university does not have an entirely clean history. It barred black students from attending until 1963 and didn’t recruit a black football player until 1970. But in the aftermath of the tornado, Tuscaloosa has leaned on the school’s more positive traditions for hope. Next season takes on a greater meaning.
• • •
There is nothing subtle about the Alabama campus. Everything about it — the trees, the lawns, the facades of buildings — is big and majestic.
The colossal fraternity and sorority houses along University Boulevard underline all this. About 30 percent of the student body is Greek, and of the 56 fraternities and sororities that have houses on campus, most take their appearance seriously. At least out front.
A “dead week” of classes follows, so lawn parties have raged all afternoon. Live bands play at many houses, and DJs at others. TheDelta Kappa Epsilon house blasts the My Morning Jacket song, “One Big Holiday.” Empty cans of Natty Lite practically pave the yards.
By early evening, students sway down the sidewalk out front, attempting to rally for whatever is to follow in the evening. Some howl, “Roll Tide!” with some choice modifiers between “Roll” and “Tide.” Some head for The Strip.
On University Boulevard, The Strip starts where campus ends, and campus ends with a final row of fraternity houses. It makes sense, then, that the first bar on The Strip, Gallettes, is the Greek bar.
Men over the age of 30 should be advised against going into Gallettes, even for a quick beer after stopping in the Alabama apparel store next door. They might be, as one man was, accused of reminiscing.
• • •
In the woodlands five miles southwest of The Strip, only technically within Tuscaloosa city limits, Josh Hayes pulls into a remote dirt lot and parks in front of an unmarked burgundy shack.
“Wow, they painted it,” the lawyer says. He sounds a little disappointed.
This is Nick’s Original Filet House, better known as Nick’s in the Sticks. It is the oldest restaurant in Tuscaloosa, and it is a dive.
Inside, the ceiling is covered with stapled dollar bills, and tables are crammed close together. Waiters keep tabs on pads that line the inner part of the bar, and Bama football surrounds you. Hayes immediately identifies a large framed photo that stands out on the left wall. He calls it “The Manhandling of Gino,” which depicts Alabama sacking Heisman-winning Miami quarterback Gino Toretta in the 1993 Sugar Bowl.
Hayes, a 1998 Alabama graduate who at 6-foot-6 looks like he could be a former Crimson Tide lineman, comes here with colleagues at the start of every court trial. He knows the waiters by name, and one called Spoon — “Just Spoon” — gets him a couple of the famous house drink, the Nicodemus. It’s basically a New Orleans-style Hurricane in a Styrofoam cup. The recipe once included a fair share of grain alcohol.
Tonight Hayes is here with his wife, Carrie. Over a plate of delicious fried gizzards with hot sauce and pickles, they discuss one challenge of their marriage: Carrie Hayes is an Auburn grad. One year at the Iron Bowl, the rivalry game between Alabama and Auburn, an older female Alabama fan watched in disapproval as Carrie Hayes cheered in her husband’s face. The older fan told him, “I can’t believe you put up with that.”
But Josh Hayes says he can’t really complain.
“For an Auburn fan, Carrie’s got an awful lot of red dresses,” he said.
As Josh Hayes pays afterward, Nick’s manager Ken Walker tells a story. He’d received a phone call that afternoon from an older couple wondering if the restaurant would be open the next day. The couple wanted to take their children and grandchildren to the place they’d gone on their first date as Alabama students 51 years before.
Never mind that Nick’s doesn’t seem like the most romantic of places. Tuscaloosa is built, and rebuilding, on stories like this one.
• • •
Driving east on 15th Street is at first like driving along any other impersonal business loop in America. Instead of the trees along University Boulevard or the Black Warrior River, retail stores line both sides of this street.
Then Forest Lake appears on the right. It is an ugly swamp of debris from the neighborhoods that once surrounded it. FEMA has tried to drain the lake to prevent toxicity and make wreckage removal easier, but on this morning, a duck drifts through viscous areas of grime. A single house on the north end of the lake, with red roofing, white siding and manicured landscape, stands in contrast.
Today happens to be the university’s “UA Remembers: A Day of Service” event. Scattered among bulldozers and excavators west of the lake are a couple hundred students with thick white bags. They pick up nails and planks and shards of shingles. While two construction supervisors discuss a recent Wall Street Journal article deriding the town’s recovery compared to Joplin, Mayor Walt Maddox talks to TV reporters about progress.
Alone, a middle-aged woman named Janie Hubbard stoops to pick up rubble with gardening gloves.
Hubbard, who teaches social studies education at Alabama, lived in another neighborhood along the tornado's path. Her home was a brick, 70-year-old Colonial Revival house with a full-width porch and a two-century-old oak next to the mailbox. The house had two stories but had no basement.
She was home when her husband looked out from the porch and saw the twister barreling toward them. Along with their son, they ran to the only spot in the house that did not have windows: a hallway enclosed by five doors. They crouched over their knees and in a circle and held onto each other’s arms. Debris rose from a floor vent beneath them, and above the freight train-like sound she heard glass shattering and the creaking of what she imagines was nails being torn from wood.
Nobody spoke until the tornado passed, and then her husband said not to move — the tornado would be coming around again.
When it was over, the hallway remained. The rest of the house had fallen or flown away. Hubbard could not find her second floor or her porch, and the gigantic oak lay across the street, completely pulled from its roots. The stench of blown up sewage was inescapable, and panicked rumors of another approaching storm spread. Later, when the U.S. Marines arrived, they put up a sign that said, “Looters will be shot on sight.”
Hubbard did find her grandmother’s china and glassware, worth a lifetime of memories. They were all shattered inside an antique Indonesian cabinet.
Later, she would understand her family was lucky to be alive. In the moment, she worried about her son’s upcoming high school graduation. She remembers thinking, “It’s gone, it’s gone. Everything’s gone.”
Now, though, some displaced neighbors are beginning to move back into the neighborhood. They would gather for a potluck and give a toast at 5:15 p.m. the following Friday, when the tornado had hit a year before.
Hubbard is rebuilding, too. Her family has lived other places — including Egypt and Indonesia — but doesn’t want to leave this neighborhood.
“When I moved here, I just liked the house,” Hubbard said. “But the neighborhood is the life support. People keep saying, ‘We can’t wait for you to get back.’"
She describes Tuscaloosa as "extremely high-energy" and emphasizes that such energy goes beyond football. However, she also says that football sure has helped. In Tuscaloosa, Hubbard says with total sincerity, there are a lot of serious fans. It’s something that has not been lost.
“I can’t even imagine if you didn’t have something that feels hopeful,” she said. “You go on campus and it’s a break from all this. The football takes everybody’s mind off it, one Saturday at a time.”
• • •
Bryant-Denny Stadium towers over the University of Alabama. Despite being the fifth-largest college football stadium in the country, it is not removed from campus but rather right in the middle, moments away from The Strip, the fraternity houses and the Quad. The “Walk of Champions” leads from University Boulevard to the stadium entrance, and there is no sense of detachment between them.
It’s getting chilly, but a couple wearing Alabama hoodies lingers along the walkway. They bounce a small football to their toddler off stone markers commemorating Crimson Tide championships. The ball usually dribbles past him, and they giggle as he chases it down.
The son scampers to the right, and his mom follows. Over there, five statues of the Alabama football coaches who have national championships form an alcove. One of current coach Nick Saban fills the spot closest to the stadium.
Some thought that spot was cursed, says the father, Vince Bellofatto. Others saw it as a challenge.
“Saban is one of those guys, and that’s probably why he’s been successful,” Bellofatto says.
Bellofatto and his wife, Brooke, are both originally from the Northeast but have lived in the Tuscaloosa area for the last 10 years. As a kid in Washington, D.C., Vince Bellofatto remembers spreading his allegiances thin across a variety of college and sports teams. Then he went to school at Alabama and discovered it didn’t work that way down here. The community invested in one team, and that collective fervor made the community stronger.
He decided he never wanted to leave.
“I came here for my degree but stayed for the football,” Bellofatto said.
When the tornado hit, football did not rescue Tuscaloosa. The community did, and this too, the Bellofattos say, has made its identity stronger.
The “out of bad comes good” sentiment has been repeated often. It could come across as contrived, but people in Tuscaloosa seem to believe it. How else is there to cope with loss than turn to what you still have?
Once, Bryant-Denny Stadium wasn't visible from places like 15th Street.
Now it is.
Supervising editor is Greg Bowers.