Their Brother’s Keeper
By BJ Bennett
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As they did in 2011, two of the most bitter rivals in all of sports are helping one another get through trying times together.
The Yellowhammer State is one that has long been split completely in half. On one side stands the University of Alabama; the other Auburn University. The battle lines have been forged over years of fierce competition, a fortified demarcation that transcends athletics into commerce, culture and politics. There is no middle ground in the state of Alabama, it's traditionally a landscape that tears right into two. In consecutive years now, however, a pair of tragedies have ripped two communities, and ultimately one state, into absolute shreds.
Just over a year ago, Tuscaloosa, home to the Crimson Tide, was ravaged by an unprecedented wave of tornadoes. Immeasurable damage was done and at least 250 people were killed. Parts of Tuscaloosa were completely flattened, other sections of town were simply rearranged and reshuffled by nature's fury. Central Alabama up through the northern part of the state was completely devastated. In some places, local infrastructure remains a work in progress.
An Alabama football player, Carson Tinker, was one of many irreproachably hurt by the storms. He was hospitalized after being thrown roughly 50 feet, suffering a concussion and a broken wrist. His girlfriend, Ashley Harrison, was thrown from the house and was killed instantly per reports. Tinker's home was one of many on-campus facilities completely destroyed.
"I thought to myself, 'I'll never see anything like this again, but I was wrong," UA lineman Barrett Jones said in reference to the storms and his previous experiences volunteering in Haiti. "This is the same kind of devastation that I saw there. It's such a catastrophic event. You've seen the movie 'Twister' and you don't believe it could be like that. But that's exactly what it looks like. Wherever the tornado went, there's nothing left."
A different type of tragedy struck Auburn this past weekend when a gunman opened fire at an off-campus apartment complex late Saturday night. Three people were killed, three more wounded. Former Tiger football players Ed Christian and Ladarious Phillips along with local resident Demario Pitts were fatally shot. Lineman Eric Mack is one of the recovering wounded.
A small college town known affably for holding true to many of the endearments of yesteryear, the shooting has stunned east Alabama.
"This is a sad, sad day for everyone associated with the entire Auburn family. I am devastated by the passing of three young men, including two that I personally knew in Ed Christian and Ladarious Phillips and my heart goes out to their families. My thoughts and prayers are with their families and all of the victims involved in this tragic incident. Nobody should ever have to endure such unimaginable grief, and we will love and support the victims' families during this terribly difficult time. We have a lot of people on our football team that are hurting right now and we're going to do everything we can to help them get through this," offered AU head football coach Gene Chizik.
The aftermath of the unspeakable horror remains unknown. Shock seems to be the current consensus. Lost somewhere between sorrow and confusion are the now seemingly-trivial aspirations of a college football team. It's a sentiment that was felt in Tuscaloosa a year ago. It took the whole-hearted efforts of a team, a school, and a state to get life back on track.
"I think there is always the possibility of drawing young men and young woman closer together. They all come from all different walks of life. There is always some type of glue that brings them together and holds them there in some fashion. When you're on a team, you are around each other day in and day out. Regardless of race, color or creed, you become brothers with those guys. You understand where they come from, their attitudes, the trials and tribulations they have had as young men. Regardless of the fact that Ladarious and Ed were no longer active members on the roster, they still had a lot invested with the current players," former Auburn quarterback Ben Leard explained. "That's a unique fraternity, one that you don't ever leave."
When the Crimson Tide community struggled to regain its footing a year ago, Tiger fans extended their hands. In the last few days an outpouring of love and support has come southeast from the Alabama base. As they did in 2011, two of the most bitter rivals in all of sports are helping one another get through trying times together. This from a pair that some had suggested needed a break in their football series due to rising tensions. Through the blur of tears has come clarity; not just for two universities, but for all of us who often take ourselves and our interests a bit too seriously.
In recent years Alabama and Auburn have both proven to be their brother's keeper. Proximity has kept them close; context, tragically enough, has kept them closer.
"These are times in which you put down the colors of your alma mater. These are times that you put down the rivalries and what not and really come to the conclusion that we are all human and we need to be supportive of one another and love each other and pray for each other and always be there for when times like this come around we know that we can lean on our brothers and sisters," Leard concluded.
Come football season, sides will again be taken. And they should be. That said, perhaps we will look across the field with a slightly different perspective. Two crippling tragedies in the state of Alabama have strained the fabric of two of the most tight-knit communities in the Deep South. Looking back, hopefully these horrors will have done more than just tear towns apart; perhaps, they will have brought us all closer together.