Football Gives Ailing Community Reason To Cheer

The second-ranked Alabama Crimson Tide kicks off the football season Saturday. Football is a religion in the South and particularly in Alabama, which is home to the last two national champions (Auburn and Alabama). But the return to the gridiron is extra special this year after April's devastating tornadoes ripped across the state. The UA campus was largely spared, but the surrounding neighborhoods of Tuscaloosa were hard hit.

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SCOTT SIMON, host: And perhaps this year nowhere is college football more important and long awaited than in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Back in April, a massive tornado ripped across town, killed dozens of people and destroyed thousands of buildings. A return to football in this football town is almost a return to normalcy, as Alabama Public Radio's Ryan Vasquez reports.

RYAN VASQUEZ: The quad is right in the center of the University of Alabama campus. It's lush and scenic with towering oak trees and where students lounge between classes. But on the day before game day it takes on a different life.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELLS RINGING)

VASQUEZ: A tent city has sprung up here overnight. In 18 hours, about two dozen employees of Game Day Tents will set up 300 large tents for tailgaters. Christopher Strickland says it's a big production.

CHRISTOPHER STRICKLAND: We actually have a lot more tents this year - close to 75 to 100 more tents than last year. So it's definitely nothing as hindering, whether it's a tornado or, you know, people's first-game jitters. Definitely a lot more tents this year.

VASQUEZ: Opening games have their own pomp and circumstance, and that's especially true at Alabama with its 13 national championships. But UA Game Day Operations Coordinator Gina Johnson says this year's game is a little different.

GINA JOHNSON: It's probably our biggest first game that we have ever had, welcoming this 130,000 extra people to our campus after such a terrible storm on April 27th. It's a big step for us and we are ready and we're excited to have them back.

VASQUEZ: It's been a little over four months since that deadly tornado crashed into Tuscaloosa. It missed the UA campus but it obliterated thousands of buildings as the twister churned across the state. Sophomore Jake Green rode out the storm in the college theater department's basement. He says after months of tornado talk, it's nice to focus on something else.

JAKE GREEN: I think just the school year itself has been a bit of a distraction, having to be busy with classes, and the football game will definitely help take my mind off of everything that's happened. And it'll be a great comeback, I think, from the year before.

VASQUEZ: Even as tens of thousands of people will pack into Bryant-Denny Stadium today, there's much work left to do in Tuscaloosa.

(SOUNDBITE OF BANGING)

LISA BOSHEA: My name is Lisa Boshea I'm assistant director of hunger and homelessness at the Community Service Center.

VASQUEZ: In the Alberta neighborhood, 50 student volunteers are removing debris from a home.

BOSHEA: We're just out here today trying to get students engaged in service throughout the whole Tuscaloosa community. This is only one of several areas that we have students going to just to get them kind of involved in the community and helping out wherever they can.

VASQUEZ: People from across the country have come here to help in rebuilding efforts. Even the Tide's opponent today, Kent State, sent a contingent of football players earlier this year. Tuscaloosa Mayor Walt Maddox says while progress has been good, his city is still in the beginning of its recovery.

Mayor WALT MADDOX: We've got a very long recovery that's going to take years to accomplish.

VASQUEZ: Maddox says living with the sights and sounds of recovery everyday can be a bit overwhelming but the return of football should be cathartic not just for residents but for businesses as well.

MADDOX: We're still resilient and we're still confident but there's a lot of fatigue, and I think having football to focus on is good. From an economic standpoint it will create 17 million new dollars in our economy. Many businesses will get an injection, an economic injection, which will help them in their recovery.

VASQUEZ: While attention has shifted from the disaster zones in Alabama and Joplin, Missouri, and soon away from the northeast after Hurricane Irene, Maddox hopes football will bring awareness back to Tuscaloosa to help keep the hard road to recovery on the minds of the nation. For NPR News, I'm Ryan Vasquez in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.

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