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Friday, September 2, 2011

Alabama Community Embraces Football Season -Buckeyes Suspend 3 More-Can Fickell Keep Buckeye Job-

Alabama Community Embraces Football Season
A great article from Ivan Maisel
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- The physical wounds that Alabama long-snapper Carson Tinker suffered when the tornado struck on April 27 are nearly gone. The gash that opened his right ankle has diminished to a scratch. The scar on Tinker's right wrist, where he underwent an operation to reattach a ligament to the bone, is red and raised. It is ugly, and it is healing.
"I got scars all over my body," Tinker said. "It's not like I focus on that or anything. But when I look at myself in the mirror, I know that God has blessed me with another day."

Tinker is not unlike the city itself. The tornado left a 6-mile-long gash through this university community of 93,000. More than 1 million cubic yards of debris have been removed. That's enough to fill 101,000-seat Bryant-Denny Stadium, empty it and fill it again.

And empty it and fill it a third time.

The debris is nearly gone. But the path, more than a mile wide in places, has left scars all over Tuscaloosa's body: a foundation awaiting a building, a building awaiting reconstruction, a homesite awaiting a home. And those are just the scars you can see. The mental scars, the ones that come from the loss of 7,000 homes, 600 businesses and 50 lives, are healing, too.

In a state that long ago lost its perspective about college football, the season opener is a signal that life has begun anew. It is bigger than deer season, bigger than summer. On Saturday, when No. 2 Alabama kicks off the 2011 season against Kent State, it will be bigger than Christmas. The Crimson Tide will arrive with armloads of gifts for a city that has lost so much. The $17 million that a home game infuses into the local economy can't arrive soon enough.

Every morning at 8:15, Mayor Walt Maddox holds a meeting with city officials to discuss the ongoing rehabilitation of his city. Every morning, he reminds his staff how many days have passed since April 27.

"One hundred twenty-seven days ago," Maddox said after his Thursday morning meeting, "I'm not sure any of us would have thought that this coming Saturday would be possible. It's been a monumental challenge to get us to this point. But football is going to be a welcome relief economically, psychologically and emotionally for this community."

Football players live in a bubble. They are of the student body and only occasionally in it, an unfortunate byproduct of the size of the sport and, at Alabama's level, the stakes associated with it. But the bubble in which the Crimson Tide exist could not withstand 195 mph winds. To a man, just like every other resident who lived through the terror, they have stories to tell.

Redshirt sophomore offensive lineman D.J. Fluker returned to his apartment complex to find a car sitting on his bashed-in roof. Fluker lived on the second floor. He salvaged a pair of penny loafers. Shoes are tough to find when you have Size 22 feet.

"That was it," Fluker said. "No clothes. One pair of shoes. I never did find anything. I couldn't get to it. I really didn't mess with it. There was a car right on top of it. There ain't no way I'm going in there."

He had been through this before. The summer before ninth grade, Fluker and his family left the Lower 9th Ward in New Orleans two days before Hurricane Katrina made landfall. They went to stay with family in Mobile, Ala. They never went back.

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Alabama Athletics Department
Alabama lineman Barrett Jones saw the devastation firsthand.
Junior offensive lineman Barrett Jones knows he shouldn't have been watching the tornado from the balcony of his apartment. He couldn't help it. It passed within a quarter-mile of him.

"It's hard to describe something that massive and that powerful," Jones said. "It was weird because right before the tornadoes, everything was calm. The tornado was loud, very loud, [like] a train. But I think the weirdest thing was knowing, having seen things like that on TV, that people were probably losing their lives."

Tinker huddled in a closet with his girlfriend, senior Ashley Harrison, and their two dogs. The tornado ripped through the house and flung the four of them through the air. Only Tinker survived. Six students were among the fatalities.

"Of course I've had my dark times," he said. "I don't have bad days anymore. ... I feel like what I've been through comes with a lot of responsibility on my part because I feel like I can affect a lot of people in a positive way when they see me and see what I've been through. To see that I don't have the 'Poor mes' and I'm not sitting around feeling sorry for myself; I'm out trying to get better every day in everything I do."

After the students returned last month to begin a new school year, the university held a memorial service. Head coach Nick Saban spoke. Saban is not known for his warm, fuzzy qualities. A laser focus, a master motivator, yes. A hand holder, not so much.

Yet Saban understood this tragedy for what it was. He has held hands. Early on, Nick's Kids, the foundation that he and his wife, Terry, created, held a dinner for 700 people. They gave out 1,000 shirts.

"The most impact it made is -- the whole [football] staff went, Terry went, I went -- was that we sat around and talked to the people," Saban said. "Just the presence you have to support and listen to what they have to say and what they lost, that's what people underestimate."

Saban implored his players to help. Their bubble had been pierced. He urged them to reach out.

"I think that sometimes, especially in athletics, guys are so self-absorbed with how everything affects them," Saban said. "You know, the greatest positive self-gratification that you ever really get is really what you do for somebody else, not anything that you ever do for yourself. I'm not saying they didn't know that. A lot of them do know that. A lot of them do a lot of good things. But this was an opportunity for them to learn more about that and to do something to be of service of other people."

Terry listened and added. "It doesn't cost a candle anything to light another candle," she said. "Actually, it makes you both brighter."

The Sabans went Thursday to the ribbon-cutting of a Habitat for Humanity home in Holt, a community 15 minutes from campus. Through their foundation, the Sabans are sponsoring the building of "13 for 13": 13 homes for 13 national championships.

"Someone called Nick's Kids and said, 'We have some sleeping bags,'" Terry Saban said. "I said, 'That would be great, but we could really use a bulldozer.' By the end of the week, we had one."

Holt absorbed the brunt of the tornado. Cedric Burns, Saban's assistant, drove through a desolate area. The car came upon what was left of a solitary house. A tree that fell on the left side of the structure stretched across the breadth of the caved-in roof and well through the yard on the right side.

"There's still sooo much to be done," Terry said. "Ugh. This is what the whole neighborhood looked like."

In fact, this desolate area had been a subdivision.

Burns made another turn and steered through cars parked on either side of the street to the ribbon-cutting. Throughout the summer, athletes from several Alabama sports participated in the project. Nearly every Saturday, Crimson Tide strength coach Scott Cochran brought carloads of football players. Some weeks, he brought a dozen or so. One Saturday, he brought 60.

One weekend in July, four Kent State players and a few athletic department officials came down to participate. One of them, senior running back Jacquise Terry, is from Phenix City, Ala., on the Georgia border. He played AAU basketball with Crimson Tide corner DeQuan Menzie.

"I have done Habitat before," said Jacquise, who is minoring in construction management, "but I have never done it with players I compete with. That was the good part about it. We were able to put aside what we were about to do a month later and go in and help for a good cause. We fell right in together. They told us they appreciated us coming down. We bonded with those guys."

After the ribbon-cutting, Bob Dowling stood in the driveway several feet from where Saban talked to the beat reporters. The new home belongs to him and his wife, Dana. They have two children. The family had been living in an RV outside a relative's home.

"There's so much negativity in sports," Dowling said. "There's very little brought out about the good in young people. They weren't out here posing for pictures. They were out here working."

The Alabama-Kent State game Saturday is, depending on your perspective, either a return to normalcy or an escape from it. Infrastructure is crippled. Housing is insufficient.

"Our recovery is going to take years," Maddox said. "This is a marathon and not a sprint. And our progress is going to be measured in inches and not miles."

On Saturday, however, progress will be measured in smiles. By that measure, Tuscaloosa will make a lot of progress.

6. Fickell has the job. Now can he keep it?: Life sure takes some interesting turns, especially if you're Luke Fickell. A former Ohio State noseguard, Fickell was a graduate assistant for the Buckeyes under John Cooper and then became defensive line coach at Akron in 2000-01. Jim Tressel brought Fickell back to Columbus in 2002. When the Zips needed a new head coach in 2009, Fickell's name was on the list. He stayed at Ohio State and was elevated to acting head coach when it appeared Tressel would serve a five-game suspension this season. Fickell's job description changed again when Tressel resigned on May 30. Now his first game as a head coach will be against the Akron Zips in the Horseshoe. It is nothing less than a year-long audition to see if he gets to keep the job. People aren't watching him, said Fickell. They are watching to see how Ohio State reacts after a very difficult summer. "Every week, no matter what year it is, a lot of people are watching Ohio State," said Fickell. And they will continue to watch. On Thursday the school announced that three more players have been suspended for receiving extra benefits.

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) --

Three more football players are in hot water at Ohio State.
As a result, Ohio State might be in even more trouble with the NCAA.
The school reported late Thursday afternoon that running back Jordan Hall, defensive back Corey Brown and defensive back Travis Howard each received impermissible benefits of $300 or less earlier this year.
The latest violations took place after several Buckeyes players were suspended for accepting cash and free tattoos from the subject of a federal drug-trafficking probe and Ohio State had ramped up its compliance department to warn athletes not to break NCAA rules.
All three were suspended for the Buckeyes' season-opening game on Saturday against Akron at Ohio Stadium.
"We take this matter seriously," Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith said in a statement. "Our commitment to institutional integrity is steadfast, and we must hold everyone associated with our athletics programs accountable for lapses in judgment. We believe in transparency with the NCAA, all regulatory bodies and all of Buckeye Nation."
Hall and Howard, both juniors, were listed as the starters on Ohio State's two-deep roster for the game. Brown, who goes by the nickname "Pittsburgh" to distinguish him from Buckeyes wide receiver Corey "Philly" Brown, was listed as a backup at safety.
Ohio State is already awaiting final word on what sanctions it will receive from the NCAA for memorabilia-for-cash violations which occurred in 2010 that led to coach Jim Tressel's forced resignation on May 30. Several players have already been suspended and the 2010 season was vacated because of the earlier problems.
The latest admission could affect Ohio State's current case before the NCAA, which was heard on Aug. 12. The NCAA's committee on infractions is expected to hand down a decision as early as the end of September.
Hall, from Jeannette, Pa., is a former high school teammate of Terrelle Pryor, one of the players who was suspended for trading signed memorabilia for cash and free or discounted tattoos from the owner of a Columbus tattoo-parlor owner. The tattoo-parlor owner, Edward Rife, later pleaded guilty to money laundering and drug trafficking charges and is awaiting sentencing.
Tressel, won led Ohio State to the 2002 national championship, admitted that he knew as early as April of 2010 that some of his players had accepted money from Rife. But he failed to notify any of his superiors at Ohio State or anyone in NCAA compliance until confronted by investigators in January of 2011.
Soon after Tressel resigned, Pryor, at the heart of university and NCAA investigations into improper benefits, gave up his final year of eligibility to make himself available for an NFL supplemental draft. He was taken in the third round by the Oakland Raiders.
The Buckeyes are already without five players in the opener who were suspended for taking improper benefits. Sitting out the first five games this fall are last year's leading rusher Daniel Herron, top returning receiver DeVier Posey and starting offensive tackle Mike Adams, along with backup defensive lineman Solomon Thomas. Thomas was the hero of the Buckeyes' 31-26 victory over Arkansas in the Sugar Bowl, grabbing a late interception to preserve the win. But that game, along with every other one in a 12-1 season last year, was vacated.
According to a release issued by the university, after finding out about the violations involving Hall, Brown and Howard, Ohio State looked into the situation and self-reported the infractions to the NCAA and the Big Ten. All three were suspended from the team, with the university then asking the NCAA for their reinstatement for the rest of the season.
The university also is considering institutional sanctions for the three.
Smith and other Ohio State officials declined further comment.

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