I’ve been reviewing game footage, interviews and photos following the Tide’s amazing run to win its 14th National Championship. My 7 year old son noticed Nick Saban talking about the movie “Red Tails,” the new George Lucas film the team watched before the BCS title game. It depicts the Tuskegee Airmen who flew the most successful fighter plane missions in World War II despite being subjected to hardships and mistreatment by the military. Their fighter squadrons were also called “Red Tail Angels” because they painted red the tails of their planes.
It reminded me of a poignant conversation last year with an elderly gentleman. We were at a grocery store where we live in Georgia and my son was wearing a shirt emblazoned with “Alabama.” A stooped, tiny little man leaning on a cane shuffled up to us and said he enjoyed watching college football. My son introduced himself and the man was delighted that a young person was actually talking to him.
After a few minutes, he asked my son if he was familiar with Tuskegee, Alabama. My son wasn’t, so the old man began to tell us his story of being a gunner on a World War II bomber flying daylight missions over Germany. A great many of his neighborhood friends from New Jersey were also on bomber crews and flew the same missions. The B-17’s would fly in big groups together and sometimes a few at a time. He and his 16-18 year old soldier friends were terrified during every mission because German fighter planes surrounded and fired on them the entire way from Allied territory and back. After several of these bombing missions, he was the only boy from his neighborhood group still alive. His eyes grew teary, he took my son’s hand, and said, “then the Air Force sent us the Angels.” The Tuskegee fighter pilots stationed in Europe began to escort the B-17’s all the way from England right up to the border of Germany, where they would break away because there wasn’t enough fuel to go further. Another contingent of Angels would then meet the big bomber planes on their exit from Germany and escort them back to England. Our veteran friend told us that as long as the Angels were flying with them, not a single B-17 was lost to German planes. He said he had always wanted to meet the men who saved his life and thank them, but he never had the chance. So he especially enjoyed watching Alabama football over the years. It reminded him of his wartime Angels.
At the time, the old man’s story surprised me because of the turmoil the State of Alabama faced in the years after World War II. Now I realize…
For him, the word “Alabama” means courage
There is no way football equates with the travails of the Tuskegee Airmen or the reality of war, but this kindly old soldier was uplifted by watching Bama football. He was reminded of real life heroes who did not heed the barriers thrown in their path.
So I went back again to watch Coach Saban and the players talking about how the film “Red Tails” motivated them for Monday night’s game against LSU. The Crimson Tide had been subjected to a constant bombardment of those “in the know” saying they had no right to be in the title match, weren’t good enough to win against the other team, weren’t fast enough, smart enough or legitimate enough. Many Associated Press members declared right up until kickoff that even if the Tide won, their vote would go to the Bengal Tigers. Disparagement was freely offered. Only a few brave souls were willing to go against the popular trend and believe that hard work, character and relentless preparation would favor the men from Tuscaloosa.
The Alabama team and coaches never lost faith. They were fighting to bring a measure of happiness back to a storm ravaged hometown community. They had a purpose and they never faltered. The last man, until the last minute, gave everything he had for victory:
- senior Marquis Maze returning a kickoff on an injured leg as far as he could run;
- linebacker C.J. Mosley, already playing with arm and knee injuries, suffering a serious hip injury after intercepting a shovel pass but held onto the ball;
- true freshman converted linebacker Vinnie Sunseri stepping up in the secondary;
- walk-on field goal kicker Jeremy Shelley carrying the scoring game on his shoulders with grace under pressure;
- Cade Foster booming kickoffs to give Bama a fighting chance with field position;
- undersized backup defensive tackle Nick Gentry unblockable and unstoppable in the game of his life;
- true freshman linebacker Trey DePriest replacing Mosley and stepping up in a big way;
- almost unknown wide receiver Kevin Norwood making spectacular leaping catches after replacing Maze;
- true freshman Christion Jones stepping in for Maze on returns and matching his yards;
- seniors Darius Hanks, Brad Smelley and Chris Underwood dominating blocks when they weren’t receiving;
- sophomore quarterback A.J. McCarron scrambling for yards and receivers;
- running back Trent Richardson blocking and battering the opponent until he finally broke free for a touchdown;
- and the list could go on and on.
Cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick said the final words spoken by Saban before the game were, "We fight." The Tide said it three times, then headed out to the field … and into history. They didn’t just win the game, they broke the record books doing it; offensive, defensive and special teams milestones in the modern era of BCS national championship games. They also won over the critics and took home all the trophies for an unblemished national title.
Alabama long snapper and storm survivor Carson Tinker summed up the night’s impact by simply saying, "I do hope the people of Alabama can feel this [joy]. I wish they could hold that crystal trophy up just like me. It's for everybody that was affected."
These Tide players had the courage to face difficult challenges and overcome them for a greater good. Hopefully they also brought a little joy to an elderly veteran who in a bygone era encountered courage in its ultimate form.