Nico Johnson was in his dorm room late in the afternoon on April 27, watching a tornado rip through Tuscaloosa.
“Even though we saw it, we didn’t know what was going on,” said the Alabama linebacker from Andalusia. “Once it was all over, we started walking down 15th Street and reality set in. Disaster.”
It wasn’t just the sights he recalls. The sounds still bother him.
“There were people running around, screaming, crying, ‘Where’s this person?’ ‘Where’s my mom?’ ‘Where’s my sister?’ It was horrible.”
It was also disorienting. Nothing looked the same.
“I saw McDonald’s is still there. That’s how I was able to put places where they weren’t there anymore,” Johnson said. “If it wasn’t for that, I wouldn’t have known where anything was. It was that bad.”
Alabama head coach Nick Saban told Dan Patrick on a recent interview that it wasn’t easy to round up his team.
“The biggest problem with this, and you can’t see this when you look at the devastation on TV, is communication,” Saban told Patrick. “It’s difficult to communicate when cell phones go out. You can’t get in touch with people.”
The team met the next afternoon. Saban said he was pleased with the way his players responded.
“My message to them was, ‘Guys, we have to be a team in the best of times, and we also have to be a team in the worst of times. It’s time for us to support the people who have always supported us,’” Saban said.
Johnson said players handed out water and food to storm victims and cleanup crews.
“Going house to house, just trying help out best we could,” the rising junior linebacker said. “Tuscaloosa is growing back slowly but surely, but I can guarantee people there are closer than ever now.”
Little has been normal since. School ended early for most students. Football players will return later this week for summer school and conditioning, but the team hasn’t been together since early May.
Players got another jolt with the shocking death on May 12 of teammate Aaron Douglas, a transfer who was competing for the left tackle position.
“I was at home and my brother had been calling me, texting me, what was wrong with Aaron? What’s happened to Aaron?” Johnson said.
In fact, Johnson had no idea he was talking about his teammates. He thought his brother was asking about a mutual friend near home.
“But when somebody in Tuscaloosa sent out a text, ‘We’re going to miss Aaron Douglas,’ that’s when I called one of my friends and that’s when they told me,” Johnson said.
“It’s crazy. It shocked me. I’m not going to tell you otherwise. It shocked me.”
The whole offseason, which is one of the few periods of down time college football players get in the entire year, has driven home just how fragile things really are.
“Everything can go like that,” Johnson said.
Which is why last Tuesday was special. Jarvis Ward is a 6-year-old boy from Hartford who has cancer. The Kids Wish Network answered Jarvis’ wish to go on a shopping spree. The Geneva Walmart and others helped make that possible.
Alabama’s giant equipment truck met Jarvis and provided a shopping “advisor” to accompany the boy. Nico Johnson was in the truck.
“We had police escorts all the way to Walmart and back,” Johnson said. “Loaded his stuff up in the truck. Try to make him smile, you know? Let him have a good time.”
Jarvis had a big day. It may have meant even more to Johnson, who was moved that he was asked to go along. The boy inspired him.
The irony isn’t lost. All the concrete, steel, glass and wood, materials of strength in homes and businesses, proved very fragile on April 27. But the sick boy was a source of strength for the 6-foot-3, 245-pound linebacker.
“It’s a blessing. Just being a part of somebody that strong,” the player said. “He knows what’s going on. He just taking it and going with it. He’s still enjoying life, still has a lot of energy, just fighting it.
“It touched me dearly. It was an honor for him to pick me out of all people to go with him.”
Summer workouts are coming. Players call it the part of the year when they bond into a team. Running. Lifting. Studying. Preparing. They go through it together.
Johnson said Alabama has even more reason to be focused toward this season. The community ties have been pulled even tighter in the aftermath of a stormy offseason.
“I think most of the players now, their mindset is, we’re not only going to win this championship for our fans, our teammates and coaches, we’re going to win this for the city of Tuscaloosa,” Johnson said.
“We’re going to work hard toward that every day. We’ve got to do it.”