By DAVE SKRETTA
AP Sports Writer
NEW ORLEANS (AP) -- Carson Tinker remembers huddling in a walk-in closet in the house on 25th Street, squeezing his girlfriend, Ashley Harrison, as the rumbling grew louder and the walls began to shake.
She screamed that she was scared. He whispered that everything would be OK.
He doesn't remember much after that.
The long snapper for No. 2 Alabama was thrown like a ragdoll by the brute force of the EF-4 tornado. He was knocked unconscious when he landed some 50 yards away, his young, strong body torn up by debris twisting and churning at 190 mph.
It wasn't until Tinker awoke in the hospital hours later that he learned that Ashley had died, the love of his life literally ripped from his arms.
Now, as the Crimson Tide prepares to play in the BCS championship against top-ranked LSU on Monday night, the healing continues in Tuscaloosa. Players and coaches still find themselves at the oddest of times reflecting on that awful April day, when the twister tore through their picturesque college town, killing more than 50 and injuring hundreds more.
"We're a family, we really are," Tinker said this week. "There were guys who went through the same thing I went through."
Not many. Certainly not the same.
That day broke dark and angry, lightning streaming across the sky, reports periodically warning folks in Tuscaloosa that they should be prepared to seek shelter if a tornado was sighted.
Harrison, a senior honors student destined for law school, had decided to spend the afternoon with Tinker, her boyfriend of nearly a year. They watched a movie for a while before Tinker headed across the street to play with their dogs, his a German shepherd mix and hers a black Lab.
By the time he returned an hour later, the storm had grown in fury.
The two were joined on the porch by a couple friends when Tinker's grandfather, Jim, called his cell phone. He was in Hoover, about an hours' drive from Tuscaloosa, and had been through enough storms in the South to know not to risk your life when a tornado is bearing down.
And this one turned out to be the most powerful long-track tornado the state has ever known.
While they were taking shelter in the closet, Harrison called her mother back in Texas, something she did habitually whenever a storm was approaching. Darlene Harrison answered the phone.
"She said a storm was coming, and I said, `Well, honey, are you OK?' And she said, `Yeah, I'm OK. Everything's great.' They were kind of laughing," Darlene recalled, her voice cracking. "I said, `Dad will call you in a little bit.' She said, `I love you mama,' and I said, `I love you.'"
Darlene Harrison never heard from her daughter again.
"Forty minutes went by," she said. "We started calling, trying to find her, and couldn't get anybody. We tried her roommates, her friends from Dallas, nobody could answer. I thought, `Oh my God, this is crazy.' I had to reach Ashley. I finally called Carson's mom, and she said, `Darlene, Carson was taken in the storm. So was Ashley.'"
Tinker woke moments after the storm had passed, and was lucid enough to know that he had to find his girlfriend. He searched in vain, yelling out her name, before some bystanders realized how badly he was hurt. He was covered in blood, his wrist broken, to say nothing of the internal injuries.
He was in the hospital by the time Harrison's family arrived in Tuscaloosa.
"We searched all night long and we couldn't find her, and we finally got to the hospital around midnight," Darlene said. "We found Carson. He said, `You have to find her. You have to find her.'
"He was so torn up," she said. "We walked out of that room and said, `If Carson looks like that, what does Ashley look like?' She was only 115 pounds."
They had resumed the search early the next morning when a police officer came to the site, asking them to identify a body on the tiny screen of a digital camera. It was Ashley.
"We called Carson, and he didn't believe it -- couldn't believe it. He didn't want to believe it," Darlene said. "I said, `Honey, it's her.'"
Tinker still has a hard time talking about that day.
"I didn't choose to be in this situation," he said with a steady voice. "If everything was back to normal, I would be completely content with that. I didn't ask for this."
The beauty of team sports is that the team extends far beyond the sidelines. Players are there no matter what, celebrating the best of days and consoling each other in the bleakest of hours.
The Crimson Tide was no different.
"We've just tried to stick by him," offensive lineman D.J. Fluker said. "Looked out for him."
Mark Barron remembers staring out his apartment window and seeing the tornado churn through town, almost like it was choosing what to skip and what to destroy. The senior safety, speaking barely above a whisper, said he didn't realize the devastation until it was over.
He didn't know what happened to Tinker until much later.
"We just made sure we were there for him," Barron said. "He had all our numbers, so we tried to make sure we were there for him if he needed us."
The Tuscaloosa tornado was part of an outbreak over a span of more than three days that spawned more than 350 twisters, killed more than 300 people and caused an estimated $11 billion in damage.
President Barack Obama, touring Alabama, said he had "never seen devastation like this."
Tinker returned to the team this fall, helping the Crimson Tide to the verge of another national championship, the game of football giving him a chance to achieve some sense of normalcy.
"I feel like this season, Tinker has stepped up and been our unsung hero," said linebacker Dont'a Hightower. "I feel like he's tried to lead us as much as possible."
"I felt like him coming back so fast kind of helped," added quarterback A.J. McCarron, "because he was around guys that loved him, not just for being No. 51 on the field and being our snapper, but he's a great guy off the field, and any time you can bounce back real fast around loved ones, people that love you, it's definitely going to help you recover through some tough times."
Tinker has begun to speak at churches on Sunday, giving a testimonial about living for the future and not the circumstances of today. Folks always want to give him something in return, he said, and he always asks that money be donated to scholarships set up in Harrison's honor: at Ursuline Academy of Dallas, the University of Alabama, even a fund set up in memory of their pets that died.
In the field across the street from where that house once stood, three small wooden crosses were put in the ground in the weeks after the tornado. One for Harrison, one for each of the dogs.
A lasting memorial of a night nobody will forget.
"I'm glad lot of people have come up to me and told me that I've inspired them to do something," Tinker said, "and that's something I enjoy, and I get satisfaction from, being a blessing to others.
"I kind of hate how I got a spotlight put on me, though," he said. "Everybody sees me, but there were 51 people who died in the tornado just in Tuscaloosa. There are so many people hurting. But I'm glad I have the platform I do. God has done so much in my life."