When I was asked at the start of last football season to write about Traditions of the SEC, I knew I’d never lack for subjects.
Consider all the great coaches, athletes, games, as well as the things that make each school unique like UGA the Bulldog at Georgia or the cowbells at Mississippi State.
I know if I have enough time, words and phone numbers, I can write for years.
But in the last few weeks, another SEC tradition came to light again, as it does in times of tragedy. It’s the basic human act of kindness, reaching out to help under the most unimaginable circumstances.
And folks, there can’t be much worse that what happened in Alabama, Mississippi and Georgia on the afternoon of April 27 when the largest outbreak of tornados in United States history blew through those states.
It particularly hits home when one of those tornados hits the city or town where an SEC institution is located. Because more than likely, we’ve been there for a sporting event many times through the years, staying at our favorite hotels, eating in our favorite restaurants.
Most of us have that history with the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. Whether we’ve stayed at that Hampton Inn next to campus or had a meal at Bob Baumhower’s Wings or the original Dreamland (“Ain’t Nuthin’ Like ’Em Nowhere”), we all have a connection with Tuscaloosa.
That’s why it’s shocking to see the photos of complete devastation in Tuscaloosa from a tornado that cut a mile wide path through the heart of T-Town.
Imagine being there watching it from your apartment balcony like Barrett Jones, Alabama’s All-SEC offensive lineman from Memphis, who has seen this kind of destruction before.
The last couple of years during spring break, Jones has done missionary work in some Third World locales, like his initial trip to Haiti just months after the earthquake.
He never thought the Third World would come to him, but it did that terrifying Wednesday afternoon just more than two weeks ago at 5:10 p.m.
“When I went to Haiti the first time and saw the damage from the earthquake, I’d never thought I’d see damage like that again,” Jones said. “But here it is, right in Tuscaloosa.
“You see things on TV across the world that are devastating, but you still come home to your comfortable house. Yet it becomes so much more to real to you when it’s in your own backyard. You see all the pain and suffering.
“When it is in front of you, it’s honestly much worse than the pictures you see. It’s just a disaster. You can stand at the University Mall and see clear to Coleman Coliseum. It’s weird. There’s nothing there anymore.”
Barrett, his teammate and brother Harrison and another roommate were in their apartment two to three blocks from 15th Street close to Bryant-Denny Stadium when the tornado hit.
They had heard all the warnings all week and were watching TV when a live picture of the tornado came on the screen from a sky cam.
The announcer said the tornado was three miles outside of Tuscaloosa.
“Right when he said that, our power went out,” Barrett says. “So we got a little scared, because the power was off and we didn’t know where the tornado was.
He stepped out on his upper level balcony and witnessed a horror movie.
“As soon as I was on the balcony, I saw the tornado,” Barrett says. “It was two-tenths of a mile away, moving right to left, ripping through Tuscaloosa.
“It was surreal, knowing while I’m watching that people were losing their lives and their homes. It didn’t feel real. The sky was still, then comes the tornado.”
As soon as the tornado passed, Barrett had to fight the inclination helping with rescue efforts, because there were rumors another tornado was on its way. Thankfully, it didn’t happen, and it was almost nightfall before he and his friends walked to the scene of the damage to see if they could do anything to help.
Barrett starts summer school May 31, but it will be a different summer for him. His daily agenda will be class, working out and helping his adopted hometown rebuild.
“It’s going to take time for Tuscaloosa to come back,” Barrett says. “But there’s so many people here from so many places working so hard to try and fix things. It has been great.”
Even Warren Tidwell, a 32-year-old alum of Alabama’s most disliked rival Auburn, started a volunteer group called “Toomer's for Tuscaloosa,” an organization collecting clothes, supplies, non-perishable food and water for displaced citizens trying to rebuild.
"Right now, it’s not about football,” Warren says. “It’s about human beings helping hurting human beings.”
This is when the SEC family is at its very best.
LSU collected donations through the American Red Cross at the Tigers' baseball games. Kentucky’s student government formed a partnership with Wrap Up America, an organization that provides blankets and supplies. Blankets are $3 each, with donations being accepted at wrapupamerica.com.
Mississippi State sent commercial generators and tractors. Its student government collected toiletry supplies for Alabama students.
Before playing Alabama, members of the Ole Miss softball team presented the Alabama’s team with a donation for the school’s tornado relief efforts. The donation, which was presented by team captains Brittany Barnhill and Amanda Hutcheson, was earmarked for the U of A Acts of Kindness Fund. It’s a fund that provides financial assistance to employees and students who qualify under the guidelines of this emergency-assistance program.
"We’re competitors on the field, but we are all members of the SEC and that makes us a family,” Brittany said.
She’s right. But it has always been that way.
Remember when the late Chucky Mullins, an Ole Miss defensive back, was paralyzed in a game against Vanderbilt in October 1989.
Chucky and his family faced massive medical bills and Ole Miss’ catastrophic insurance policy provided $2 million in coverage or six months of care, whichever came first. Chucky's guardians did not have money or insurance. The school quickly established the Chucky Mullins Trust Fund less than a week after the injury.
The very next home game against hated rival LSU, fans from both schools donated a stunning $178,168 that Saturday and another $53,395 came in the mail for a first week total of $231,563 contributed during the first week. Eventually, the fund passed the $1 million mark.
In the last 10 years, the SEC has made contributed $1 million to families of 9/11 victims and $1 million for victims of Hurricane Katrina. It has organized Red Cross fundraising for the Nashville flood victims, while the SEC’s student-athletes annually hold annual food drives for local food banks.
Which brings me back to the Traditions part of this story.
People always want to know why the SEC wins national titles or challenge for those championships in almost every sport every year. Why has four different SEC schools won five consecutive national championships? Why has baseball won back-to-back national championships with two different schools?
It’s because in the SEC, no matter how fierce the competition is on the field, every school, every coach, every athlete, every athletic director, understands the league is a family.
Everybody gets equal TV revenue. All rules are passed with almost everyone in agreement. The SEC is not about divide and conquer. It’s about one for all and all for one.
Fans and media often lose sight of that fact. It’s a shame tragedies have to happen to remind us that this league, more often than not, has 12 schools that have each other’s back.
That’s why when Barrett Jones sees people in Auburn caps, volunteering time to help Tuscaloosa get back on its feet, he isn’t fazed.
“I’m not surprised at the response,” he says. “When it comes down to something like this, no matter who you cheer for, you work together.”
That’s the SEC. Twelve schools strong, all year long.