The scars aren’t nearly so visible as they were in the immediate wake of April 27, 2011, the day a deadly tornado ripped through Tuscaloosa.
They are still there if you look closely, in the twisted trees along Crescent Ridge Road or the missing landmarks along the storm’s path, many now replaced but still missed.
In many places, though, material things have been replaced. New homes have been built around Forest Lake. There’s a new school in Alberta City.
Emotional healing takes longer, though. For many families, lost loved ones can never be replaced. Neither can some memories — photographs, trophies, a child’s first-grade drawings swept away by the wind, never to be recovered.
Still, seven years later, there are moments of closure. Former Alabama offensive lineman Wesley Britt experienced one last week.
Britt, who had an NFL career after leaving Alabama, was married to the former Katie Boyd and living in Tuscaloosa when the tornado tore their home apart. When he called his father, Tommy Britt, in Cullman that night (where the elder Britt was also working in the wake of another tornado from the same system), the first question after confirming that Wesley’s family was safe, was the obvious one: “what do you need?”
The answer was just as obvious: “Everything.”
Before long, the Britts’ most urgent needs were met: shelter, diapers, furniture and the other essentials of day-to-day life. Other things could not be replaced.
“I lost a Rolex watch that Tom Brady had given all of his (New England Patriot) offensive linemen in 2007,” Britt said. “I lost pictures and other memorabilia.”
That included a football signed by his entire Alabama team in 2002.
“I always would get a ball signed by all of my teammates, going all the way back to Cullman and into the NFL,” Britt said. “They meant a lot.”
The tornado, though, played no favorites. Britt thought his 2002 ball was gone for good, a small but personally meaningful loss in a storm that took so much from so many.
It was nearly a year later when Britt was on hand for a function honoring former Crimson Tide players at the Bryant Museum. As the reception went on, Britt browsed through the museum, looking at the displays. He then came across a new exhibit showing the impact the storm had on Tuscaloosa, including photographs of the monster funnel cloud as it roared just blocks away from Bryant-Denny Stadium. And there was something else that caught his eye in the exhibit: an autographed football that had been found in the debris left behind in a Tuscaloosa neighborhood miles away from the Britt’s home. Still, as he looked closely at the names, and the extensive number of signatures from players and coaches, he knew.
“I could tell it was my football,” Britt said.
He asked museum director Ken Gaddy about the ball and was told it had been found and donated to the Bryant Museum after the storm.
Time for a quick disclaimer: the ball had landed on our driveway, among other debris large and small, and I was the one who took it to the museum.
Britt told Gaddy the situation and everyone involved agreed Britt should have his ball back, although he graciously agreed the ball should remain in place until the museum changed the exhibit. It was only slightly smudged on its journey of about three miles, carried along by the wind as it traveled the tornado’s devastatingly direct path.
At three miles, someone joked, it was the longest punt in Alabama history, at least until JK Scott arrived.
The ball is now back where it belongs, with the Britts. It’s a small moment in the healing that still is happening and perhaps a memory, not just of a football career but of a day that all of Tuscaloosa shares, a token of pain but also of closure.
Reach Cecil Hurt at firstname.lastname@example.org or 205-722-0225.