A yellow ball, 12 inches around and stitched together by 96 raised, red seams, changed Rachel Bobo’s life.
The ball’s leather surface is covered in signatures writ in permanent black ink, and with her dreams. Those dreams began a dozen years ago when she spent her 10th birthday at Rhoads Stadium.
Few have tried harder to get the attention of the Alabama softball coaching staff with less success, but Bobo’s persistence eventually landed her a spot as a senior role player with the Crimson Tide. The Huntsville native who played high school ball in Texas may or may not play when 15th-ranked Alabama hosts No. 4 Florida for a three-game series starting Saturday.
But she’ll be there in uniform, ready if called upon.
“Whatever (the) role is she’s going to play it to perfection, whether she’s the pinch runner, the pinch hitter, the defensive replacement, the cheerleader,” Alabama coach Patrick Murphy said. “And she does it with a smile on her face, which is really rare nowadays.”
Bobo received the ball on her birthday 12 years ago. She celebrated at the ballpark with friends as part of UA’s Big Al’s Kids Club.
She visited the pitcher’s circle during introductions before the game and ran the bases afterward.
That’s also the day she lined up with others to get that yellow ball autographed.
“Coach Murphy came and sat with us for 5 or 10 minutes,” recalled Bobo’s mother, Terri Bobo.
After Murphy left, Rachel caught her mother’s eye: “This,” she said, “is what I want to do.”
Bobo held onto that dream, and onto the softball the team had signed.
No. 4 Florida at No. 15 Alabama
Where: Rhoads Stadium
Schedule: Saturday at noon, Sunday at 2 p.m., Monday at 6 p.m.
Records: Alabama 24-9, 5-4 SEC; Florida 32-5, 7-2 SEC
TV: Saturday and Sunday ESPN2, Monday SEC Network
Radio: 93.3 FM
Last fall, Alabama players and coaches went to a retreat at a camp in the woodlands of Eutaw, about 40 miles from Tuscaloosa, for team-building activities. Players were asked to bring an item that represented something important to them. Most brought photos of family or pets.
Bobo brought her yellow ball.
Alabama pitching coach Stephanie VanBrakle Prothro was a star player 12 years ago. One of the signatures was hers, though she didn’t recall signing it.
“It made me feel really old,” she said.
It also made her feel more.
Bobo held the ball as she stood before the team and shared what it meant to her. How she came to love Alabama softball that day 12 years earlier. How she vowed one one day be a part of it.
Most players who make it to the major-conference level begin playing travel ball at a young age, to hone their skills and to get in front of college coaches. Most take hitting or pitching lessons during the school year. Some even forgo playing high school ball in favor of suiting up for elite travel teams.
But Bobo, who played a bit of travel ball, had a different plan.
“She played every sport you can imagine,” Terri Bobo said. “We felt like it was good for her to try it all and see what she liked best.”
She always came back to softball.
By the summer after her junior year of high school, Bobo’s family put her on an elite team, the Texas Storm. Some junior college coaches showed interest, but she had eyes only for Alabama. Her parents have engineering degrees from the Capstone. She got her yellow ball there.
The first word she spelled as a toddler was “Bama,” which she learned from her father’s sweatshirt. She attended her first Alabama football game when she was 8 months old and has been to at least one game every year since.
“I really just felt like I was supposed to come here,” she said.
Bobo’s grandparents had enrolled her in a prepaid tuition program soon after she was born. It would pay for any college, and there was only one school for her.
Problem was, Alabama’s softball program didn’t reciprocate those feelings.
At least not at first.
And if the Crimson Tide wasn’t going to recruit her, she figured she’d recruit them. She attended some UA camps. She started emailing the coaching staff updates with her stats.
“Email after email after email,” her mother said. “Zero response.”
She made her goal of playing for Alabama known to her travel ball coach. That summer, Murphy showed up at a tournament in Beaumont, Texas, to scout another recruit. Bobo’s coach approached him and told him about her desire to play at Alabama. Murphy said Bobo would probably get a tryout.
But Murphy had already filled his recruiting class. He was looking ahead to younger prospects. Bobo kept checking her email. The invitation never came.
A FREE KID
Bobo didn’t give up. She attended an Alabama clinic in the summer of 2014 before enrolling. She approached Murphy with a message: “Hey, I’m a free kid. I’m coming to Alabama. I’m willing to work hard for whatever you want me to do. I’ll be the water girl if you want me to be.”
She didn’t have a major-college bat, but the coach noticed she had some speed. He invited her to try out in the fall.
She made the first cut. Finally, she received the email – an invitation to lunch with the coaches at Zoe’s Kitchen, just across the Black Warrior River from the Alabama softball complex.
“It was like we’re going to talk it over,” she said. “If I’m a good match then hopefully I’d be on the team.”
Murphy knows how to build a championship culture, having coached the Crimson Tide to the 2012 national title. The last thing he needed was a walk-on with aspirations who might turn disgruntled if she didn’t play.
It took him 10 minutes during that lunch to figure out Bobo wasn’t that kid.
Before the food was on the table, he told her: “You’re on the team.”
Murphy was specific about what her role would be: “All you’re going to do is run” he said.
When the team practiced hitting, she ran bases. She learned signals, concentrated on seeing the ball off the bat, strived for good jumps and gauged whether or not she had a chance to take an extra base.
She was issued a glove. She wrapped it with rubber bands and broke it in, but she never used it in a game.
There was one small consolation: Since Alabama had 20 players on the roster, an even number, she got to toss during warm-ups.
In the first game of her freshman season, at South Alabama, she was what Murphy said she was on the team to be – a pinch runner. She entered the game to run for a batter who had reached first base. The next batter hit a floater that landed in right field.
Bobo saw a chance to score a run her first time on the field.
“As I rounded third I tripped and fell and ended up getting tagged out,” she said. “I remember thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, he’s never going to play me again.’”
He did. More pinch-running opportunities came. She appeared in 53 games and scored 18 runs with four stolen bases that season.
Bobo never took batting practice during her first year at UA, but she made time to hit a ball off a tee on her own.
Just in case.
Her opportunity came in the 34th game, during a 17-0 blowout of Mississippi Valley State. It wasn’t part of Murphy’s plan. Credit shortstop Danae Hays for making it happen.
It was a cold, rainy night. Alabama was running away with the game. The dugout was devoid of energy. Players just wanted it to be over.
Hays was on deck. She saw Bobo leaning on the dugout rail. The batter thought about the walk-on’s positive attitude and hustle in practice. She thought to herself: “She hasn’t had an at-bat all year long, why am I up here swinging the stick for a third time?”
The shortstop approached her coach with a proposition: If the batter before Hays reached base, how about letting Bobo pinch hit?
Sure, the coach said. Chaunsey Bell, a backup catcher, hit a single. Murphy told Bobo to grab a bat.
“She was as cold as ice,” Hays said. “She might have even put the wrong batting glove on the wrong hand.
“She drew a walk on like four or five pitches. The dugout went crazy.”
Bobo was humbled.
“For her to do that for me was such a cool thing,” she said, “and really showed that we value the role players on the team.”
Hays admired the audacity Bobo had shown, walking on to a national championship-level program that hadn’t even recruited her. Coming to practice every day like she expected to earn a starting spot.
To Hays, the chances to hit wasn’t a gift: “I don’t feel like I gave anything to her. I feel like she earned it.”
Bobo’s first hit didn’t come until a year later, in the middle of her sophomore season. Alabama was playing DePaul in a tournament in California. She beat out an infield single as a pinch hitter.
UA was the visiting team, in the first-base dugout. Her teammates spilled onto the field to celebrate.
Bobo batted 3-for-8 as a sophomore, but she continued to play as an occasional defensive replacement – spelling four-time All-American center fielder Haylie McCleney for an inning here or there – and as a pinch runner.
Late last season, Alabama was slumping. Bobo came through with a pinch-hit single in a victory at Ole Miss, and Murphy decided to give her a shot. He started her in left field in the championship game of the NCAA Tuscaloosa Regional. She didn’t get a hit in three at-bats, but she made a diving catch in foul territory for a key out.
“It was like, ‘you know what, she’s a spark,’ ” Murphy said.
He kept her in the lineup when Alabama traveled to Gainesville, Florida., to face the top-seeded Gators in a best-of-three super regional.
There, Alabama faced Kelly Barnhill, perhaps the best pitcher in the country. Alabama upset Florida in the first game, with Bobo going 1-for-1 with a walk and a run scored. Alabama dropped the next two games.
In the final game, Bobo scored the Crimson Tide’s only run after driving a 2-2 pitch to center field and legging out a triple.
She came around third base and nearly took Murphy’s hand off when she slapped it.
“If you look back at the video,” she said. “I’m just grinning from ear to ear.”
Murphy awarded Bobo a scholarship for her senior season, and she has settled back into being a role player. She has seen action in 32 games, starting four, and is 4-for-16 with seven runs scored.
Those numbers don’t fly off the stat sheet, but every one of them represents an opportunity. That’s all she ever wanted.
“The reason I wanted to come here was to be a part of this program, not to be a four-time All-American,” she said. “Of course everybody wants that, but is that going to happen? No, for most people.
“Just being able to come out here every day and practice and build friendships that will last a lifetime, it’s amazing.”
When she autographed that yellow ball, Prothro couldn’t have guessed how much weight it would carry.
“It’s super humbling to know you can impact somebody’s life like that,” Prothro said. “She was 10 and she thought the world of Alabama softball, and now she gets to play for Alabama.”
Murphy could never have foreseen that the walk-on runner could have such an impact on the team for which she longed to play.
“Bobo does a lot more than just running,” said Bailey Hemphill, a sophomore catcher/first baseman. “She’s the energy, the spark plug on our team. In the dugout she gets us fired up. She’s a team leader. She’s much more than just run-fast Bobo.”
That 10-year-old girl has grown into a young woman with a yellow ball, living out her childhood dream.
Reach Tommy Deas at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 205-722-0224.