Alabama fan Luke Ratliff brought people together one last time in a tiny North Carolina town | Hurt

Cecil Hurt
The Tuscaloosa News

WADESBORO, N.C. — Luke Ratliff came home again, laid to rest Sunday in his hometown in the rolling hills not far from Charlotte.

His other hometown, Tuscaloosa, was on hand to show its love. Like when two mighty rivers converge, the waters flowed alongside each other for miles before mingling together and flowing to the sea. Neither the family and friends from Anson County who filled First Baptist Church nor the contingent from Alabama, which ranged from famous coaches to college friends, said farewell, exactly. 

Ratliff, the Alabama basketball fan and student leader, rose to national fame in that role and then to further attention as everyone from investigative reporters to his best friends try to understand how Ratliff was taken so quickly.

No one disputes the importance of coronavirus and understanding its causes, but more answers are needed from public health officials. Most of the coverage has been fair. One story, while not directly pandemic-shaming him, did have his photo next to a headline about the Sturgis Super Spreader Event, and fairness compels a response: Ratliff was cautious, not defiant, felt he was attending Alabama basketball games in compliance with all regulations and would never have intentionally hurt a soul.

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That wasn’t the topic of the day in Wadesboro. If there was bemusement about their suddenly famous native son, no one was shocked either. The reminiscing and stories from Ratliff’s high school classmates and teachers, the presence of a dozen North Carolina State Troopers, who worked with his father and formed yet another of Ratliff’s many families, made it clear that if Ratliff had decided to stay close to home in Anson County, he’d have been mayor one day.

Through the entire week, there has been an undercurrent at work, balancing what the Indianapolis Star called “a life well-lived” with the unavoidable realization that he was, in fact, only 23. Think of the people he touched in the past five years, and wonder how many more he might have touched in the next five, or 25.

Luke Ratliff was often the most visible fan at Crimson Tide basketball games. “When I came to campus, my fandom exploded,” he said.

Some of the stories that were told were familiar in Tuscaloosa. I have already shared some of mine in a column, yet I learned other facets that I hadn't known. For instance, Luke would talk about his family and his special-needs brother, Noah. What I did not know was that when Noah Ratliff had a doctor’s appointment in North Carolina, Luke would make the long trip to be there because his presence helped calm his younger brother. Most of the other stories were similar, ending with Luke finding some way to make someone else feel better.

Stately, slim Alabama basketball player Herbert Jones, who served as one of Luke’s pallbearers, grew up in a small town and has achieved widespread fame for his basketball prowess, understood. UA coach Nate Oats, raised in small-town Wisconsin, understood. They know that it isn’t the easiest journey. And if stories about Luke’s college days included more references to Blanton’s Bourbon than the standard Sunday fare at the First Baptist Church of Wadesboro, that was understood as well. 

Some of the most poignant stories came from Luke’s Tuscaloosa friend, Reagan Starner. No one was closer or understood Luke’s sly sense of humor more deeply. When he talked about Luke occasionally complaining about the “thankless task” of arriving early at games to do his Crimson Chaos duties, he knew that Luke wasn’t seeking recognition and how he welcomed being a part of Alabama basketball, acknowledged or not. It was never really a “task” but a labor of love.

Even as he was laid to rest, Luke was still bringing people together. He wouldn’t have regarded that as a task, either; just acting naturally. 

He didn’t have to hear it, and it’s not my place to speak for everyone he touched, but I need to say: "Thank You, Luke,” more than you ever realized,

Reach Cecil Hurt at or via Twitter @cecilhurt