TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- A few blocks from the main road is a meadow in the heart of Tuscaloosa.
It’s quiet there.
About 100 feet off the dead-end road is a wooden cross. There are flowers, hand-written notes, an Alabama shaker, a football.
And an empty red chair.
It was in this serene slice of real estate where Carson Tinker’s life changed in a blink four months ago. The EF-4 tornado of April 27 threw him several hundred feet from his pulverized home into that pasture. It’s where his girlfriend, Ashley Harrison, died.
Debris no longer litters the grass. The remains of a house across the way came down Saturday afternoon in a city still cleaning its wounds.
That’s where Tinker comes in, yet again.
As the long snapper on the Crimson Tide football team, he isn’t accustomed to the attention. It’s not a glamorous position.
But in the months after losing so much, Tinker emerged as a symbol of this community’s rebirth and a reminder of its collective grief. His story went national when Sports Illustrated told his tale of heartbreak and survival in its May 23 edition. Since, and even before then, the support came from all directions -- phone calls, emails, old-fashioned mail.
Just strapping on his crimson No. 51 jersey Saturday morning is the next step in that mission. He never doubted he would return to football. No way.
Missing Saturday’s season opener with Kent State wasn’t considered.
The broken wrist and deep gash on his ankle wouldn’t alter his course back to Bryant-Denny Stadium.
“I’ve been looking forward to that day for a very long time,” Tinker said. “Not just the day, the season. Every day I’ve been working to get ready for the season, and it’s here, and I’m ready. You know what I mean? You can’t put into words how that feels.”
Still, it’s hard to imagine a smile on the face of someone who lost so much. But it’s hard to knock one off Tinker.
That glow greeted friends eager for a reunion a few weeks back.
‘That big ole grin’
The official Alabama football roster lists Tinker’s hometown as Murfreesboro, Tenn., but the Meek family knows better. They remember the youngster with an “infectious smile” from Central Baptist Church and the ball fields of Decatur, Ala.
Tinker grew up in northern Alabama before a job transfer moved his family to Tennessee after his freshman year at Austin High School.
Steve Meek was one of his football coaches there and a friend of the entire Tinker family. He hadn’t seen Carson in several years, so the family invited him to join the group at a downtown Tuscaloosa pizza place while in town.
“Oh, he just had that big ole grin that I remembered from back when he was a kid in church,” said Meek, now the football coach at Decatur Heritage. “He came through the door with a big sheepish grin on his face. It was good to see.”
Before long, he was devouring a Hawaiian pizza and talking about his zeal for the future.
His daughter, Laura Meek, is just a few years older than Tinker. She remembers a mischievous Tinker doing “typical things a boy would do” in their church youth group back in Decatur.
She also recalls the horror of that afternoon back in April, when everything changed.
Laura Meek was watching storm coverage on television back home in Decatur when the phone rang. It was her boyfriend, Jesse Perrin, son of former Alabama defensive back Benny Perrin.
Wow. It was bad.
His house in ruins, Perrin stood in his front yard watching the twister chew through the heart of Tuscaloosa.
“Immediately, I started thinking about Carson,” Laura Meek said. “Once I saw the video of where the tornado had come from, I knew it had come directly over Carson’s house. There’s no way it could have missed it.”
The next few days were chaos.
Laura and her mother, Sandra Meek, drove to Tuscaloosa the following day. The 23-year-old “lost it” when they tried to approach Tinker’s house.
“You couldn’t even get to it,” Laura Meek said. “You couldn’t even get to where it was. It was just insane. I just broke down the second I saw it.”
Only a few cinder blocks remained of the house at 611 25th St. About half of the next-door neighbor’s home stands frozen in time.
Tinker was still at DCH Hospital when the Meeks reached out to his family. Laura spoke with his mother five days later, when he was released, but she was eager to see her childhood friend who grew into a college football player.
It was closer to two weeks after the storm when Laura Meek drove south from Decatur to Birmingham to visit Carson after a physical rehab session.
She was nervous.
What should she say? What shouldn’t she say? This was going to be hard.
“He had told me that he wanted to marry Ashley, knowing that he lost her and knowing how much he loved her and cared about her, I was just really, really nervous. I didn’t know what to say,” Laura Meek said. “I didn’t know how to be.”
The strength she encountered put her at ease before lunch at a local restaurant. The Tinkers spoke openly and casually about Harrison.
Meek was amazed.
He reached up and gave her a big hug, though his swollen legs made it hard to stand.
“He was in such a good mood, better than what I expected,” Meek said. “He was in a good place already. He would joke about things. He was laughing and smiling.”
After that lunch, she texted or called every few days. She remembers how touched Tinker was by Alabama coach Nick Saban’s frequent visits to his Birmingham rehab facility.
“If you were around Carson in practice he’s an upbeat guy,” Saban said. “You’d never know anything had happened at all. He’s probably handled this as well as anybody could. We certainly try to give him every support we could, his teammates have, we as coaches have, and used other people to try to help him manage what he has had to go through, not only the injuries he sustained and the loss he had personally.”
And no matter how dark it got, football was always a rallying force for the long snapper.
“You really can’t explain the relief that I get from this,” Tinker said. “I was telling somebody earlier. They were asking me how the coaches have treated me. I said, ‘The same exact way. Nothing is different coming out here. They’re not feeling sorry for me.’ That’s the most (therapeutic) thing. I mean, I haven’t been doing bad, but they always demand your very best.
“And it is comforting to know you’re out there getting yelled at. I guess that sounds weird.”
Life’s next step
When he jogs into Bryant-Denny Stadium on Saturday morning, Tinker will be a junior. He redshirted in 2008, played sparingly in 2009 before assuming the starting job at long snapper last season.
That leaves two years of eligibility, but Tinker is getting a head start on a possible new career path.
Not long before devouring the pineapple and ham pizza with the Meeks, Tinker realized his recovery from tragedy could inspire others.
“He really wanted to talk to people and share his story and talk to people about God,” Laura Meek said. “It seemed like he wanted to be a really big influence in people’s lives and share his story with everyone.”
Tinker began speaking to church groups, including one in Arab on Aug. 14 -- the first day off for Alabama football players in the eight days since practice opened. By the following morning, it was back to football with two Monday practices starting at 10:30.
While pondering his next move, Tinker likes to quote motivational speaker Kevin Elko, who gives an annual presentation to the Alabama football team.
“Some people pray for blessings, but I pray that I can be a blessing for somebody,” Tinker said. “I want to go out and I want to reach everybody that I can and try to inspire them, because I mean there’s a lot of people that have been through very similar things that I’ve been through, and, if I can help them, I’m all for it.”
At 7 p.m. today, he is scheduled to speak at Forest Lake United Methodist Church. The facility still bears scars from the Mother Nature’s April 27th fury.
It also stands mere city blocks from the peaceful grove that Tinker loved and lost so much.
He told Sports Illustrated he was hitting golf balls there on the day of the storm. His dog and Harrison’s were there too, playing fetching each shot he struck.
Beside the memorial to the love of his life and the empty red chair sits a row of golf balls, a club and two more crosses with dog leashes fastened tight.
It was quiet there Saturday afternoon -- not a soul in sight in a landscape years from complete recovery.
Still, the energy is unmistakable.
And Tinker won’t let that go to waste.