Thank You, Alabama


The moment Tua was sacked for a 16-yard loss in overtime, I was thinking pretty much the same thing as every other Bama fan on the planet.

No. Nope. Not like this.

I was watching from the bench — well not the bench-bench. I had my own little chair on the sideline at the end of the bench, close to where the coaches were standing.

As soon as that play happened, I got that same terrible feeling I had a year earlier, when I watched Deshaun Watson roll out and hit Hunter Renfrow for Clemson’s championship-winning touchdown. For the better part of a year, I had replayed that pick-route in my mind — how all I could do was stand there and watch as our whole season came crashing down. Then the scene afterward in the locker room, where so many of my brothers were sitting there devastated, realizing that their college careers were over. That was the worst part.

I really didn’t want to go out like that.

But just as I felt that negativity creeping in, Tua took the snap and I saw all four of our receivers flying down the field. From there the play developed in slow motion before my eyes. My first thought was that this is a bold call. A really bold call. If the pass was incomplete, we’d be facing third and long, well out of field goal range. If the pass was intercepted, we’d lose the game right there.

My second fear was dashed pretty quickly. The ball was a rocket as soon as it left Tua’s hand. As it sailed through the air, my eyes — like those of millions of others watching all over the country — shot to DeVonta. He was … oh, he was open. I’d covered him in enough drills to know he wasn’t a guy you let get a step on you or he gone. And on this play, he gone.

Just like that, we weren’t in danger of losing a national championship. Now the referee had his arms up. The game was over. We won the thing.  

I think it took everyone like half a second to process what had just gone down before the entire sideline freaked out and ran onto the field.

Well, everybody except me. I couldn’t move.

I must have sat there for two minutes or maybe it was 20 seconds. Either way, I knew I needed to wait a beat so I that could really savor that moment.

There were so many emotions rushing through me all at once, so I just sat still and tried to experience them all. Firstly, I thanked God because it was through him that any of this was possible. I thought about the past three years of my life — the good and the bad, and everything I’d learned from both. I thought about how far I’d come just to make it to Alabama. I thought about my parents. It was their work ethic that provided the foundation that made me the person I am today. After we lost everything in Hurricane Sandy, they worked 16-hour days so that I would have every opportunity to pursue my dream. There were many paths my life could have taken, but I was so thankful to be there in that moment.

Eventually Josh McMillon came over and picked me up out of my chair, and that’s when I shifted into celebration mode. I grabbed a hat and a T-shirt, and then I just started sprinting around the field to nowhere in particular. All around me, I saw people laughing, crying and jumping for joy.

I couldn’t help but think, Yeah, this ending was a little more like it.

Matthew Emmons/USA TODAY Sports

When I first arrived at Bama, quite a few people told me that I kind of reminded them of Coach Saban.

My reaction at first was pretty much, Uh, what do you mean by that?

I didn’t really see it. At least, that wasn’t how I viewed myself.

But the more time I spent observing him, the more I understood what other people were talking about. I think Coach and I are pretty similar in terms of how we approach the game of football. It doesn’t feel like work to us so much as it’s something that makes us tick. It’s as necessary as eating and sleeping.

The very first time I met Coach Saban was my sophomore year of high school, when I went to a camp in Tuscaloosa. I was in his group during the camp, along with a few other DBs, and even though we were 15-year-olds from all over the country, he coached us as if we were his players. There were no pity claps or “good try”’s or anything like that. He wanted us to be perfect, and if we weren’t perfect, he told us how we messed up in very direct terms. I really liked that.

Some people observe his style and get the impression that he’s this angry, standoffish guy. But I think people only believe that because they have a limited view of him. He’s not really the angry guy he appears to be during games and at press conferences. Well, he’s not that guy all the time.

To get a sense of the real Coach Saban, you need to experience him in his element. The moments when cameras aren’t around and he’s just a coach. Honestly, most of my best memories of Coach are from times I spent with him in the film room. That’s also probably where I’ve spent the most time with him.

During team meetings, I’d sit behind Coach, who was in the front row. When we had long film study sessions with the team, a lot of the time he’d be cracking jokes about the stuff happening on screen, which made it pretty enjoyable. He always does this thing where he makes a joke, then turns back behind him to see how it landed. I’ll be honest, he’s a funny dude, so his hit rate is usually pretty high. Not perfect, but pretty good.

It’s those small moments that stick out most to me when I think back on my time here. The victories and awards are of course memorable, but they’re only reflections of the time spent preparing. It’s those times when we were all dead-tired but kept pushing that stick with me, because, without really saying it outright, we were able to acknowledge that the process of being great was really difficult, but at least we were in it together.

And this season, we needed each other more than ever. This was by far my most difficult year at Alabama. There were injuries across the board, not just to myself but to a lot of my teammates. Game after game guys went down, but what stood out was how we responded as a team. It took every person on that roster to win games, and the fact that we kept on winning is just a reflection of the culture that has been built here. We never let the circumstances change our belief in what we were capable of as a team. No excuses — you’re at Bama, you’re here to win.

That’s what we do.

Marvin Gentry/USA TODAY Sports

I know I’m going to miss so many things about Tuscaloosa. It’s hard to let go — the past few weekends I’ve made the trip back there just to hang out with friends. I’m going to miss the people, the BBQ, the days spent on the lake — just about everything …. except the music.

I’m sorry, I can’t. I just can’t with country. I tried. And I can’t. I know it’s a cultural thing, but I have to confess it was hard to get in the zone before games when they’d blast country music. I know it maybe worked for some guys, but I’m still from New Jersey, man. All I’m saying is that nobody out here is getting hyped up to Dierks Bentley, you know what I mean?

Aside from the music, I never felt a ton of culture shock here because of the ways I did connect with the people I encountered. Over the years I’ve had many memorable interactions with Bama fans, but one in particular sticks out. It actually happened a couple of weeks ago, not long after we won the national championship. I was in a Dick’s Sporting Goods signing autographs. There was a line of people and one by one they would walk up and I’d get the chance to have a short conversation with them about their day and we’d exchange a Roll Tide (obviously) before the next person walked up.

So about 100 or so Roll Tide’s in, this one little girl walked up to the table, and I could tell right away that she was incredibly nervous. I could see her shaking as she approached me. At first, I almost looked around to make sure she was actually reacting to me. Like maybe someone really famous had just walked into Dick’s or something. I see myself as just a 21-year-old kid who’s pretty good at football. I’d never seen anybody that excited to meet me.

Right away I tried to calm her down a bit. I smiled and told her not to be nervous, but she just kind of stood there frozen. I reached over the table and touched her shoulder, and right away she just started bawling. Her parents said how excited she was to meet an actual Alabama football player, and I gave her a hug. It was kind of a scene, but one I’ll always remember. This little girl didn’t know me, but she knew me. She had developed a connection with me by watching me do what I love. The only thing in the world we probably had in common was Alabama football — and that was more than enough for us to share that nice moment.

In a certain way, it was the only sort of thank you or recognition I ever needed. Just to know that me playing a game that I love affected this young person in such a way. It’s something that’s probably going to stick with me forever.

It reminded me of just how thankful I am to have had the opportunity to be a small part of something so big and great.

I didn’t come to Alabama to have fun — but I experienced the most fun years of my life here. I didn’t come here to meet people — but I’ve met so many friends that I know I’ll stay close with forever. I chose Alabama because I wanted to be at a place that would push me to become the best version of myself that I could possibly be. And, man, did it ever.

New Jersey is home. It always will be.

But Bama, that’s family.

From the bottom of my heart, thank you.

And Roll Tide.