Everyone thinks they know Alabama.
Man — everyone.
It’s like I don’t even have to ask people. I can already tell what they’re thinking.
Here, let me try: It’s a boot camp. It’s a recruiting machine. It’s a football factory. It’s a college team in name only. It’s a “win first, everything else second” mentality. It’s a waiting room for the NFL.
Pretty close, right? And listen … I get it.
I thought that too.
The truth is, I wanted that. When I first arrived in Tuscaloosa as a freshman, all I thought about — all I had been thinking about, since the moment I signed with Alabama — was results. I wanted results. I wanted to be great … and that’s it. I wanted to reach my full potential as a football player … no matter what.
But here’s the thing: I wasn’t thinking beyond the “what.” As an 18-year-old kid, I hadn’t even begun to think about the “how,” or the “why.” I hadn’t begun to consider just how much goes into becoming a professional football player. NFL waiting room? Football factory? I was a little anxious, sure, but for the most part … honestly, that sounded perfect to me at 18.
It just sounds funny to me at 22.
And I think that’s because now — having graduated with my degree in December, and having begun to prepare for the NFL draft in April — I can finally see the whole picture. Now, I can see the full difference, between what’s imagined about Alabama and what’s real:
Kevin Liles/The Players' Tribune
Here’s the “how” and the “why” of Alabama football: We’re in this together.
You probably hear that all the time — but at Bama, I’m telling you, we actually live it.
I’ll never forget this one moment from early on in my freshman year. All of us are sitting there, in the locker room, right after practice, and we’re hyped up on this big debate. I’m talking big — like People’s Court, locker-room style. Everyone is chiming in, saying their piece. No one’s budging. Before long, the whole thing gets pretty heated — and I mean heated in the dumbest and best way. You know, the way that any good locker-room debate tends to.
Want to hear the topic? (O.K., but remember … I told you it was dumb.) The topic was: If you split up the Bama roster between the guys who played in the Army All-American Bowl and the guys who played in the Under Armour All-America Game, who would have the better team?
Think about that for a second. (And yeah, sure, think about how annoying that is.) We’re sitting there, doing a fantasy draft … of our own roster.
I forget who won the argument — probably whichever team had more linemen. But the reason it sticks with me isn’t because of what it says about the talent we had. (Yo: a lot.) It sticks with me because it’s probably the last time that I can ever remember any of us talking about Bama football in individual terms. Matter of fact, that argument may have been the only time. Otherwise, honestly, no one ever really thought about it like that. All of the accolades that had been won by the dudes in our locker room … all of the records that had been set — none of that stuff mattered to us.
It’s hard to explain. But, at some point during that first year at Bama, I just … learned.
I learned that, what we’re trying to accomplish here — it isn’t about those things. You played in an All-Star game? Congratulations. You had coaches around the country falling over themselves to land your commitment? Great. You saw on some website that you’re on NFL radars? I bet you are. But the way that we have success here is by moving past all of that. We don’t dwell on where we’ve been, or worry about where we’re headed. We succeed here by focusing on where we are. And where we are is at Alabama.
Roy K. Miller/Icon Sportswire
And it’s that togetherness — and how willing guys are, out of the gate, to buy into that group mentality — that usually ends up being the difference at Bama between “making it” and not. Everyone here, and I mean everyone, has the talent to play anywhere. This is a place where high school All-Americas can wind up as backups. Where legit five-star recruits can find themselves playing third-string. And if that sounds crazy, well, for some people, maybe it is. Being totally real: Not everyone is prepared for that when they get here. Some guys, and this is no disrespect, just aren’t ready for that challenge, for a level of football that goes beyond being good enough — and becomes more about being disciplined enough.
Alabama football is about having the discipline to see yourself as part of a bigger picture.
When I look back on why I ended up fitting in so well at Alabama, one thing I always come back to is the idea of how I was raised. I was a military brat, through and through, and I was brought up in a classic “military household.” Adoration? Nah. Man, my father gave us chores. He gave us lessons. He gave us responsibility. That’s just how I grew up.
So when it came time for my recruiting process … I don’t know. There was something about it that I just found myself rejecting on instinct. Something about having total strangers, people who didn’t know me at all, suddenly coming up to me and telling me how great I was, was just never going to appeal to me. It went against everything that I had been raised to value, both in other people and in myself. So I knew I had to keep my recruitment short and sweet — and I ended up only taking one official visit.
I went to see about this school in Tuscaloosa. Pretty good football program.
Now — I know this is probably the part that everyone wants to hear about. This is the part that everyone speculates and gossips about on the message boards and all of that. How does Bama get all of these guys to commit? What’s their secret? Does Nick Saban have magical powers? Does he have voodoo-doll versions of the mascots of all of the other SEC schools? Seriously — what’s the deal?
And the truth is….
Well, I wish I had something more provocative to share. The truth is, Coach Saban just … got me. He really just got me. The other coaches — honestly, for most people, I don’t even think it occurs to them that someone might not love the recruiting process. I think they figure, you know, Who doesn’t love being the center of attention? Who doesn’t love nonstop positivity, or endless praise? And so I think 99% of recruiting experiences are the same. Very rah-rah, very extra. But there’s something about Coach Saban that, for whatever reason, is just … different. Coach Saban isn’t going to sit there, and put on a big smile, and promise you this and that. He isn’t going to tell you that you’re a surefire starter, or an All-SEC shoo-in, or a first-round NFL pick. He isn’t going tell your mom, “Wow … this has to be the best pot roast I’ve ever had.”
Actually — you know how I know that? Because Nick Saban turned down my mom’s food. Straight up: Coach came over to our house for a recruiting visit. And my mom, knowing we were having company over, had done some home cooking. So, of course, when Coach walked in the door, my mom offered him some dinner. And wanna know what coach said to Mom?
“I already ate.”
He said thank you, but no thank you, he already ate. He hit her with the already ate. And all joking aside — Coach was incredibly polite, and I share that story purely out of love — it was a pretty telling moment for me. In this weird way, it told me everything that I needed to know about about Coach Saban’s intentions. And what I mean by that is: Coach Saban hadn’t come over to put on a show, or to flatter us, or to tell us what he thought we wanted to hear. He didn’t make some big sales pitch, or promise the moon. He didn’t promise a starting spot, or SEC dominance, or national titles, or NFL riches — none of that. Truthfully, Coach didn’t promise me a thing. But what he did do was sit across from me … and answer every single one of my questions … and treat me like an adult.
And that’s what I was looking for.
That’s what I was looking for in a coach, and in a team, and in a school.
And that’s what I found.
I think a lot of people get confused, though. They get it twisted. I think people assume, because of the famously tough love that our program is built on, that there is no love. People assume, because the standard here every year is perfection, that there is no tolerance for imperfection. And most of all: People assume, because there are such expectations of success at Alabama … that there is no patience for failure.
Losing to Clemson in the national championship game was the toughest thing that I’ve ever experienced on a football field. To lose a national title on the last play … in the last game of your college career … it took the wind out of me when it happened. And it still almost takes the wind out of me, even to write about it now.
But it happened.
One second we were winning, and the next, it was just … over. There was no chance to get ourselves up off the mat, and come back at them with a touchdown drive of our own. There was no chance to regroup, and show our mettle by returning the next week with a big win. And for me — and for the rest of the seniors — there wasn’t even a chance to dig down deep, and work 10 times harder in the offseason, and bring that trophy back to where it belongs. For me … that was it. We went 51–6 over my four years at Alabama. Fifty-one and six. Fifty-one W’s, and six L’s. But for all of that … we were still, somehow, going to end our careers on a one-game losing streak.
It didn’t make any sense. I didn’t know what to do. I know everyone thinks of Bama as this big, bad Goliath-type figure. Like we’re the Darth Vader of college football, floating above the SEC in our Death Star or something. And I know when we lost that game, from the outside looking in, people saw it as this happy ending, this feel-good story — with the “scrappy underdog” coming from behind to beat the “faceless villain.” I get it. Trust me, I get it. Everyone who suits up for Alabama gets it, and understands it, and knows what the deal is. But man … sitting there, on the field in Tampa, watching those Clemson guys celebrate … knowing it was all over … knowing it was time to say goodbye to this part of my life that has meant so much to me, and that has helped to make me into the man I am today … I didn’t feel like the villain that night.
Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY Sports
I just felt bad.
For myself, sure, but not even that. Mostly, I just felt bad knowing how much our loss affected everyone around me. I thought about our fans, who had spent their hard earned money to come all the way down to Florida to be there for us. I thought about everyone back home, in Tuscaloosa and throughout the state: this amazing community of people that — off-season, preseason, regular season, postseason, you name it — shows up for us all year long. I thought about our staff of coaches, and trainers, and professors, and administrators: people who work so hard to make sure that — both in football, and in life — our guys are put in the best position possible to succeed. I thought about our incredible freshmen, who had done so much growing up over the course of the season, and who had to take this year’s loss without getting to experience last year’s win. And I thought about all of the other seniors: these great, great players who had become like family to me — and who, like me, would never play another down for the Crimson Tide.
You try to have perspective in football — you try to have perspective in everything. But walking off that field … after that game … thinking about that stuff … man. Perspective felt pretty impossible. It was hard to think about anything else.
And that’s when Coach Saban — the man who walked into my house four years ago and gave it to me straight, and who hasn’t stopped giving it to me that way since — gathered us all in the locker room and told us something I’ll never forget. Coach is the kind of guy who can look an entire room in the eye at once. And that’s what he did in that moment. He looked at our whole team … and then he paused for a second.
And then he said: “One game doesn’t define you.”
Now, you might be sitting there, reading this letter, and thinking, I don’t know — that sounds like a pretty throwaway line. You might be thinking about how that just sounds like one of those … Things That Coaches Tell Their Players. Like some tired old football cliché. And the truth is: Spoken by anyone else, yeah, you might be right. It probably would be.
But that’s what makes Coach Saban the coach he is, and what makes this program the program that it will always be. We’ve somehow developed a culture here at Alabama — even with all of the hype that comes with college football — that is based on being real with each other. No bluster. No egos. No worrying about what the rest of the country is up to. Just football … and family … and the reality that we’re in this together.
And so, when someone at Alabama tells you, “We want you in Tuscaloosa” — that means you get yourself to Tuscaloosa. And when someone at Alabama tells you, “Hey, good job” — that means you did a good-ass job. And when one of the greatest coaches in the history of football tells you, “One game doesn’t define you” — then, man, you can rest assured, there’s no cliché about it: One game doesn’t define you.
Mark LoMoglio/Icon Sportswire
People on the outside probably imagined us getting chewed out after the Clemson game. Our coach, yelling at us, after we failed to execute. Our fan base, turning against us, after we came up short. But what actually happened that night couldn’t be further from those things. Here’s the truth: The night that I felt most loved, and most supported, by the supposed “win first, everything else second” Alabama football community….
Was after a loss.
I’m leaving Alabama with my head held high.
I’m leaving with three straight SEC titles, three straight NCAA playoff appearances, two straight national championship game appearances and one national title.
But I’m also leaving with so much more. I’m leaving with dozens of brothers — guys who are going to be my brothers for life. I’m leaving with a degree in financial planning that will empower me to take control of my future. And most of all, I’m leaving with no fears or doubts about what I’m capable of as I move on to this next chapter.
I’ve taken four years worth of econ tests (sometimes brutal), eaten four years worth of BBQ (usually awesome), and — let’s face it — beaten four years worth of teammates at 2K (always satisfying).
And yeah, I played some football. And now I’m heading off to play some more.
But I’ll never forget where I came from.
Kevin Liles/The Players' Tribune
To every Crimson Tide fan out there: You are what makes this place special. Thank you, for everything, from the bottom of my heart.
To next year’s team: You are a tough, talented group. Now go finish what we started.
And finally, to Coach Saban: You were right — One game doesn’t define you.
But one decision can.
And in my case, I’m proud to say, one has.
I decided to come to Alabama.