That’s the only word I can use to describe it. Nothing else really sums it up.
And I remember the feeling like it was yesterday.
I was right there — front and center, on the sideline, wearing my crimson, supporting my brothers, doing what we do — when Alabama faced off against Clemson last time around. I saw the whole thing go down. Up close. With my own two eyes.
And it was … tough.
The first image that pops into my head when I think back to that game is of the final play. I remember seeing the ball leave Deshaun Watson’s hand, and pretty much right after that, things got crazy.
He fired that pass to his receiver, but it seemed like the football was moving in slow motion there for a second. Everything went silent. And then, in an instant, time just sped up … and the sound came back all at once, in the form of a gigantic crowd pop … and well….
That was that.
In the blink of an eye, it was over.
The game. The season. The dreams of a 17th national title for the Crimson Tide.
All out the window.
John David Mercer/USA Today Sports
I didn’t see that ending coming, I can tell you that much.
But more than that final play, what I remember most from that night isn’t the game-winning touchdown, or really even anything that happened on the field. What I remember most is….
The heartbreak. That feeling everyone had when the game was over.
When I spoke with the players and coaches afterwards, you could just see the hurt on their faces. And it was clear that what they were feeling wouldn’t be going away anytime soon.
But, at the same time, here’s the thing about heartbreak: There’s really only one true way to get over it, and that’s to push forward, plow ahead, and focus on the future rather than the past.
It’s easier said than done, of course. But sometimes after a crushing disappointment — just every once in a blue moon — things will kind of set up right for you, and fall into place, and then what happens next will almost seem like it’s something out of a movie.
Which … brings me to the present day.
Almost a year after that loss, with the heartbreak in the rearview mirror, it turns out that my Crimson Tide has received an amazing gift — a shot at redemption gift-wrapped for us right in time for the holidays.
Alabama vs. Clemson … Round 3.
Don Juan Moore/Getty Images
My Crimson Tide has received an amazing gift — a shot at redemption gift-wrapped for us right in time for the holidays.
So, yeah … it’s Clemson.
Are you kidding me? A grudge match? For a spot in the national championship game?
It really doesn’t get any better than this! I honestly wish this game could happen right now — like literally as I’m sitting here typing this out. That’s how hyped I am for these playoffs. I don’t want to wait anymore for kickoff.
Now, of course, this time around things are a bit different for my guys than they were last year.
We’re flying under the radar right now. No one’s talking about us. Heck, we even had to sweat it out just to grab that last spot in the playoff.
And believe me, I’ve been hearing all about it.
When you’re an Alabama guy, people will always want to talk noise to you. Because of all the history, and how dominant the program has been recently, you’ve got a target on your back. It just comes with the territory, and, to be honest, we all love it, because it just goes to show how successful the program has been. But, yeah, after that Auburn game, the haters definitely came out of the woodwork. And it’s just continued on through the run-up to this game.
But if the guys on the team are reading this, I can tell you this much: All us Alabama players in the league are holding it down for you and standing up for you behind the scenes.
We all stick together, for sure. We roll deep.
I’m constantly talking and texting with other NFL guys about the Tide during college football season. It’s me, Julio, Dont’a Hightower, Upshaw, Mark Barron, just a whole ton of guys who I played with in Tuscaloosa. We all have so much pride in the Alabama tradition and history. I can’t explain to you how amped up we get for the games each Saturday. And … how proud you make us, week in and week out.
We see you guys, believe me!
Just watching you out there on the field representing our school is something all Alabama players in the league enjoy more than almost anything else in the world. We pull for you with all our hearts, and it’s special for us. So know that we’ll all be watching with great pride during these playoffs, and doing everything in our power to show our support and love.
But I want to be clear about something. And this is important, so for those of you on the current team reading this, please listen up right here. If there’s one thing that you should take away from this piece, please let it be this:
Don’t play this game for me or Julio or any of the other NFL guys in Crimson Nation. Don’t play this game for the millions of Alabama fans around the world. Don’t play it to live up to some expectation based on the history of this program or for the media attention a great performance would bring.
Forget about all that stuff. Put it all out of your mind. For real. Instead….
Play this game for yourselves. For each other. For this team.
Make your own legacy.
Simon Bruty/SI/Getty Images
This is your time.
Yes, of course, it’s a chance to add another national title to the storied history of the program, and to make a lot of people very happy, but what I really would like to get across is that, for you guys, the players on this team, it’s an opportunity to cement your own legacy.
You have the chance to go out and write your own story — to make your mark.
Every Alabama team is different. Each year’s team has its own identity and characteristics and special elements. That’s what’s makes following this program so much fun.
There’s always a high standard, a baseline, when you play football at Alabama. But anyone who has played for the Crimson Tide will tell you that, as both a player and as a team each year, you want to leave your own stamp on the history of this program, your own unique legacy. And when you get to where this team is at right now, the opportunity to do something truly historic, as a team, becomes all the more real.
I mean, were this team to rebound from that tough loss in the Iron Bowl, roll into New Orleans and avenge last year’s defeat at the hands of Clemson, and then go out the following week and bring home another national championship….
How incredible would that be?
Can you imagine the legacy there?
We’d be telling stories about this team forever.
Steve Mitchell/USA TODAY Sports
Making that happen is all going to come down to leadership and execution.
When it comes to leadership, we couldn’t be in a better spot because it all starts at the top. Coach Saban and his staff are the best in the business at leading and inspiring players to reach a level of excellence in big games. Coach knows better than anyone how to prepare a team for these matchups, and I can tell you from experience that what happened in the Auburn game is a distant memory for him at this point. He moved on to thinking about the next game almost immediately.
This is a man who, after our national championship in 2009, was talking to me the next day about spring practices and getting ready to win another one. He knows exactly how to turn the page and place the focus where it should be.
On the field, there are leaders everywhere you look, too. There will be lots of guys who felt that heartbreak last year, and who learned how razor-thin the margin can be between winning and losing a national title. I’m confident those guys are going to be doing everything in their power to guide the younger players and to make sure this team is ready for what’s ahead. Plus, don’t forget, this team also has a bunch of guys who won it all two years ago — players who know what it takes to bring home a title. So, from both sides of it, there is an abundance of wisdom and knowledge and experience that will come in handy during this playoff.
Now it’s just a matter of going out and doing it.
It’s about going from dreaming about a legacy … to cementing one.
And let me tell you, if you’re able pull together as a team and make that happen, it will be one of the greatest feelings imaginable.
John David Mercer/USA Today Sports
When that team I played on my sophomore year won it all, and we left our mark on college football history by bringing Crimson Nation our first national title since 1992, it resulted in one of the most emotional, joyous and special moments of my life.
Before I tell you about it, though, I want to just say one last thing … to the guys on this year’s team:
This is your time to shine. Point blank. The floor is yours. Everything is sitting out there for you right now. All you need to do is go out and grab it. You have an opportunity to do something special, something you’ve been dreaming about since you were a little kid.
But you’re ready. All of you. This team is ready.
Don’t let the stage be too big, or get caught up in what’s going on outside your locker room. Just follow your coaches, do your job, and leave everything you have out there on the field with your brothers. If you do that, I can tell you that special things will follow.
I’ll also tell you this: I’ll be right there watching it all go down — front and center, rocking my crimson gear, showing the love. I wouldn’t miss this for the world.
And when I’m down there on the sideline, I can guarantee you that at some point my mind is going to flash back to the night when our team won it all at the Rose Bowl eight years ago.
I’ll remember charging out of the tunnel before the game, and a few big runs, of course. But what I’ll remember most will be the moment, after the game ended, when I got the chance to run up to my mom and give her a big, huge hug.
I was overflowing with emotion at that point. My mom has meant everything to me for as long as I can remember. She’s shown me so much love and support over the years. And everything she’s done for me just hit me all at once when I gave her that hug. I’m getting choked up right now just writing about it. It’s a feeling that I can’t even put into words, it’s just something you have to experience for yourself.
And I want all of you guys on this year’s team to feel that level of joy at one point or another over the next two weeks.
So, if you can, do this one thing for me. Go out there and be outstanding during these playoffs. Be special and give it your best every time you set foot on the field. And then, when it’s all said and done, find someone who has been important, or influential, or inspiring to you over the years and give that person a gigantic hug, and just … enjoy the power and emotion of that moment. Give yourself over to that hug. Take it in and let it fill you up.
I’m telling you, there’s nothing like that feeling.