June 7, 2011
By Jack Smith
Blayne Alexander choked back tears when he talked about what Coach Gene Chizik's visit meant to him, to his church and to the Pleasant Grove community he calls home.
"I've heard him talk about family and community on TV," Alexander said. "I'm an Alabama fan. I've even got my hat on today, but just to see him show up out here, it means a lot. You put all the other stuff aside. He's here to help us. He doesn't know us. He just shows up with his players. It means a lot."
Chizik visited with Alexander at First Baptist Church in Pleasant Grove, where he, a group of football players and other Athletics staff members helped clean up after the April 27 tornadoes that devastated Alabama. As bad as it was-the twisted steeple dangled precariously from the front of the sanctuary-the damage at the church seemed minor compared to the horrific scene on Seventh Avenue a short walk away.
After several hours of cleaning up Sunday school classrooms and hauling debris away from the church grounds, Chizik and his players took a solemn walk down the devastated residential street. It resembled a war zone. Helicopters thundered overhead while volunteers dodged debris and downed power lines, circling the unmarked streets in pick-up trucks and on fourwheelers, offering water and food to residents who picked through what little remained of their homes. Others just sat-helplessly exposed in the bright sun on barren slabs that two days earlier were living rooms.
Phyllis Tipper, eyes heavy with mist as she talked about how close her son's family came to death, was surprised to learn Chizik and his players were in her town so soon after the disaster.
"I couldn't believe he would take the time to come here and see us and help lift our spirits," Tipper said.
Tipper's son, Shawn Burchfield, gave Chizik an emotional account of the horror that unfolded when the storm lifted the roof off his home and collapsed its walls as he huddled in a closet with his wife, 8-year-old daughter and a mattress. They survived, but their neighbor didn't. Moments after emerging from the storm, Burchfield found her body in his backyard. He stopped midway through the story, hunched over and put his hands on his knees. Chizik put an arm around his shoulder.
Auburn football player Trovon Reed, a Louisiana native who made the trip to Pleasant Grove, witnessed similar devastation when Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast. Reed was still left shaking his head.
"It was a disaster," Reed said. "We saw so many folks without their homes. I experienced something like this before in the New Orleans area during Katrina. Katrina was bad, but we had water. These people here are struggling and don't even have water. From house to house, I saw a whole block that was gone."
Freshman defensive tackle Jeffrey Whitaker said he would never forget what he saw in Pleasant Grove.
"You really can't describe it," Whitaker said. "Like Coach Chizik always says, today is a day you will never see again, so do something positive. Hopefully, we have done something positive to help these people."
The idea to load up buses with football players and staff and head to Pleasant Grove and Cullman came about when Chizik and Athletics Director Jay Jacobs talked about what could be done to help on the day Auburn's football team had originally been scheduled to visit the White House.
"Coach Chizik had done this before when he was at Iowa State, and he wanted to do what he could," Jacobs said. "We already had the buses reserved, so we got some players and other athletics department staff together, split up into two groups and reached out to communities where we could help without getting in the way."
Jacobs said the staggering scenes of destruction reminded him what's really important.
"It just reminds us that every day is a blessing, every day is a gift, and we are here to love our neighbors," Jacobs said. "Seeing it made me realize that the recovery from this disaster is going to be a long and difficult process. We're going to have to continue to pull together as a state long after the news trucks are gone."
While Chizik and Jacobs spent the day in Pleasant Grove, another team of players and staff responded in Cullman. They distributed food and water at a shelter, then removed trees and other debris from a residential area rocked by the storms. Chizik said the scene in Pleasant Grove was eerily similar to what he saw in Iowa, when an F-5 tornado tore through the tiny town of Parkersburg in 2008.
"Until you see this devastation and you are around it, you have no idea," Chizik said. "It's shocking to see so many people displaced and so many lives displaced, so much chaos. This is just a little thing we can do to help give back. We just rolled up here and said, `What do you need us to do?' We're here to help. We're just picking up and cleaning up and taking orders, whatever they need us to do."
Chizik said he hoped his players would learn a life lesson from the destruction they saw and the people they helped.
"As I tell our players all the time, we weren't
put on this earth to be served, but to serve. We
are here to help others. We have the capacity to
help others, and that is what we're going to do."