Monday, September 8, 2014

New Sports Illustrated Book Moves Even Non-Sports Fans

The story of a tornado, a town, and its beloved college football team

Lars Anderson has covered hundreds of important and interesting stories for Sports Illustrated during his 20-year career, but none was more significant or had as profound an impact as did his front-cover reporting of the EF-Level 4 tornado with 190 mph winds that shredded Tuscaloosa – and inspired a 21st century college football dynasty.

The April 27, 2011 storm lasted six minutes but changed many lives. Now, three years later, Lars is back with a new book – The Storm and the Tide: Tragedy, Hope, and Triumph in Tuscaloosa (Time Inc Home Entertainment, August 19, 2014) -- that dramatically and profoundly details the story of one town’s devastation and recovery – and its impact on the Crimson Tide – and how the University of Alabama football team helped, in turn, to heal the residents of the storm-ravaged area. 

The book, which just made The New York Times Sports Bestseller List, reminds us of how some of life's events can overshadow everything, and at the same time reminds us that sports can be used to help heal others. It provides a stunning behind-the-scenes look at how the deadliest tornado in the history of the South – 235 people died in three states in one day – inspired the University of Alabama to win its third national title in four years, a feat last accomplished by Nebraska in 1997, and before that, by Notre Dame, in 1949.

Indeed, Lars shows us how:
·         People come back even from the toughest loss of all.
·         To live with tragedy and not let it consume us.
·         Sports can still alleviate pain, and provide not just an escape, but an inspiration.
·         A community rallied itself together after a great natural disaster.
·         The culture of football and the healing of a community came together.
·         A team empowers itself to win, not just in spite of tragedy, but perhaps because of it

"Life is bigger than sports, but sometimes sports seems bigger than life," says Lars.  "This book shows us how the compassionate and competitive come together. For those looking to give life –and sports – context, this story does both.”

Lars also offers an insightful look at legendary football coach Nick Saban, revealing the following:
·         The secret source of his on-the-field success – and how he motivated a team to gridiron greatness
·         How his unrivaled recruitment methods give him a significant competitive edge.
·         What kind of person he is off the field.
·         How the tornado solidified that Alabama will be his home until he retires.
·         The impact the recovery of the town had on him – and how he helped heal and inspire many.
·         The psychology and philosophy that drives the most successful college football coach of his generation – and why his accomplishments already have surpassed those of Paul ‘Bear’ Bryant.
·         How he built a program that had won only six games before he took over and turned them into a powerhouse.

Lars interviewed scores of people for the book, including those on and closest to the members of the Crimson Tide, family members, alumni, former assistants to Saban and Mayor Walt Maddox of Tuscaloosa. He captures emotional moments of life and death, showing the moments leading up to the tornado, the aftershock of the damage toll, the town’s recovery, and the charge of a record-setting football team.

Lars’ book, with interviews and descriptive dialogue, brings us up close into the lives of several of the many impacted individuals. We get to know football star Carson Tinker, who lost his girlfriend when she was pulled from his protective arms and hurtled into the air. We meet fans Bob and Kathy Dowling, who have their home rebuilt by eight football players. We see how no one worked on the recovery effort harder than football player Barrett Jones.  And we go through the process of grieving with Darlene Harrison, who lost her daughter, Ashley, 20, to the storm.

“The catastrophic twister leveled this town of 90,000,” reflects Lars. “It killed 53 in Tuscaloosa, including six students, destroying or damaging 7274 homes and businesses, and left 6,000 unemployed. But the six minutes of damage ultimately, and amazingly, would inspire a good football team to greatness. The landscape-altering and life-changing events of April 27, 2011 will always be in the hearts and minds of those impacted. I still have nightmares about that day.”

The Storm and the Tide details what the championship run has meant and serves as a celebration of a team and a town. Each impacted the other like never before.

Lars donated some of his book’s proceeds to the scholarship fund of Ashley Harrison and Loryn Brown.

About Lars Anderson
Lars Anderson, the author of six books, spent two decades at Sports Illustrated writing profiles, features, home-length cover stories, games stories, scouting reports and essays for beats that included college and pro football, college and pro basketball, soccer, major league baseball, and NASCAR.  His newest book, The Storm and the Tide (Time Inc. Home Entertainment), is the true story of the 2011 tornado in Tuscaloosa, Alabama and how it inspired the greatest college football dynasty of the 21st century. He has been featured on Today Show, CNN, Fox, CBS Evening News, NBC Nightly News, ESPN, and NPR. He is a regular contributor on Alabama Tonight, on NBC-TV throughout Alabama. He is a contributing writer for the ESPN’s SEC TV Network and a blogger for Bleacher Report.

Q & A with Author Lars Anderson

1.      Lars, you were a writer for Sports Illustrated for 20 years and you could’ve written a book about anything. What drew you to this story? I was teaching a sportswriting class Alabama at the time and I saw the tornado pass five miles to the north of my house in Birmingham. I immediately knew I wanted to write something on how sports—football in particular—would help rebuild the city, but I waited about a week to pitch the story to the magazine editors in New York. When I did I was immediately given the green light and the next morning I made the 50-mile drive from my house to T-Town. The destruction I saw was unfathomable. Then I met with dozens of athletes, coaches and residents who all shared their stories of survival. Each tale was more gripping then the next. After the SI cover story was published, I literally received notes from readers around the world—Japan, Germany, England and countries in South America. I had an inkling this could make for a compelling book, but I needed to more time to pass to gain perspective, to witness the recovery, to understand fully what role the Crimson Tide would play in the rebuilding—both physically and psychologically—of Tuscaloosa. Then after Alabama won two straight national titles after the tornado, it was clear to me that this story warranted a long-form narrative.  To this this day, I’m still haunted by nightmares of what I witnessed in Tuscaloosa shortly after the tornado. The magazine piece will always be the most significant story I wrote in my 20-year SI career and my hope is that this book will give readers deeper insight into the horror of a tornado and the power of sports to help heal.

2.      You lived through the tornado and the subsequent events of April 27, 2011. How has the storm forever changed you? For starters, my pulse quickens every time I hear warning sirens wail. One of the first people to die that morning in the storm lived in a house in the neighborhood I now call home, Cahaba Heights. My future wife, April, who lived in Cahaba Heights, had an 80-foot oak tree knocked down in her backyard that narrowly missed crushing her bedroom. And I still have occasional nightmares of tornadoes.  But the biggest way this storm and this book has changed me is I now consciously embrace the present like never before. I’ve interviewed so many people who lost loved in the storm and they universally expressed how they didn’t cherish enough the person who died—didn’t tell them they loved enough, didn’t spend enough time with them, didn’t realize that it was the little things (the shared smiles, the sitting on the couch and watching television together, going to ball games together) that were so important. It’s almost like I’ve learned a new way of living through the reporting of this book, to always linger over those smell-the-roses moments, to sit still and revel in the present as much as possible.

3.      The Storm and the Tide is just as much about life as it is sports. How challenging was it for you to write about life and death issues?  Very challenging. Asking a mother or a father to discuss the day their child died is an immensely difficult task. I always told every person I interviewed that I would do my best to tell their story with integrity, dignity and grace, and that this book would hopefully serve as a tribute. I also made it clear that we only had to discuss topics with which they were comfortable, but to my surprise, no one held back. Not a thing. I heard from many that sharing their story with me had a therapeutic effect. I hope so. Still, these were emotionally painful sessions, reliving the worst day of people’s lives. I always tried to maintain my composure during these interviews, but there were times when we had to stop and just hug.  The honesty of so many is the emotional fuel that powers this narrative. The stories are so compelling and heart wrenching that, as a writer, my job often times was to make sure I stayed out of the way and didn’t inhibit the pace and rhythm of the narrative with flowery language. 

4.      What did you come to learn or affirm about the role of sports in our lives? There’s no doubt that sports, especially in a college town such as Tuscaloosa, can help people heal from emotional wounds. Winning football games didn’t bring any of those lives back that were taken by the storm, but in times of great trial, we search for things that make us feel normal again, if only momentarily. Everyone grieves in different ways. It was Elizabeth Kolbert who defined the five stages of grief—denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance—and Freud labeled grief as “work.” But in Nick Saban’s worldview, the best way to conquer a horrible event is to regain equilibrium as quickly as possible. So to his players and to his town, he preached a gospel of resiliency, of rebounding and focusing on what lay directly ahead. The sadness may never go away, but grief, to Saban, doesn’t have to be incapacitating. The examples of this in sports are myriad. In 1990 Buster Douglass knocked out the seemingly indestructible Mike Tyson only weeks after his mother died. A few months after that, the underdog basketball team from Loyola Marymount made a remarkable run to the Elite Eight days after its best and most beloved player, Hank Gathers, collapsed in the practice gym and died.  The importance of Alabama football in rebuilding Tuscaloosa cannot be overstated. If nothing else, the resiliency of the 2011 team served as an apt metaphor for the entire town. 

5.      How did the natural disaster impact a city and state in a way that ordinary people found solace in their college football team? It gave everyone in the state a reason to look forward at the promise of the future, rather than stay focused on the nightmare of April 27. Alabama is more obsessed with college football than any other state. It annually generates the highest TV ratings for games and there is more betting on college football in Alabama (where it is illegal) than anywhere other than Las Vegas (where it is legal). The sport is a 365-day topic of discussion here. March Madness? Heck, that’s spring football practice. The NBA Finals in June? That’s when the debates really heat up over who the starting quarterback should be.  So Crimson Tide football gave people—especially residents of Tuscaloosa—something to point to in the future. To a person in the throes of grief, this is vitally important.

6.      How did the Crimson Tide find inspiration, strength, courage, and motivation from the resulting destruction of the tornado? One message—let’s play for Tuscaloosa—was repeated throughout the season by the players, the coaches and everyone associated with the Crimson Tide program. There was a powerful feeling that it was their sworn duty to bring happiness to a place that had been visited by so much horror. To me, it felt like the same kind of feeling that compels a parent to work tirelessly for his child, a feeling that in literature motivated Atticus Finch to defend the downtrodden and Achilles to protect and fight to the death for the honor of his cousin Patroclus. There was clearly something strong—unquantifiable but as tangible as a clenched jaw—that swirled and roiled inside of every Alabama player and coach. They had lived through the tornado and seen its terrifying aftereffects every single day. The tornado bonded the team and the town together in a fashion that was unprecedented in college football history. The storm was the ultimate motivation for the Tide. 

7.      You had a chance to interview people who coached with and played for Nick Saban. What did you come to learn about the man who has led Alabama to three national championships in four years? The number one thing I learned was that the tornado changed him. His basic message to players and people radically altered after April 27th. He emphasized the importance of helping others, cherishing others. His wife, Terry, said that the days following the tornado were the first times that Nick had ever stopped thinking about football. He circle of friends grew. He softened—a little—in how he interacted with the media. He certainly did with me. When I went to talk to him after the storm, we were scheduled to chat for 20 minutes. The interview lasted well over an hour, which I’m willing to bet is the longest one-on-one interview he’s ever given to writer.  The former assistants I interviewed all shed light on his coaching genius and the secrets behind his program. I dig deep into the details of the day-to-day operations of the program that has been the college football’s most successful of the 21st century.  

8.      How would you handicap the 2014 college football season? Alabama must replace its starting quarterback, AJ McCarron. But the last two times the Tide has had a first year starter at QB under Saban—in 2009 and ‘11—Alabama won the national championship. This season you’ll see a classic Saban team: a dominating, big, physical defense and run-first, conservative offense. Despite losing their final two games last year, they’ll begin the season ranked in the top-five. What’s scary for the rest of the nation is that, from top to bottom, Saban has more talent on this roster than any he’s had in his eight years in Tuscaloosa.

Please note that Sports Illustrated is a client of Media Connect. Brian Feinblum’s views, opinions, and ideas expressed in this blog are his alone and not that of his employer, Media Connect, the nation’s largest book promoter. You can follow him on Twitter @theprexpert and email him at He feels more important when discussed in the third-person. This is copyrighted by BookMarketingBuzzBlog © 2014

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