PRATT CITY, Ala. -- Football is often life throughout the South.
In no place is this phrase truer than in Alabama, which has BCS titles from each of the two most prominent in-state programs in each of the past two seasons.
Football this weekend, however, was more about the slightly worn pigskin on the corner of Dugan and Hibernian.
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It used to get thrown around the lot across the street by local kids. Now it sat by itself, next to a pair of jeans and a sweatshirt on the porch of a small blue house.
The football was lucky -- it made it through one of the worst natural disasters in the South in recent memory. The neighborhood where it sat nestled up to a partially standing house was not so lucky. A working-class suburb of Birmingham, Pratt City was only one of the areas hit hardest by storms Wednesday that were part of the second deadliest day of tornados in U.S. history. Thousands of homes are gone, thousands of citizens were injured and some that made it through the storm still are without power.
Volunteers descended on the region to help, but it was an unlikely group that pitched in and made a Saturday just a bit brighter for the area residents: the region's favorite sons and the lifeblood of the offseason, football recruits.
"Just seeing all of this ... it's devastating," McKees Rocks (Pa.) linebacker Deaysean Rippy said. "This is a way for us to give back. I know if I was in this predicament, I would want people to help."
Rippy, a MaxPreps top 100 recruit for the class of 2012, was one of about 30 players who competed in the Badger Sports 7-on-7 tournament at nearby Samford University on Saturday afternoon before making the drive to the north side of Birmingham to assist the people in the area. They helped stack mattresses at a local school, pass out water and clothes to residents and pick up what they could amid the destruction. The residents, most of whom were sitting on their front porch with blank stares pondering what was next, welcomed the players' help with open arms. Many were glad to see anyone offering to help but it seemed to mean more with them being football players.
"Everywhere needed it. We wanted to go somewhere where our efforts would be felt," Barron Flenory said. "We were listening to the radio and everyone was talking about Pratt City, Pratt City. We were like, 'What's Pratt City?' We talked to a few people and they were like, it's a place that wasn't getting any attention. We said we were on our way."
|This school is only a tiny part of the devastation in the Birmingham area. (CBSSports.com Original)|
"Just stopping and talking with people, that's the best part," Flenory said. "Helping pack out some beds and pass out some stuff, while that's needed, some of these people don't have any voice. No one's going to sit there and listen. There's not a lot of people that sat down and said, 'What happened?' We listened and that was the awesome part for me."
Most of the football players and staff almost stayed home this weekend. The 7-on-7 tournament was originally scheduled to be in Tuscaloosa at the home of the University of Alabama. That city took the brunt of the F-5 tornado that swept through the middle of the state all the way to North Carolina. Although Alabama's facilities were mostly unharmed, officials told organizers that it would be difficult to stage the event there this weekend.
There were thoughts of canceling but many of the teams had already committed money for hotel rooms and travel. A few were already en route. Luckily, Samford stepped in at the last minute and accommodated anything the tournament needed.
"In the hotel we stayed at last year, just a block away [from the fields in Tuscaloosa], it was just completely gone," said Kashann Simmons, who operates the camps with Flenory and drove through the city. "The CVS, the McDonald's, everything. It was just totally wiped out.
"The pictures just don't do it any justice. I was devastated for them. My heart goes out to them. I just can't put it into words."
|These Pratt City residents were more than happy to talk football and forget about their troubles for a little while. (CBSSports.com Original)|
"All of them are bad. One like this, you don't really know how to describe it," he said. "It's worse than a lot of the stuff I've seen. When you get out here, only then can you get feel of how bad it is."
When those in charge of volunteers in the area said they had to wrap things up because it was getting dark outside, the players started the mile-long walk to their bus. They stopped at any house with people in it until it was almost pitch black, seeing if they needed anything or if they just wanted to talk. They prayed with some. They listened to what it was like as the tornado rolled through. They even ran into Jesse Jackson and chatted briefly with him about their experiences.
"If the camp is not a success, who cares? We were coming down here to help," Flenory said. "Whether it be in Pratt City, Birmingham, Tuscaloosa, wherever, we were coming to help. We were coming to help."
On the way back to their bus, a woman in a bright orange Auburn shirt stopped the group.
"Y'all aren't going to Alabama, are you?" she said before eventually letting out a "War Eagle!"
Her chuckle at the end of the line said she was only half-joking. The look in her eyes said she was just glad they came.