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CBSSports.com Senior College Football Columnist

BCS title will help 'bury the pain' for Tide's Tinker, other tornado victims


NEW ORLEANS -- About 20 minutes after Alabama defeated No. 1 LSU, 21-0, in the BCS title game, a group of reporters crowded around diminutive Jeremy Shelley. The 5-10, 165-pound junior had just set a BCS title game record with five field goals, which is one more than he said he had ever even attempted in any game.

Not bad for a guy who was part of the Tide kicking tandem that went 2 for 6 on field-goal tries in Alabama's 9-6 loss to LSU in the first meeting of these teams back in November.

Shelley's best friend on the team, his long snapper Carson Tinker, stood, still in his pads, 2 feet away, on the other side of an overstuffed garbage can in the back corner of the steamy Crimson Tide locker room, just beaming as he watched his pal hold court.

"I'm just going to watch Shelley," Tinker said, watching his friend get asked about his great night. "He deserves it."

By then, Tinker had fielded more than his share of questions after the game, too. Usually, long snappers are the most anonymous guys on their teams. Well, if they're good long snappers -- and Tinker is very good. He said he hasn't botched a snap in years.

But Carson Tinker isn't just another long snapper, or just another 'Bama player. His story became one of the faces of catastrophe last offseason when tornadoes ripped through the state of Alabama and devastated Tuscaloosa on April 27.

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As one massive tornado barreled toward the town, Tinker huddled in a closet with his girlfriend Ashley Harrison. The tornado ravaged the house, shredding it, and in the process, sucked Tinker, Harrison and everyone else there up, shooting into the sky. Tinker's body landed some 50 yards away from where their house had been. When he awoke hours later in a hospital, he learned Ashley didn't survive after having been ripped from his arms.

The devastation from that tornado and others that ripped apart the area took the lives of more than 250 people in Alabama. Fifty-two of those were in Tuscaloosa.

In the aftermath of the devastation, the entire state of Alabama pulled closer together over the weeks and months since. 'Bama coach Nick Saban often spoke about how his team would be part of the healing, offering to help in any way they could. For everything that Tinker was dealing with, he became only that much closer to Shelley and his teammates, knowing they would be there for him.

The camaraderie that can build within these teams is truly one of the best things about sports. Not just about what it can mean to these 18- and 19-year-olds, but also the faith and trust they can feel from those around them who invest so much energy and passion into supporting them.

About 84 hours ago, Tinker was there to have the back of Shelley and sophomore Cade Foster, the other Tide kicker, who went 1 for 4 on field-goal attempts against LSU, as the team participated in Friday's media day. Tinker knew how invasive being on the other side of people's curiosity can be.

When I visited with Tinker on Friday morning, one of the biggest things on his mind, he said as we chatted, would be how his buddies would get treated by the media, probing about their psyche. Tinker said he was very protective of them. He knew all about the hate mail the kickers had received.

"Jeremy and those guys mean more to me than words can truly explain," Tinker told me.

Said Shelley of Tinker's support and friendship: "It means so much to me. I've been fortunate enough to be by his side through all of this.

"It really stinks that things happen to the nicest and greatest of people, but I'm just happy that I can be there for him."

Foster explained after the game that the kickers knew they "were going to get grilled" at media day after their misses in the first game against LSU. "We just talked about staying positive through all the interviews," Foster said.

Of course, that is often easier said than done.

And that is why the way things unfolded Monday night made this championship only that much sweeter, that much more meaningful for Tinker, Shelley, their teammates and the folks back in Alabama.

After Alabama returned to its locker room after the game, Saban told his team, "We buried the pain tonight." One of the Tide staffers in the locker room speculated that exactly what Saban was referring to in regards to that "pain" was probably a combination of things, ranging from last year's gut-wrenching loss to archrival Auburn in Tuscaloosa -- where Alabama squandered a 24-0 lead -- to that loss to LSU in November, to the overwhelming big-picture tragedy of the tornadoes.

"The same thing happened with [Hurricane] Katrina and the Saints going on to win the Super Bowl," Foster said. "After I get home, I'm going to do more back in the community to help. I want to make them [the people of Alabama] feel like they were a part of this, because they were."

Shelley was asked about the hate mail and if the venom that spewed toward him after the LSU loss in November had prompted him to steer clear of social networking sites, where players are so accessible. It hadn't, but the kickers' struggles also sparked a wave of support, too. "That helped me a lot," he said. "I don't even know some of these people, and they had faith in me."

The kicker acknowledged that he had gone from "the lowest of the lows to the highest of the highs."

As more reporters and more cameras gathered around Shelley, his larger teammates started to file out of the cramped locker room. A few did like Jesse Williams, 'Bama's 319-pound defensive lineman did. "Shelley, you're my hero," Williams yelled, while passing by.

Tinker said one of the great things about Shelley is that he's such "a cool cat."

The long snapper from Murfreesboro, Tenn., is, too.

"I'm just one of the guys who was affected [by the tornadoes]," he said. "I do hope the people of Alabama can feel this [joy]. I wish they could hold that crystal trophy up just like me. It's for everybody that was affected."

Bruce Feldman is a senior writer for CBSSports.com and college football commentator for CBS Sports Network. He is a New York Times Bestselling author, who has written books including Swing Your Sword, Meat Market and Cane Mutiny. Prior to joining CBS, Feldman spent 17 years at ESPN.

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