Football Writers Association of America 2012 BEST WRITING CONTEST

Christopher Walsh,

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For some, the tears haven't stopped.

For many, they haven't really started yet. It's hard to cry when you're numb and exhausted.

Christopher Walsh
Age: 44
College: New Hampshire
Background: I have covered University of Alabama football since 2004 and for BamaOnline (247Sports) since 2009. I've also covered three National Football League teams and Major League Baseball. But, like Nick Saban, this is the longest I've ever been in one spot. Honors include a previous FWAA Best Writing Contest first in enterprise in 2007 and two second places, a First Amendment Award (formerly Freedom of Information Award) from the Associated Press Managing Editors, the Alabama Sports Writers Association's highest honor for story of the year, and two Pulitzer Prize nominations. I've written 18 books, including the recently updated "100 Things Crimson Tide Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die." My latest "side" project is the Ultimate Football Database: This fall I'm going to dare to get married during the middle of football season.

It's almost impossible to believe that it's only been three days since a monster tornado emerged in the southwest corner of Tuscaloosa and began a mile-wide path of carnage that essentially didn't stop until North Carolina. While it systematically and methodically destroyed and killed, it also ripped a hole in every single person here who was fortunate enough to survive.

Words simply can't describe what people have seen and endured. This wasn't something on television or in an unfamiliar place. They saw it while looking out of their windows, heard it as it ripped through everything in its way and felt it as it cut through the heart of this community.

The gash goes deeper than any satellite image can show. Anyone who calls Tuscaloosa home knows people who lost their businesses, homes or lives. We're talking about our friends, our colleagues, our loved ones.

After surveying the scene President Barack Obama said "I've never seen devastation like this" about what will almost certainly go down as the deadliest tornado ever. To come up with a comparison, one needs to talk with those who experienced Hurricane Andrew or Katrina, or even a war zone.

That's what 15th Street and McFarland Boulevard, perhaps the busiest intersection in town, resembles. Nearby Hokkaido Restaurant was completely destroyed. The pile of rubble across the street gives no hint to what was there before. The path of destruction goes well beyond what the eye can see.

Standing there one can't help but fear the worst. You wonder what happened to those driving down I-359 when the tornado crossed, if people inside places like Mike & Ed's and Full Moon Bar B Que got out safety and pray that Chuck E. Cheese wasn't full of children.

Although the death toll will rise significantly, two names gave an immediate face to this disaster: Loryn Brown, the well-known daughter of former Alabama football player Shannon Brown, and Ashley Harrison.

I had gotten to know Ashley a little over the past year as we shared a favorite hangout. She was bright, friendly and eager, and we talked about everything from her hometown of Dallas to her future plans with boyfriend Carson Tinker, the Crimson Tide's long-snapper. The last time I saw her was before Alabama's second spring scrimmage, when Ashley ran up and gave me a hug before entering Bryant-Denny Stadium.

She was 22.

I found out about her death after spending the first of two days helping friends Alex Perez and Kathryn Lo Porto, who lived in the area known as Cedar Crest, between 15th and DCH Hospital (which was narrowly spared). It's a neighborhood I've traveled through nearly every day while covering Alabama football for BamaOnline, just like I used to navigate through equally decimated Alberta City to get to work.

Their house was near the back of the community that brushed up against the businesses on McFarland, and one could sit on their front deck and see Krispy Krème Doughnuts a little more than 100 yards away. They were home when the tornado hit and at the last second jumped into the hallway under the attic door, before grass, fiberglass and steak knives started to fly. Unknown to them until later, a Krispy Krème truck had been thrown into their yard, hitting Alex's car before finally coming to a stop next to their deck and acting as a bit of a buffer.

That's right, a truck hitting their house may have been a good thing.

While salvaging what they could, people kept coming by. The first were neighbors, to check on one another and swap stories. Two doors down there was an empty foundation where a house had stood, next to where the guy with the motorcycle helmet became local lore. He had grabbed his dogs, chained them to him and jumped into a bathtub, and as everything started to twist and disintegrate the dogs started to be pulled away when he tightened his grip and refused to let go. Somehow they all survived.

But not all the stories were as uplifting. A woman told of how someone had put her wide-screen TV in her car and then realized it couldn't be driven so abandoned both. Another had his prescription drugs and alcohol swiped. Onlookers kept walking by as if it was a novelty and some were making their children walk though the dangerous area without adequate protection.

Then the volunteers followed and kept coming at a phenomenal rate. "What do you need?" and "Please take some water," were regularly overheard and welcomed. At midday the owner of Sips N Strokes came by with sandwiches followed by Bottom Feeders with more food later in the afternoon.

Similarly, many of those in the Alabama athletics department made heart-felt contributions, for which they haven't wanted attention. Nick Saban brought water into a ravished area and visited a shelter. Gene Stallings worked a grill for emergency workers. Men's basketball coach Anthony Grant volunteered to help in any way he could. While at Temporary Emergency Services, softball coach Patrick Murphy saw former football player DeMeco Ryans make an "unreal" financial donation.

It's been nothing short of remarkable, from them and so many others. There will be heartache, grieving and some scars that will never completely heal. The number of volunteers will thin, the donations will slow to a trickle and the mangled landscape will improve with time.

Eventually, proud Tuscaloosa will begin to turn its attention toward rebuilding and, believe it or not, in some ways will be a stronger community. That much has already been proven, only the tears will continue.

We have so far left to go.

Comment by the judge, Mickey Spagnola: This was the best group of columns we've had in quite some time. Very difficult to narrow down to three winners and three honorable mentions, so a lot of close calls, and even had trouble differentiating first place from third place. Very tight. Ultimately, the first place story on the tornado tragedy hitting Tuscaloosa did a great job of not only tugging at heart strings, but the personal association with the tragedy brought the emotion of a city to the forefront and put the reader right in the neighborhoods. Good stuff.

Second Place: Ivan Maisel,
Third Place: Gene Wojciechowski,
Honorable Mention: Malcolm Moran, published in The New York Times; Pat Forde, Yahoo! Sports; Brett McMurphy,