Year after year, the University of Alabama Crimson Tide battles for college football’s national championship, and this season should be no different on the field. But this fall, life itself is different in Tuscaloosa.
As the Tide returns to the gridiron in hopes of dominating SEC opponents between the hash marks, members of the football family—many of whom participate in FCA’s oldest collegiate Huddle—hope that God will use their team to bring hope and healing to a community still picking up the pieces after a devastating tornado ripped a mile-wide swath of destruction through the city last April.
It was a time that, apart from the game, defined them as men more than athletes, and one on which they reflect often.
“When it came to the recovery efforts, our guys really stepped up and did whatever they could to help,” said Gary Cramer, who is in his sixth year as the FCA campus director at Alabama. “Because we don’t have a pro sports team in Alabama, it’s very prestigious to be an athlete here, especially for a football player. But, when this happened, I don’t think our athletes thought that they were anything special. They were just part of what needed to be done at the time.”
It was a testament to what Cramer and many in the Tuscaloosa community have believed for years—that God is at work in and through the Crimson Tide.
Cramer (left) and Alex Thompson of the Alabama Sports Information Department teamed up in relief efforts after the tornado.
Looking back over the history of the program, it seems that each time the team has claimed a major bowl game victory or earned a national championship, a number of Alabama players—even the superstars—have been at work proclaiming God’s glory on a broader scale.
“We try to set our athletes free from the identity they’ve gained from their sport,” said Cramer, who spent more than a decade as a pastor before joining FCA. “Athletics will fail them at some point—guaranteed. We want to help them see that the only identity they can ‘lock and load’ is in Christ and then teach them how to use the incredible platform God has given them as Alabama athletes for His glory.”
After the tornado had passed on April 27, Alabama Head Football Coach Nick Saban gathered his team together to ensure that everyone was accounted for. Although their season had ended months before and any remaining academic activity was canceled, members of the Crimson Tide poured into the community—the same one that had, for years, cheered their every pass, run, catch and tackle. All they wanted to do was serve amid the devastation.
“We had my dad’s truck and a Gator packed full of food and drinks that we’d gathered from our football training room,” said Cramer’s youngest son, Robby, a long-snapper for the Tide and one of roughly 20 players who rushed to the aid of their adopted hometown. “We went out for hours at a time, passing things out and then going back to restock with more. And seeing my dad at work in the following weeks was amazing. I have no clue how he managed it. He was out in the community helping people and, at the same time, his phone was ringing every 20 seconds because he was coordinating relief efforts in so many places.”
In the days after the tornado, members of the Tide family worked with purpose and vision, fueled by a satisfaction that was more intense than any sports euphoria.
“We had guys who were on search and rescue, pulling people out of rubble and trying to help find survivors,” Cramer said. “It brings tears to my eyes just thinking about it now—these big athletes assuming the roles of servants, loading up cases of water on their shoulders and walking with a purpose into the neighborhoods.”
In total, the storm killed more than 230, including five Alabama students—one the girlfriend of another Crimson Tide long-snapper, Carson Tinker, who was himself thrown more than 50 yards from his home, suffering a concussion and fractured wrist.
“Carson is a phenomenal kid, and he did all he could to protect and shelter his girlfriend,” Cramer said. “After the storm, I spent a lot of time with him, his family and his girlfriend’s family. It was incredibly hard, but I believe God knows what He’s doing. If I hadn’t had 14 years of pastoral ministry experience, though, I don’t know if I would have been equipped to help meet the needs.”
Cramer’s own story has taken its share of unique turns over the years. After earning his doctorate at Dallas Theological Seminary and serving as a pastor, he joined FCA staff in 2003 as an area representative. Cramer served colleges, high schools and middle schools across three Alabama counties before he transitioned to the University of Alabama to serve as the campus director.
According to Robby Cramer, his friends and teammates refer to his dad simply as “Coach,” a term of endearment for a man who, beyond any professional role, wears the hats of friend, spiritual mentor and father-figure.
“The role he plays in athletes’ lives is different for every individual,” Robby said. “It’s amazing considering the contrasts of personalities on our team and how he seems to reach all of them in some way.”
Alabama’s head football athletic trainer, Jeff Allen, also stands among those amazed at the impact of a single man. According to Allen, Cramer’s willingness to get real and be transparent with the Tide’s student-athletes goes a long way toward building meaningful relationships with them.
Through Cramer’s ongoing relationships with former Alabama stars in the pros, a partnership was developed with apparel maker Under Armour, who provided 15,000 pieces of clothing to distribute to local residents impacted by April’s deadly tornado. Gatorade and others provided assistance as well.
“We’re blessed with the opportunity and ability to be able to pull these guys together,” Cramer said. “Companies like these know they can trust FCA, and, if there’s anyone connecting with these guys, it’s going to be us because of what God has used this ministry for in their lives.”
“When those kids are struggling or having issues, Gary is there for them,” Allen said. “It’s difficult to explain other than that it’s just the Holy Spirit working through him. God has put Gary in that position and given him the talents and abilities to attract people to Christ, and that’s what he does.”
Regardless of what his official title may be—a list that even includes former Little League coach and current teacher of a freshman-level course for Alabama athletes—Cramer said seeing people find their identity in Christ and light up in their giftedness for Him fuels his desire to keep reaching out.
“A shepherd is always a shepherd,” Cramer said. “I know who I am, and I know that’s my identity as far as what I’m called to do. It’s not much different than what I was doing at churches; it’s just that, these days, the members of my flock all wear cleats or high-tops.”
That mentality is personal not only to Cramer, but to his family as well, all of whom have invested in some sort of ministry through FCA.
His wife, Wendy, a math teacher in their hometown of Hoover, Ala., formerly sponsored Hoover High’s FCA Huddle, and the couple’s three children—Gary, a first baseman/DH at Samford University; Robby; and Mandy, an Alabama freshman—all have been active participants in Huddles, camps and other ministry activities.
As far as the university itself goes, FCA’s ties to the Crimson Tide date back to 1964 when nine students started weekly meetings with Allen Watson, a local Baptist pastor, in the basement of his church. Almost 50 years later, the tradition continues.
“Gary’s built upon a great tradition that the University of Alabama has had with FCA,” said Crimson Tide Associate Athletic Director Kevin Almond. “He’s been outside the box on a lot of things to see what works best for both Alabama and his ministry and how we can best work together to reach these kids. He’s just an outstanding individual who loves Christ and sharing FCA’s vision.”
Today, the Alabama Huddle attracts upward of 100 students and includes athletes from nearly all Alabama athletic teams. Through large-group meetings, small groups, Coaches’ Huddles and character studies, members of the Tide’s Huddle continue to draw closer to Christ and each other.
And, in an effort to be even more effective, Cramer and fellow FCA staff member Scotty Hollins, who joined him at Alabama in 2009, also have partnered with the university’s chapter of Athletes in Action to provide a number of small groups and studies for the university’s female athletes.
“It brings tears to my eyes just thinking about it now—these big athletes assuming the roles of servants, loading up cases of water on their shoulders and walking with a purpose into the neighborhoods.”
– FCA’s Gary Cramer
“Our emphasis is not about how many people we have at a meeting, but about how many folks are becoming fully devoted and mature followers of Christ,” Cramer said. “One way we measure success is through how many kids are reproducing themselves as followers of Christ in other student-athletes.”
The reproduction of believers was as evident as ever back in April. NFL firstround draft picks Julio Jones and Marcell Dareus—alongside former Tide stars Rashad Johnson of the Arizona Cardinals and Brandon Deaderick of the New England Patriots—were among members of the Alabama athletic program who took to the streets in response. Countless other alums also contacted Cramer hoping to help from afar.
“The community was so in shock at the time; only the spectators were the ones star-struck by our guys being out there,” Cramer said. “Everybody else was just so grateful. Even though the academic year was over, our guys jumped at the chance to go serve in the community. Their first thought was ‘Let’s go help.’”
Today, Tuscaloosa remains in a recovery state with residents looking forward to Alabama’s upcoming season as an avenue of escaping from their situation and surroundings. Cramer’s prayer for the city is simple and one that goes beyond championship glory: that the Crimson Tide will lift the spirits of the fans while serving as a vehicle to help Christ bring true, lasting hope to their hearts.
“When you step between those white lines, nothing is more important than the game—you play with everything you’ve got because, if you don’t, you’re cheating God and the gifts He’s given you,” Cramer said. “When it comes to life, though, the game is trivial. If we can somehow use what we do and play this game in such a way so that God gets the glory, we’ll bring a lot of joy to people’s lives as a result. When God is where God belongs, everybody benefits.”
Disaster or not, the Tide rolls on.