April 27 is a date all Alabamians will certainly never forget.

On that infamous day, tornadoes tore through the state, leaving behind death, destruction and devastation in their wake.

It’s been 129 days since then, and on Saturday, the city of Tuscaloosa, acknowledged by many as one of the most affected locations throughout the region, was pleased to finally see the return of college football, a welcome distraction considering all the university community has endured.

Chris Hagan, who last attended the University of Alabama in 1989, made the trip to Tuscaloosa for Saturday’s season-opening matchup featuring the No. 2-ranked Crimson Tide against the Kent State Golden Flashes. It marked the fifth trip the Anniston resident has made to the city since April 27, and he was quick to point out just how different Tuscaloosa and its citizens have been since the disaster.

“The entire city has changed,” Hagan said. “Lives have been changed. Philosophies have changed.”

Despite the differences, the Tide fan, who attends seven to eight football games a year, as well as numerous college basketball matchups, said the entire city has moved in the right direction — following a path that has involved a great deal of introspection and priority shifts.

“People look at each other differently now,” Hagan said. While choking up and wiping tears from his eyes, he added, “For anyone that’s spent any time here, it’s an emotional experience.

“There have been four months of healing, but this will pack that four months into one day.”

For Debbie Svensson, a Birmingham resident and Crimson Tide fan who attended Saturday’s game, she’s been back to Tuscaloosa several times since the day of devastation. Her daughter, Ellan, is a senior athletic training student at Alabama who lived only a quarter mile from the storm’s path.

Looking back on that infamous day, the mother said it was probably the scariest of her life, coming in a close second only to the Sept. 11 attacks.

Svensson firmly believes the city of Tuscaloosa has greatly healed in the 129 days— both physically and emotionally — and she admitted that the return of college football will certainly aid that process even more.

“It will help them (Tuscaloosa citizens) get it off their minds,” she said. “They need that, and it’s a huge step for moving forward.”

As far as fanaticism is concerned, she couldn’t help but give a shout out to the atmosphere that few college football cities can provide.

“There’s nothing better than a Saturday in Tuscaloosa,” she said.

 With all the damage that was incurred by the city, the  campus was left relatively unscathed, but Hagan wanted to commend officials for having the roads ready and preparing the town for all that comes along with hosting a college football game.

He had a special message for anyone who chose to gripe or moan about Saturday’s accommodations.

“Anybody that complains today, I hope they can’t have their tickets renewed,” Hagan said.

Ed and Carolyn Ford, of Orange Beach, also made the trek to Tuscaloosa Saturday. Ed had been back since the tornado, but it was Carolyn’s first time witnessing the devastation. One of the couple’s biggest observances was that “Forest Lake is not Forest Lake anymore. It’s just a lake, no trees.”

Between Tuscaloosa and Auburn, the state of Alabama is obviously a hotbed for diehard college football fans, and despite the tornado’s impact, Ed showed just how far some fans take Alabama football. While some look at the Crimson Tide’s 2011 campaign to serve as a distraction to the aftermath of April 27, he didn’t agree.

“It’s not a distraction,” he said. “This is life. The tornado was a distraction.

“If we lose to Kent State, that’s much worse.”

Rob Ketcham can be reached at 256-734-2131, ext. 257 or at robk@cullmantimes.com.

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