TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — David Jones saw the best of Alabama's community in the worst of times.
Jones, a Notre Dame cheerleader, was part of a group of two dozen Fighting Irish athletes that came to Tuscaloosa during fall break in 2011. They were there for a week of cleanup and hard work in a grieving town where more than 50 were left dead because of a tornado a few months earlier.
Now, a year and a half after that week of bonding and goodwill, Notre Dame and Alabama are getting ready to play each other for the BCS national championship.
"With the hospitality I had down in Alabama, it became one of my favorite schools," Jones said. "There's no hostility, but more karma. You meet all these different faces of the Alabama community. You're just amazed by them and now you're playing them."
There were no football players during that weeklong service project dubbed "Fight for Tide". They were preparing for the 2011 season, after all.
It wasn't about football, anyway. Or basketball. Or softball.
The service project began with a call from Tim Cavanaugh, assistant director of Alabama's ticket office, to Notre Dame program coordinator Sarah Smith seeking donations. The two interned together in South Bend.
That call resulted in clothes shipped to Tuscaloosa, and ultimately the 675-mile bus ride and weeklong trip.
"It's one of those things that when special things arise we try to do something if we have the resources and the interest from the student-athletes," said Smith, adding that a group had traveled to New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina. "It all just kind of came together for the Alabama trip. A lot of kids were talking about it. We sent a bunch of clothes down there but then the conversation kind of snowballed to, Why don't we go down there?"
Other schools' students and fans also offered a hand in Tuscaloosa, including those who pull for Auburn.
Tragedy trumps rivalry any day.
"I think it speaks volumes for the kind of character and leadership that those people have, from whatever schools they come from," Tide football coach Nick Saban said. "People came here from Auburn, which we appreciated. They came from Kent State. I think a willingness to serve other people who are in need at the time for whatever reasons, I think speaks volumes for what kind of person somebody really is. We certainly appreciate that and certainly appreciate anything the Notre Dame students did for our community."
The Notre Dame group cleared out lots, hauled debris and dug a ditch. There was also lots of listening.
"Everyone had a story: Where they were, who in their family was affected," Smith said. "I think it was kind of healing for them to tell their story to other people and that we were down there showing that we cared.
"It kind of created this bond between us and everyone we met, this kind of appreciation that we were there in solidarity. That was pretty cool to feel."
Tide softball coach Patrick Murphy and some of his players worked with the Notre Dame athletes on a site a few miles from campus in Alberta City and took them to dinner.
"I think they made a lot of fans in Tuscaloosa because that night when we went to eat, there were several people that came up to me and asked what was going on," Murphy said. "I said, 'This is a group of Notre Dame student-athletes.' And people gave me a look like, 'Notre Dame?'
"I can remember reading in the newspaper people wrote and said that, 'Our opinion of Notre Dame has changed tremendously.' Just a wonderful gesture by these student-athletes. All of us were really touched by it."
Alabama athletic director Mal Moore, a former Notre Dame assistant football coach, asked to meet with the group from South Bend. He gathered them at midfield in Bryant-Denny Stadium during a stadium tour.
"I told them about my days at Notre Dame and how much I loved my time there ... and how much it meant to me personally that they chose to come here to support Tuscaloosa and the university community after the tragic tornado came through," Moore said Friday. "I thanked them for that, and we had a good visit, made a bunch of pictures and had a good time. It was very inspiring to me that they chose to come down and give several days of their time to the community here."
Smith, meanwhile, said she was taken aback by the southern hospitality. They got a few cultural lessons on things like the meaning of "Roll Tide" and the houndstooth gear popularized by iconic Tide coach Bear Bryant.
"It was just so cool to share some time together," Smith said. "I definitely have a soft spot for Alabama.
"Any time humans are being kind and caring for one another and have that kind of spirit of hospitality, how can you not respect that?"
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