Leap year: Football title, milestone tornado anniversary marked 2021 in Tuscaloosa

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Jan 1, 2021; Arlington, TX, USA;  Alabama running back Najee Harris (22) leaps over Notre Dame cornerback Nick McCloud (4) as he makes a long run for a first down Friday, Jan. 1, 2021 in the College Football Playoff Semifinal hosted by the Rose Bowl in AT&T Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Gary Cosby-USA TODAY Sports
Jan 1, 2021; Arlington, TX, USA; Alabama running back Najee Harris (22) leaps over Notre Dame cornerback Nick McCloud (4) as he makes a long run for a first down Friday, Jan. 1, 2021 in the College Football Playoff Semifinal hosted by the Rose Bowl in AT&T Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Gary Cosby-USA TODAY Sports

This year began with Tuscaloosa football fans watching the University of Alabama leap over Notre Dame on the way to the school's 18th national championship.

And the year will end with the Tide battling the Cincinnati Bearcats in the College Football Playoffs and visions of a 19th title dancing in UA fans' heads.

In between, 2021 also marked the 10th year since a devastating tornado killed more than 50 people in Tuscaloosa, the reelection of the city's mayor to a fifth term, the relocation of a 7-ton bronze elephant named Tuska and a history-making ZZ Top concert at the Tuscaloosa Amphitheater.

Here's a look back at 2021 in Tuscaloosa:

Tornado anniversary

Tuscaloosa held ceremonies around town on April 27 to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the most devastating tornado in the city’s recorded history.

On April 27, 2011, at approximately 5:13 p.m., a mile-wide, EF-4 tornado tore across the landscape of Tuscaloosa, upending homes, businesses and lives in an unyielding, 5.9-mile path of destruction.

It damaged or destroyed more than 12% of the city – 5,362 homes and 356 businesses, included – and either directly killed or contributed to the deaths of 53 people.

Ceremonies were held at Rosedale’s Harmon Park, Forest Lake and Alberta, and each featured the dedication of memorial markers.

“This is a day for us to remember and to reflect,” said the Rev. Matthew Wilson, then councilman-elect for District 1, “but we also rejoice because we know that Tuscaloosa, Alabama, is a resilient city."

The April 27, 2011 tornado anniversary was marked in Rosedale Court with the dedication of a park bench in memory of the nine people  killed in the housing authority property Tuesday, April 27, 2021. Nine roses are laid across the bench in memory of the nine who lost their lives. [Staff Photo/Gary Cosby Jr.]
The April 27, 2011 tornado anniversary was marked in Rosedale Court with the dedication of a park bench in memory of the nine people killed in the housing authority property Tuesday, April 27, 2021. Nine roses are laid across the bench in memory of the nine who lost their lives. [Staff Photo/Gary Cosby Jr.]

Mayor earns fifth term

Walt Maddox earned his fifth term as Tuscaloosa's mayor, defeating two challengers in the March municipal election. Maddox was challenged by former University of Alabama football player Martin Houston and Serena Fortenberry, an instructor in the University of Alabama’s English department.

But Maddox won without a runoff, garnering 66% of the vote.

The Tuscaloosa municipal election also saw Cassius Lanier defeat two-term incumbent Sonya McKinstry by 28 votes, but he was declared ineligible to hold office by a Jefferson County Circuit Court judge based on prior felony convictions.

After obtaining a pardon from the state Board of Pardon and Paroles, Lanier and McKinstry were again the only candidates to qualify for the July 27 District 7 special election, which was required under state law.

Lanier won the special election and took office in August.

In other council races, Kip Tyner earned his seventh term in District 5 and Raevan Howard was reelected in District 2. Tyner also was named City Council president by his fellow councilors.

Incumbent Lee Busby from District 4 faced no opposition.

Along with Lanier, other newcomers to the City Council include Wilson in District 1, Norman Crow in District 3 and John Faile, who defeated two-term incumbent Eddie Pugh, in District 6.

Crow replaced Cynthia Almond, who decided not to run for another term on the City Council. In October, Almond was sworn in to represent District 63 in the Alabama House of Representatives, replacing Bill Poole who left after being named finance director in Gov. Kay Ivey's administration.

Almond became the first woman to represent Tuscaloosa County in the Alabama Legislature in its almost 200-year history, according to the Alabama secretary of state.

Flooding wreaks havoc

The Tuscaloosa area entered December with an annual rainfall total around 11 inches above average.

The rainfall total was bolstered by two flooding events, one on June 19 as Tropical Depression Claudette moved through the area, and a Sept. 20 deluge that city officials declared a "once in 500 years" drenching.

Two people died in the June 19 storm, a 24-year-old father and his 3-year-old son, when a tree hit their home on Hargrove Road. Dozens of people had to be rescued from Willowbrook trailer park in Northport.

And a 40-year-old man died Sept. 20 after his vehicle was swept away by floodwaters and submerged in a drainage ditch alongside 14th Avenue and under Greensboro Avenue.

The Sept. 20 flooding caused widespread problems from the University of Alabama campus and the Strip to areas and neighborhoods in north Tuscaloosa.

Officials said both flooding events caused millions of dollars in damage.

Tuska arrives

In April, Tuska, a 7-ton bronze elephant statue, made the move from the NorthRiver Yacht Club, where it had resided since 2000, to its new home.

The sculpture, created by English artist Terry Mathews, was installed in front of Bryant-Denny Stadium in April before the UA football team's spring game.

The elephant statue was given to UA by the Tuscaloosa-based Westervelt Co.

Tuska's installation was made possible by a gift from former UA athletic director Bill Battle and his wife, Mary.

Tuska, the life-sized elephant sculpture now residing outside Bryant-Denny Stadium, will be one of the first things visitors see during this football season. [Staff Photo/Gary Cosby Jr.]
Tuska, the life-sized elephant sculpture now residing outside Bryant-Denny Stadium, will be one of the first things visitors see during this football season. [Staff Photo/Gary Cosby Jr.]

The sculpture's new home includes a plaza with landscaping, a large pedestal for Tuska to stand on, sidewalks surrounding the statue and lighting elements for nighttime viewing.

The Tuska plaza is at the southeast corner of University Boulevard and Wallace Wade Avenue in front of the stadium and the site became a fan favorite for selfie photos during the 2021 football season.

ZZ Top's historic show

The eyes and ears of the rock 'n' roll world were on Tuscaloosa in July as ZZ Top played its first concert without founding member Dusty Hill, who died just a few days before the little ol' band from Texas performed at the Tuscaloosa Amphitheater.

With Elwood Francis,, the band's 20-plus year guitar tech, sitting in on bass, guitarist Billy F. Gibbons and drummer Frank Beard performed to a full house in Tuscaloosa, playing classic hits such as "Sharp Dressed Man," "Legs" and "La Grange."

ZZ Top plays the Tuscaloosa Amphitheater Thursday, July 30, 2021, in Tuscaloosa, Ala., following the death of bass player Dusty Hill. Billy Gibbons plays guitar and does lead vocals during Friday night's concert. [Staff Photo/Gary Cosby Jr.]
ZZ Top plays the Tuscaloosa Amphitheater Thursday, July 30, 2021, in Tuscaloosa, Ala., following the death of bass player Dusty Hill. Billy Gibbons plays guitar and does lead vocals during Friday night's concert. [Staff Photo/Gary Cosby Jr.]

Gibbons paid tribute to Hill, saying the bassist wanted the band continue on without him.

Gibbons played loose with lyrics again in the 1990 hit "My Head's in Mississippi," after hearing a shout from the crowd. Gibbons spoke over the rhythms: "I know there's some rivalry going on tonight. I heard that 'Roll Tide.' "

From that point on, he sang "I'm shuffling through the Texas sand/but my head's in Alabama," cueing the crowd to chant along.

Crowds return

As vaccination rates increased and mask mandates were lifted around the state, crowds returned to big events in Tuscaloosa.

While UA football games were limited at 25% capacity for the 2020 season because of the COVID-19 pandemic, full crowds returned for the Crimson Tide's seven home games in 2021.

The home fans enjoyed big wins over key SEC rivals, including Ole Miss, LSU and, for the 15th straight year, a victory over Tennessee that ended in the traditional cigar smoking in the stands.

The Druid City Arts Festival returned in May after a COVID-19 hiatus and the Tuscaloosa area's big winter holiday events were also back: the 45th annual West Alabama Christmas Parade and the 29th annual Dickens Downtown celebration in Northport.

And the Kentuck Festival of the Arts welcomed a record crowd during the two-day event in October. This marked the 50th year since the acclaimed festival originated.

The Tide rolls

On Jan. 1, UA defeated Notre Dame 31-14 in the College Football Playoffs. Ten days later, the Tide claimed its 18th national championship by beating Ohio State 52-24. Hundreds of fans flooded The Strip near the UA campus to celebrate despite the COVID-19 pandemic, leading to 14 arrests and at least two injuries, police said.

Success on the football field continued in the fall as UA overcame a road loss to Texas A&M and escaped from Jordan-Hare Stadium with a 24-22 quadruple overtime victory over archrival Auburn on the way to earning the SEC West crown.

In December, UA earned its 29th conference title by beating the Georgia Bulldogs in the SEC Championship Game in Atlanta and star quarterback Bryce Young became the fourth Crimson Tide player to earn the coveted Heisman Trophy.

Million Dollar Macy's

The University of Alabama's Million Dollar Band made a little history on Thanksgiving Day in New York City.

For the first time, UA's marching band participated in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. The Million Dollar Band played “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” and escorted Santa in his float, which concluded the 95th annual parade.

The Thanksgiving Day parade was televised to a nationwide audience on NBC and its streaming service Peacock.

The University of Alabama Million Dollar Band performs in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York Thursday, Nov. 25, 2021. [Photo by Frank Zimmermann/groupphotos.com]
The University of Alabama Million Dollar Band performs in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York Thursday, Nov. 25, 2021. [Photo by Frank Zimmermann/groupphotos.com]

Drill work for the parade began about six weeks before Thanksgiving on the Tuscaloosa campus.

UA was chosen for the parade from more than 100 applicants, based on sound and appearance, along with bios and recommendation letters.

Originally, the Million Dollar Band was scheduled to perform in the 2020 Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade but the COVID-19 pandemic canceled those plans.

In memoriam

• In April, UA basketball superfan Luke Ratliff died of complications from COVID-19 at the age of 23. A native of Wadesboro, North Carolina, Ratliff came to UA as a student and spent five years becoming the most visible fan at Crimson Tide basketball games, often wearing a trademark plaid blazer in the 2020-21 season.

Cecil Hurt, Luke Ratliff and Fuller Goldsmith, three Tuscaloosa area personalities in some ways larger than life, were all lost to the community in 2021 due to illnesses.
Cecil Hurt, Luke Ratliff and Fuller Goldsmith, three Tuscaloosa area personalities in some ways larger than life, were all lost to the community in 2021 due to illnesses.

“When I came to campus my fandom exploded,” Ratliff told The Tuscaloosa News. “I’ve always had a deep appreciation for the history of Alabama basketball, and you couple that with being a student here at the university and something special happens.”

Fuller Goldsmith, a Tuscaloosa chef who won the Food Network's "Chopped Junior," died in October at the age of 17 after battling acute lymphoblastic leukemia for most of his life. Fuller worked at Southern Ale House as an assistant to executive chef Brett Garner. Through his cooking skills, Fuller struck up a friendship with his hero, Guy Fieri of "Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives," and he was the subject of profiles in People and Entertainment Weekly.

"I just like to cook. Simple as that," Fuller said in a 2017 interview with The Tuscaloosa News.

Edward Osborne Wilson, a University of Alabama alumnus who was considered a pioneer for his scientific study of sociobiology, biodiversity, ecosystems and more, died in December. The Birmingham native won two Pulitzer Prizes as an author and was known as as “the father of sociobiology” and “the father of biodiversity.”

Wilson’s biological specialty was myrmecology, or the study of ants, for which he was considered the world’s leading expert. He earned two degrees at UA, before earning a Ph.D. at Harvard University, where he taught for more than 40 years.

Bill Buchanan, the director of community development for Tuscaloosa Tourism and Sports, died in December at the age of 67. The University of Alabama graduate had worked at TTS since 2014 after a career as a publisher and editor in the newspaper industry.

Known as an aficionado of arts and artists, Buchanan served on boards for Theatre Tuscaloosa, the Arts Council and Kentuck Art Center.

Cecil Hurt longtime sports columnist at The Tuscaloosa News, died in November of complications from pneumonia. Hurt joined The Tuscaloosa News in 1982 as a sports writer and seven years later became the newspaper’s sports editor and columnist.

Many notable figures in the sports world paid tribute to Hurt's journalistic skills, including this statement from UA football coach Nick Saban:

“Cecil Hurt was a good friend and one of the best sports writers I have ever had the privilege of working with, not just at Alabama, but at all of our coaching stops. He was a man of integrity and a fair-minded journalist blessed with wit, wisdom and an ability to paint a picture with his words that few have possessed. Cecil was loved throughout this community and state as an old-school journalist who covered the Alabama beat with class and professionalism. He was a role model for young writers and the most trusted source of news for Alabama fans everywhere. He leaves a wonderful legacy as one of sports journalism’s best. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family and friends as well as Alabama fans everywhere who loved Cecil as much as we did.”

This article originally appeared on The Tuscaloosa News: Alabama football title, tornado anniversary mark 2021 in Tuscaloosa

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