By Wayne Drash, CNN
Tuscaloosa, Alabama (CNN) – The Rev. Kelvin Croom walks down the hall toward the sanctuary his father built 30 years ago with the help of legendary Alabama football coach Paul “Bear” Bryant.
“Just glad to be alive,” a deacon says.
“I know what you mean,” Croom responds.
With its painted cement block walls and low ceilings, the hall has the feel of a locker room corridor. In rooms off the hall, church members rummage through debris, trying to salvage anything they can. Windows shattered when the tornado hit. The roof of the fellowship hall upstairs blew off and crashed into nearby homes.
On Easter Sunday, three days before the tornado struck, Croom preached of salvation, of the need to rebuild one’s life, of finding hope even in times of desperation. The rejoicing and the stomps of feet had the pews bouncing.
The place oozed with love. So many people packed the church they literally filled the building to its rafters, with people standing all the way upstairs in the fellowship hall.
Back in the church for the first time since that service, Croom steps through the doorway into that sacred spot, the sanctuary of College Hill Baptist Church. His voice draws to a hush. The crimson carpet, the pews with their crimson cushions, the stained glass windows – everything is untouched.
“In here, you’d have no idea anything happened,” he marvels.
On April 27, a mile-wide tornado tore through Tuscaloosa, one of nearly 200 twisters to strike the South as part of a record storm. Hundreds died, including dozens in this college town – many of whom lived in the area known as Alberta City where College Hill Baptist sits.
The church lies at the center of the damage, as well as at the crossroads of faith, football and Alabama history. In a community where gospel and gridiron are interwoven like a hand-stitched Southern quilt, it all comes together at College Hill Baptist.
The building speaks of history, of a unique bond between two men – one white, one black – at a time when there were few such relationships. While Bryant is revered like no other, it’s Croom’s father, the late Rev. Sylvester Croom Sr., who stands as a pillar of the African-American community in this part of the state.
As a young man, the elder Croom couldn’t attend his hometown college. He couldn’t even step foot into the University of Alabama stadium. He’d stand outside the gate to watch games.
Eventually, though, he became spiritual adviser to Bryant and two other Crimson Tide coaches. He would come to grace the sidelines for years, decked out in his iconic white suit and crimson cowboy hat and boots.
When the elder Croom was starting the church in the 1970s, Bryant gave him a PA system. He gave the pastor money, too, sometimes thousands in cash, sometimes hundreds. “Whatever Dad needed,” Kelvin Croom says.
“He and my dad had a very unique relationship.”
Kelvin and his brother, Sylvester Jr., were among the first African-American football players at Alabama.
And when Gov. George Wallace apologized to Tuscaloosa’s African-American community for his staunch support of segregation and for barring blacks from entering the university, he came to the Croom family. “Will you forgive me?” Wallace asked.
Today, Kelvin Croom surveys the damage outside the church. The parking lot is littered with lumber strewn from homes, roofing tiles and other debris. With the second story gone, he’s not sure the building can be salvaged, even if the sanctuary is OK.
Behind him, a smashed church sign leans to the side, almost like a crooked cross. Two plaques remain intact: one honoring Bryant; the other honoring the elder Croom.
“We have to let go what we’re tasting. This is a bitter pill, but God does have his way of resurrecting us. Yeah, we’re hurt … but we can rebuild and come back.”
Last year, his church made green T-shirts with a slogan in the form of a cross: “Let go! Let God!”
“We’ve been wearing the shirts. Now, we gotta live it,” he says. “Now that we have to deal with this calamity, you put aside racial barriers, religious and political. We’re one people. We’re Alabamians.”
He gives a soft holler: “Roll Tide,” the beloved chant of Alabama fans.
“It’s become more than a sports theme,” he says. “It’s a bond between people who have a common interest in humanity, who believe in a democracy, who believe in a higher power. It’s a nation. We call it Bama Nation.”
Across the state, people are mourning. The loss of life and property is indescribable. Thousands of houses across Tuscaloosa alone are damaged or destroyed. Scores of people remain missing.
Faith and football won’t replace the utter destruction that has shaken so many lives here. Yet it’s what people cling to. Conversations with those whose homes were destroyed often end with “Roll Tide.”
It’s why a chemistry professor from Germany says, “The holy man in Alabama is not the pope. It’s Paul ‘Bear’ Bryant.” Outside Croom’s torn up church, a military policeman put aside his allegiance to cross-state rival Auburn University to protect the property from looters.
“I’m an Auburn fan,” says Sgt. Casey Chambers, “but above that I’m a true Alabamian.”
A handgun at his hip, Chambers says through a big grin, “I’m protecting y’all.”
‘How we come together’
Terry Jones is the legendary noseguard who played for the Crimson Tide in the mid-1970s and went on to play for the NFL’s Green Bay Packers.
Now a strength coach at Alabama, Jones was in the team’s practice facility when the tornado ripped through Tuscaloosa. An announcement came over the PA system for everyone to take cover.
He rounded the corner into his office. On his wall, Bear Bryant looked down. Jones stared back at the man who shaped his life, one of five mentors who molded him.
“Where you thinking of going to school?” Bryant had asked him on a recruiting trip.
“South Carolina,” Jones told him.
Bad choice, Bryant said. “All you’ll do is play football, and you’ll lose all your games. What’s your second choice?”
When Jones responded with the University of Tennessee, Bryant leaned over. “You can go there,” the coach said, “but we’re going to kick your ass every year.”
Jones, who started playing for Alabama in 1974, remembered a story he heard from his older teammates. In 1973, the Crimson Tide was about to play Notre Dame in the Sugar Bowl. The black players for both schools planned to sit out the game to send a civil rights statement across the nation.
Bryant phoned his spiritual adviser: Get to New Orleans and mediate the situation. The Rev. Sylvester Croom gathered the athletes.
“This is an opportunity for you to showcase your talents and get to the next level, the NFL. Don’t jeopardize that,” the elder Croom said. “You’re the pride of the black community. Don’t let us down!”
Everyone suited up. The game went on. (Alabama fans don’t like to talk about the outcome; the Crimson Tide lost 24-23 on a field goal in the last five minutes, but the team still won the national title that year.)
All that went through Jones’ mind as he hunkered down in his office, the storm overhead. The 6-4, 320-pound giant owed his life to both those men. If the elder Croom hadn’t given that speech to the black players who preceded him, his career could have been over before it started. If Bryant hadn’t switched him to noseguard his senior year, he might never have starred with the Packers.
Bryant made his players attend church. He ingrained it in them: Football and faith help shape a boy into a man. Jones now serves as a deacon at College Hill Baptist Church.
Life has been good to him, thought Jones, a small-town boy from Sandersville, Georgia, who broke racial barriers and crushed many a lineman along the way.
Jones braced for the worst. The wind whipped outside. The tornado missed his building.
“Every Saturday, I’ve seen how we come together – the football and the religion,” he says. “This storm, I think, brought everything together right here.”
Sermons in the barber chair
Clee Greene no longer walks with that pep in his step from when he first arrived in Tuscaloosa in 1960. He got off the back of the bus from Louisiana with a “dollar and quarter” in his pocket and has never looked back.
He’s now got a bridge named after him in Alberta City.
While Bryant brought black players to Tuscaloosa to play football, it was Greene who helped shape them into men. The barber on the other side of the railroad tracks would sit the young kids in his chair and preach to them about life and love, God and unity.
A pious man with veins that bleed Crimson Tide and Bible scripture, Greene says the tornado looked like the devil when it came through. “It began to make a tail,” he says in an accent as thick as sorghum. “It went up in the air, like it had arms and shoulders.”
Electricity poles snapped with gigantic flashes. The tornado screamed, and his house shook. “A train is coming in,” his granddaughter said as they huddled in a hallway.
“That’s not a train,” he told her.
Remarkably, his house is one of the few in Alberta City that wasn’t harmed. He runs his barbershop out of his house. He gives away more haircuts than he sells.
Sitting in his barber chair amid Crimson Tide memorabilia, he says God is trying to send a message with the tornado: “He wants us to get back to loving each other.”
It’s kind of like football, he says: “You got to dig down deep inside yourself and pull yourself up.”
What sustains him now amid such destruction?
Faith for one, he says.
The other? Well, Greene decides to demonstrate. He leaps from his barber chair and searches through his belongings. He pulls out a stuffed elephant, the Alabama mascot known as Big Al.
With Terry Jones at his side, Greene begins to belt out that iconic chant. The legendary noseguard joins in: ROLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLL TIDE ROLL!
‘We will rebuild’
Standing at the altar on the Sunday after the storm, Croom dabs the sweat from his brow with a white coach’s towel. Dozens in his flock lost their homes when the tornado gutted Tuscaloosa. Many lost friends and loved ones.
Tears and hugs, singing and rejoicing punctuate the service. The University Church of Christ volunteered space for members of College Hill Baptist to worship.
“Just tell somebody I need you to survive,” he preaches. “Tell the person next to you: I pray for you; you pray for me.”
The congregants pause. They share hugs and pleasantries. “Our community has been devastated, but God still lives,” Croom says.
The pastor calls everyone to the altar. More than 200 people huddle together. Some place hands on shoulders; others hold hands.
“Some of us looked death in the face. Some of us thought it was over in the storm. But God gave us new life,” Croom says. “The flock will not be scattered because of this storm. College Hill still stands. We’re here today!”
“Some will say the church is over there,” Croom booms, pointing toward the tattered building across town.
He then points at members of the congregation: “No, the church is where you go! And you go! And you go! … That’s where the church is!”
Amazing grace, how sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost, but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.
Croom implores the congregation to volunteer, to help thy neighbor. The church was planning a complete renovation before the storm. Maybe, Croom says, the tornado is a warning to be careful what you ask for. Now, they have no choice but to rebuild.
“Lord, I will serve you forever,” Croom hollers. “We will rebuild! We will rebuild! God bless you! God bless you!”
And in true Alabama fashion, he ends with the two words that have brought people here together for decades: “Roll Tide!”
CNN’s Sarah Hoye contributed to this piece.
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