'The norm now is disruption': Saban, Alabama now have a central place in the story of COVID-19
Years from now, when we’re taking our self-driving vehicle to visit our grandkids in their completely cloud-connected home, we’ll tell them about 2020.
We’ll tell them about the masks. The fear. The unrest. The polarization. The tribalism. The advent of working from home and something called “social distancing.”
And we’ll tell them about Saturday.
The history books will someday contain an entire chapter on COVID-19 and its ripple effect throughout the globe. Sports have been a key lens through which to view this virus, but not since it first arrived in the U.S. and effectively shut down professional and collegiate athletics had we seen something like what took place in Tuscaloosa.
Nick Saban’s picture better come sometime after the chapter heading.
We’ll remember the most recognizable person in college football, trotting onto the field at Bryant-Denny Stadium with mask on face mere days after testing positive for COVID — and hours after a 3rd consecutive negative.
Almost overnight, Saban became the face of the mystery and fluidity surrounding a pandemic that impacts everyone and yet no one can seem to agree about.
In the middle of the week, No. 2 Alabama’s head coach was providing instruction remotely via Zoom. By midday Saturday, he’d received three negative PCR tests to override his initial positive showing, and it was game on.
He had what we’ve simply come to know as “the virus.” Until he didn’t.
“The norm now is disruption,” Saban said. “It’s the norm. It’s going to happen. We knew that going into the season, and I’m really pleased with the way our players managed the disruption of this week.”
Saban has been one of the most diligent coaches when it comes to wearing his mask. He’s done PSAs encouraging similar behavior throughout the Heart of Dixie. He’s technically in the “high risk” category for coronavirus but takes remarkably good care of himself for a 68-year-old head football coach at a Power 5 school.
The fact that he could test positive, only to be medically cleared days later on an SEC provision that was instituted just 9 days prior — according to Sports Illustrated’s Ross Dellenger — is a window into the utter chaos COVID-19 brings. It’s the same chaos that caused the Big Ten and Pac-12 to shut down their seasons only to reinstate them. It has some fans on social media ripping Saban for stalking the sidelines and SEC fans for showing up in droves, while others laud an ability to overcome the fear, overreaction and political posturing that’s come with the pandemic.
We need no reminder of the lives lost, businesses closed, families ripped apart, education sideswiped and havoc wreaked by COVID-19. A football game in itself by no means carries anywhere near the weight of these realities.
But the fact that Saban coached in one Saturday does speak to them. And how just when you think you’ve got this thing figured out, the unexpected is often right around the corner.
Saying “I told you so” — which we’ve seen from more than one national columnist — is playing with fire.
“It was very emotional for me,” Saban said. “I think I gained a lot of respect thinking that I had this even though we’ve done everything we can to set an example relative to social distancing, wearing a mask, washing hands from a players’ perspective. I think everybody should have the proper respect, because when they tell you you tested positive, that’s not a good feeling. I wasn’t sick. The other thing I have a tremendous amount of gratitude for is the unbelievable number of people that texted, sent prayers. It was just phenomenal. I believe in things like that, so I do think that all helped.”
It all makes the absolute masterpiece constructed by Saban’s team Saturday seem secondary. That’s a healthy viewpoint.
But Bama and Georgia fans will remember what happened once the coach took the field, too.
We’ll remember Mac Jones shaking with fury after a failed 3rd-down try, then engineering a late 2nd-quarter drive that ended in a 52-yard Will Reichard field goal that helped turn momentum at the end of a back-and-forth first half. We’ll remember Jaylen Waddle and DeVonta Smith running circles around the top defense in the country, and Jones finding them en route to 417 yards and 4 touchdowns.
We’ll remember a beleaguered defense coming off perhaps the worst day in program history turning in 3 huge interceptions of Stetson Bennett IV and shutting out No. 3 UGA after halftime.
We’ll remember Saban improving to 22-0 against former assistants with a 41-24 victory against Kirby Smart’s group (which the Tide very well might see again in the SEC title game and/or the College Football Playoff).
We’ll remember No. 2 Alabama staking its claim as the truest contender — yes, again — to upend Clemson in the run for a national title.
“These are the kind of games the kids come to Alabama to play,” Saban said during CBS’ postgame coverage.
But we’ll also remember that there’s a heck of a lot more to life than this game we love. That things can and do get better. That not every positive test is a death sentence. That prudence before rushing to judgment is imperative as we navigate the current malaise this country is in.
And that when it comes to 2020, much is not what it seems.