TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — He didn’t just carry it, he practically cradled it.
As part of the University of Alabama’s national championship parade and celebration on Saturday, outgoing senior center Bradley Bozeman had the honor of carrying the symbol of his team’s efforts, the trophy. He didn’t tuck it in like a ball carrier, but did make sure to use two hands.
Eventually he had to put it down so it could be awarded to the Crimson Tide again, and then, and only then, could Bozeman do things like sign autographs for kids.
“Hey, I love the kids,” he said. “I was one of them.”
Five years ago, when Bozeman was being recruited, he was at a similar celebration for the 2012 national champions, who were fresh off stomping Notre Dame in the BCS Championship Game. He signed and redshirted his first season, with his playing career beginning during the inaugural year of the College Football Playoff.
His senior class finished with an NCAA record 53 wins (five losses), with two national titles and three straight SEC championships. He couldn’t think of a better way for it to end than with another parade following the dramatic 26-23 victory over Georgia in overtime.
“I’d probably say this one is sweeter just because of the way how we finished out,” said departing linebacker Shaun Dion Hamilton, who was part cheerleader and coach for the playoff because of a right knee injury. “Nobody would have ever thought that after a sack and us being down, and boom, we come back with a haymaker in overtime. It makes the win that much sweeter.”
How this team won in Atlanta will be remembered as much as anything, especially considering who was playing in the game at that point.
Defensively, the Crimson Tide were missing four regular contributors, while the offense was being led by six first-year freshmen.
Najee Harris was the leading rusher, Alex Leatherwood was inserted at left tackle due to an injury, wide receivers Jerry Jeudy, Henry Ruggs III and DeVonta Smith were running all around Mercedes-Benz Stadium, and quarterback Tua Tagovailoa took over at halftime when Alabama was down 13-0.
Throw in some dramatics, and yes, college football fans will be talking about this one for a very long time.
“I don’t think anybody’s ever going to forget — I know I’ll never forget — the feeling that I had when Tua takes a sack and one minute later the feeling that I had when we threw the touchdown pass,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said.
But as great as the final game was, resiliency is what the 2017 Crimson Tide should be remembered the most for.
“We went through a lot,” said All-America defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick, who himself endured a hamstring pull and bruised kidney. Yet injuries were only part of it.
Go back to the offseason, and even the regular season, and the biggest question regarding the Crimson Tide was in regards to their fortitude. No one knew this group had the leadership, the resolve and the perseverance to overcome such physical and emotional setbacks.
How many programs would have been able to bounce back and win the national championship after losing it in the final season the year before?
How many teams could have survived losing so many key players to injuries, especially at the linebacker position? Hamilton, Rashaan Evans, Anfernee Jennings, Christian Miller, Terrell Lewis, Mack Wilson and Dylan Moses all missed games because of major injuries, with Hamilton, Jennings and Moses all out against the Bulldogs along with defensive back Hootie Jones.
How many coaches could have gotten their players to rebound from such a stale performance in arguably the biggest rivalry game in college football? Alabama was the first team to receive a playoff bid when coming off a loss, having backed in without having won a conference championship.
Obviously it did the most with the second chance, and didn’t let a poor first half against Georgia turn into a repeat of the Iron Bowl.
“We knew what our team was about,” Bozeman said. “The media was kind of a motivator. This team really rallied together after the Auburn loss and got ourselves together and started going to work.”
Consequently, of the four team captains — Hamilton, Evans and Fitzpatrick being the others — it was fitting that Bozeman carried the trophy. As a consensus 3-star prospect, he was recruited out of Roanoke, the Piedmont region of Eastern Alabama, which has a population of approximately 6,000 and is a lot closer to the Georgia state line and Auburn than Tuscaloosa.
He wasn’t just an overachiever who became a two-year starter at a key position, and second-team All-American. Bozeman grew up a fan of the Crimson Tide .
“It was awesome,” he said after the parade. “Special.”
So was the season.