TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — She almost missed seeing it, and had no idea what the play would mean to her in the very near future.
When the University of Alabama football team went to overtime in the National Championship Game, Donna Smith was helping her son get into bed as the hour had indeed gotten late. She got back to the TV just in time to see the sack, and like so many other people thought “Well, that’s that,” only to be proven wrong on the subsequent play.
The Crimson Tide scored the game-winning touchdown in dramatic fashion, Tua Tagovailoa to DeVonta Smith, but her family may have ended up winning more than anyone.
Per tradition since 2011, when Alabama wins a national championship, the Nick’s Kids Foundation and the local chapter of Habitat for Humanity team up to build a house for a family in need. Every time they do so, they have to rename the project, now dubbed “17 for 17.”
The program has been so successful that it’s gone well beyond the original goal of rebuilding a neighborhood in Holt, Ala., following the devastating tornado, with the last couple of title-themed houses built in the suburban area of Tuscaloosa known as Alberta City, closer to campus.
It’s where the Smiths will now call home. Nick Saban announced during the national championship celebration in January that another house would be coming, and 17 for 17 had a presence in the parade. The recipients were subsequently selected and work began last month.
“It’s surreal,” said Smith, a longtime Crimson Tide fan. “I keep pinching myself that it’s real. It just doesn’t seem real yet.
“I don’t know if there are words to say what’s in my heart.”
On Saturday, Saban and a bunch of his players — name players such as linebacker Anfernee Jennings, defensive lineman Raekwon Davis, guard Ross Pierschbacher and tight end Hale Hentges — showed up to help out the project financed by the foundation named in honor of his father. Specifically, Nick’s Kids raises $100,000 toward construction of the home built by Habitat of Humanity, with the family getting a very favorable mortgage.
The group did stop to pose for a picture, but this was a working visit. While the coach helped with the foundation and frame for part of a deck, out front some offensive linemen were making cuts on a table saw. On the northern side, a group of defensive players were using a nail gun to add some supports to the roof frame.
No one was talking football.
“I just think that’s really what it’s all about, using the platform that you have to help bless others and bring a smile to others’ faces,” said quarterback Jalen Hurts, who had already met some of the Smith family at the Tim Tebow Foundation’s annual Night To Shine event, a special-needs prom that was held locally last month.
Of course, no one was smiling more than Smith.
The single parent of two is a survivor of open-heart surgery. She and her 20-year-old daughter Megan are both going to nursing school and have nighttime jobs. Her 19-year-old son, Andrew, has spina bifida, when the spine and spinal cord don’t form properly, or fully close an area of the spinal column. It happens approximately one month after conception, and the exposed nerves can cause paralysis.
Consequently, this championship house is a little different, and completely wheelchair accessible. There are wider doors, a special bathroom and an extra door added to his room to give Andrew and his service dog Kendra easy access to the backyard.
“I kept showing him pictures and he would see steps, and he would see steps and say ‘Mom, I’m not going to be able to get up there.’ ‘Yeah, you will be, there’s not going to be any steps in our house.’ So he’s finally convinced of that,” Smith said.
“It’s taken several, several weeks for him to see the process.”
While using the word most associated with Saban, the coach was just a few feet away helping put the foundation and frame in for a backyard deck. He and defensive end Isaiah Buggs, who had done some similar-type work while growing up in Ruston, La., sort of guided their group that included Hurts and linebacker Christian Miller.
“It’ll totally change their life and that’s what we like to do,” Terry Saban said while her husband went by with a large bucket of water to help set the concrete for the posts. Later he grabbed a hammer and nails and helped with the deck planks.
“This house represents, to me, a lot more than that gold trophy does,” she added.
Besides, what better way to remember the team that overcome so much last season.
“Let’s do one more …” Terry Saban said of what has sort of become the project motto. “I [always] hope we get to do one more.”