Dear Nick Saban,
I heard you have COVID. It was all my family talked about at supper tonight. You were our main topic.
I know that to heathens and various non-believers you are just another football coach. But in this house we prayed for you before our meal. The prayer was followed by a couple amens, a few hallelujahs, and six Roll Tides.
I also understand that the local beer joint said a few words for you tonight. They turned off the jukebox and had a moment of silence in your honor.
Grown men with double names quit shooting pool and ceased talking bull. Young men held hats over hearts. A guy in a camouflage shirt led a long prayer.
“Oh God, help Brother Nick,” he said.
That’s what they call you.
My friend, Willis, was there. He said some guy bought a round of beer for all 23 barroom patrons. Then the radio played “Gimme Shelter” by the Rolling Stones because this is one of your all-time favorite songs. Someone said you listen to it after every road game you win.
After this tune they played more classic Stones. “Start Me Up” was invoked. So was “Brown Sugar” and “Jumpin’ Jack Flash.”
My friend Joel is an even bigger fan. When he heard how sick you were he was an emotional wreck. Joel wants you to know that he would be happy to carry you to any hospital in the nation if you needed his services. He has a mostly dependable car, and he’s not busy.
Look, I know you don’t know me. I am nothing on your radar screen. I am infinitesimal vermin in the shadow of your radiant coaching career. I feel foolish even writing this stupid letter.
But you’re probably going to be on your back for a few days, going through the congestion of coronavirus, so I thought I’d tell you how much you mean to this family.
I especially wanted you to know how much you meant to my father-in-law.
As soon as you started coaching for Alabama my father-in-law was immediately willing to bear your children. Every weekend I would go to my father-in-law’s house to watch games and the old man spoke about you like you were already included in the family will.
He was a second father to me. I loved him something fierce. He was loud and outspoken. And if I’m being completely honest, we were never certain whether he was three tacos short of a blue plate special.
He was your most ardent convert. Whenever Coach Nick Saban lost his temper on camera, he lost his temper. Whenever Coach Saban scored, he leapt out of his recliner and tap-danced like Danny Kaye.
During critical third-down situations, he would turn up the volume so loud that shingles fell off the roof and neighborhood dogs started howling.
One time we were watching the Iron Bowl and my father-in-law completely lost his mind. When Greg McElroy threw a four-yard touchdown pass to fullback Roy Upchurch, thereby lifting Alabama to a 26–21 win, he jumped out of his seat and mooned me.
I’d never seen that side of him before. It was a pretty special day.
In his final years, he would become pretty emotional whenever your name came up. It was always Nick this, and Nick that. He was a man obsessed.
For Christmas one year the family presented him with an autographed photo of you. I don’t know how we managed to get it. But you should have seen him. He almost turned into a puddle of saltwater just looking at it. I’m sure you have thousands of those photos laying around, but to him it was one in a billion.
The next day, we found your picture hanging in his den, among photos of family members, ancestors, and grandbabies.
Not long before he died we went to visit him in the hospital. He was aged, sick, and his mind was going. He started hollering things like, “Oh, I’m SO worried about Nick!”
“Who are you worried about?” everyone asked.
“Nick!” he’d scream. “I’m worried! Someone pray for Nick!”
At first, we had no idea who the old man was talking about. Then we realized he must have been screaming about you. At which point everyone busted out laughing. Then we cried. Because we knew he didn’t have long after that.
The preacher told that story at his funeral The room was packed with hundreds who wore crimson.
When the preacher explained to everyone that an old man on his deathbed had not been worried about his own end, but was primarily concerned with the well-being of Nicholas Saban Jr., everyone shared a gentle laugh. And a few sniffles.
They buried the old man in his beloved red elephant hat.
Everything was different after that. We started watching Alabama games alone. Week after week, we would sit in relative solitude before a dim TV. His recliner was empty. The room remained quiet. Nobody could scream like he did. Rarely did anyone ever hurl a full moon.
But upon his old desk, we still have your framed photograph. It still reminds us of how happy you made him.
So anyway, you’re probably going to be going through a lot these next weeks. And you’ll likely never see this. But I want you to know we’re thinking about you.
I also wanted you to know how grateful I am. Not just for the games. Not just for your six consecutive National Championship titles, which cement you as one of the most preeminent football coaches in U.S. history. But I wanted to thank you for a small, unassuming eight-by-ten glossy photograph that bears your signature.
Get well, Brother Nick.
And, of course, it goes without saying. Roll Tide.