Meet the Alabama fan who drove 24 hours round trip for Jalen Hurts' Sooners debut
NORMAN — Toni House has been an Alabama fan all her life.
Born in Mobile, raised in Decatur, she had to pick between Alabama and Auburn. Everyone in the state does; it might as well be law. She went with the Crimson Tide and has been all “Roll Tide!” ever since.
Until this season.
House is now an Oklahoma fan, too. The 58-year-old spent her Labor Day weekend making the 12-hour drive — by herself — from Decatur to Norman to watch the Sooners’ season opener.
“I was not gonna miss this game,” House said. “No way.”
What prompted this change from Crimson Tide to crimson and cream?
As Sooner fans are becoming more enamored with Hurts — six scores and 508 yards will make hearts flutter — lots of Alabama fans are keeping tabs on him, too. They love the way he's handled himself as a starter, a back-up, even a transfer. They wish him nothing but the best.
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Even at that, most didn’t make special plans to see his Sooner debut.
House decided she had to be at OU's opener the day Hurts announced he was moving to Norman. She started crowd sourcing on social media, asking Sooner fans how to get tickets, where to stay and what to do.
Why make the trip?
The story actually starts with another trip. House went to Fort Worth for business back in 2009, and some friends from Houston who were there started talking football. They love it. She loves it. It was a natural topic of conversation.
They raved about a coach turning around a program. At first, House thought they were talking about a college, but she knows the names of college coaches. She finally asked what school and found out they were talking about a high school, Channelview, coached by Averion Hurts.
While her level of interest seems extreme to some, House went looking on the internet for more information. Stories. Videos. She’s a football junkie, so for her, such pigskin probes are common.
Eventually, the online rabbit hole led to game clips of the coach’s youngest son, Jalen. She kept tabs on him over the next few years as he became one of the nation’s top recruits.
When Hurts committed to Alabama, House was elated.
“I know how hard he works,” she said. “I see what he does. He never complains. He fights. And he’s got this positive attitude.
“You can’t help but root for this young man.”
When he decided last winter to leave Alabama, House knew she was going to keep rooting for him. She wanted him to end up at OU under Lincoln Riley's tutelage, but regardless, she was going to continue supporting him.
That’s what she does when players leave Alabama for the NFL. Why not do the same with Hurts?
“I don’t care who they play for,” House said. “Alabama is a brick building without the fans, coaches, players and staff. If you can’t fall in love with the people, then you’re not a fan of anything. You’re a fan of a brick building.”
And House often finds a heartstring tied to the players because of their stories. Even though she works in the financial world and has an MBA, she has done some writing during her life. Fiction. Non-fiction. Even published a couple books. So, she’s a sucker for a good story.
She hasn’t seen many better than Hurts’.
“You could not write this to be like this,” House said. “This is about everyday life. This is about pulling up your bootstraps and fighting.”
Businesses fail. Relationships change. Bad things happen. House has seen it, but Hurts is a reminder we get to choose how we react to those circumstances. How we recover, too.
That’s why House wanted to be there Sunday for OU’s opener.
She knows lots of family and friends don’t understand her passion for Hurts. Why spend all that money and time just to see him play? Even though she still keeps an eye on Alabama and refers to the Crimson Tide as “we,” she knows plenty of folks who simply can’t square an Alabama fan pulling for OU.
“They don’t like it,” she said.
She laughed, but then got serious.
“No, I’m tellin’ you, they don’t like it.”
But she wouldn’t change how she spent her Labor Day weekend. She loved meeting people in Norman, many of whom she got to know in recent months on Twitter. She started a second account earlier this year, and @ou_toni is all about OU and Hurts. And I do mean all about. She's tweeted over 6,000 times in six months. Has more than 400 followers, too.
While she would love to see Hurts play again, she’s not sure she’ll have the money or the time off to make another trip.
“I don’t know if I’ll ever get to watch him live again,” she said. “That breaks my heart.”
And yet, her heart is full after a road trip to remember.
Jenni Carlson: Jenni can be reached at 405-475-4125 or email@example.com. Like her at facebook.com/JenniCarlsonOK or follow her at twitter.com/jennicarlson_ok.