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A decade after tragedy, Bucs long snapper Carson Tinker starts new chapter

The former Crimson Tide player and tornado survivor is re-booting his NFL career in Tampa Bay.
Former University of Alabama long snapper Carson Tinker, a survivor of the 2011 tornado that ravaged Tuscaloosa, has assumed the same role for the Bucs.
Former University of Alabama long snapper Carson Tinker, a survivor of the 2011 tornado that ravaged Tuscaloosa, has assumed the same role for the Bucs. [ JOEY KNIGHT | Times ]
Published Sep. 16
Updated Sep. 16

TAMPA — He stands meekly before a bank of cameras and nearly a dozen reporters on a covered AdventHealth Training Center back porch. In the NFL realm, this barely registers as limelight.

Yet the wattage remains too much for Carson Tinker’s taste. “No offense to you guys, but I was hoping I didn’t have to do this,” Tinker says in his mild deep-South drawl. “I’m trying to just come in and work hard and just do my job.”

If his story was limited to long snapping, anonymity would be a cinch. In this line of work, the more inconspicuous, the better. But slightly more than a decade ago, fate literally thrust Tampa Bay’s newest specialist into prominence.

That EF-4 tornado — the most powerful long-track twister ever to strike Alabama, according to news reports — propelled Alabama’s walk-on long snapper from the four-bedroom home he shared with two roommates to a nearby field where he routinely hit golf balls. Tinker suffered a concussion, broken wrist, several lacerations and shattered heart.

Ashley Harrison, the girlfriend who had been clinging to him in a walk-in bedroom closet as the tornado passed, broke her neck and lost her life.

Ten years and tons of spiritual reckoning later, Tinker — ardent Christian — is snapping for the reigning world champions.

“If people are inspired by my story, I’m just a normal guy,” Tinker said during his brief media session Thursday. “God has been able to work through me, and I hope people can see that.”

Out of the NFL since suffering a meniscus tear five games into the 2018 season with the Jaguars, Tinker, 31, landed his latest opportunity when Zach Triner tore a tendon in his left ring finger in the Bucs’ season opener Sept. 9 against Dallas. The Jaguars’ long snapper for four full seasons, Tinker signed with Tampa Bay earlier this week.

“If you would’ve said 10 years ago, nothing like this would’ve been in my sights,” said Tinker, the Crimson Tide’s long snapper for three seasons (2010-2012).

“To come here and especially be with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and where they were last year, it’s amazing. But at the same time, like I said, I’m just focused on getting better and contributing where I can with the team and again, be invisible, man.”

That unassuming nature endeared him to teammates in Tuscaloosa. Though surrounded by a constellation of NFL prospects, Tinker — a walk-on his first four years at Alabama — evolved into a “leader on the team,” record-setting Tide return specialist Javier Arenas said.

Related: Bucs long snapper Zach Triner had a (throbbing) hand in opening win

“To me, it didn’t seem like Carson took life too serious, and just understood his job,” said Arenas, a Robinson High alumnus who played two seasons with Tinker.

“I guess you could say easygoing, but that’s not the word I’m looking for. Simple guy. Somebody gets an opportunity to be a long snapper in the NFL, they’re probably going to try to turn into Deion Sanders because they’re in the NFL someway, somehow. But he understands his role, he understands what to do, and he’s calm in chaos — on and off the field.”

A Chiefs second-round draft pick in 2010, Arenas happened to be in Tuscaloosa when the chaos roared in on April 27, 2011. At the behest of a friend, he hunkered down in a bathtub of his house, located in a subdivision across the street from McFarland Mall. The next thing he remembers is the sound.

“Like a train,” he said. “I mean, that’s the best description.”

He estimates Tinker lived about a mile away. On a day when tornadoes ravaged Alabama, this one — reportedly packing 190 mph winds and reaching a maximum width of 1.5 miles — killed more than three-dozen people.

A college town turned on its head, in less than a minute.

“About 45 seconds for me,” Arenas said. “A solid 45 seconds, if not a minute.”

The aftermath has been well chronicled. Nick Saban mobilized the Crimson Tide players into a corps of community servants. Arenas hopped into his black Denali, drove 10 hours back to Kansas City for bottled water, toothbrushes and other necessities, then drove right back to distribute them.

Months later, the Tide further elevated the community’s psyche by going 12-1 and winning the national title that season.

“To me, people always needed Alabama football,” Arenas said. “But just understanding Coach Saban, his ways and his philosophies, he used that clearly (to convey) this town needs football, it needs us, it needs togetherness, on and off the field.”

Tinker, meantime, forged onward, buoyed by his faith and the support of his family and peers. Saban put him on scholarship for his senior season in 2012, when the Tide won another national championship. He went undrafted the following spring but was invited to the Jaguars camp and won the long snapper job that August.

In May 2014, he published a book (Season to Remember: Faith in the Midst of the Storm) that chronicled his collegiate triumph and tragedy. He also set up a nonprofit foundation aimed at helping those who have suffered loss or hardship.

Then, a couple of knee injuries (including a torn ACL) de-railed his NFL career — until a few days ago.

That’s when the paradox resurfaced. Tinker suddenly found himself back in the NFL limelight, trying desperately to remain inconspicuous.

So the next chapter commences.

“It’s all God’s plan,” he said. “My story’s still being written.”

Contact Joey Knight at jknight@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.

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