“Please slow down,” Vester-Bell remembers telling him as he hurried toward the entrance at Bryant-Denny Stadium. “We’re not going to miss the game!”
In this family, and in their hometown of Tuscaloosa, missing a game is something you just don’t do. Three generations of Vesters have attended Alabama, lost themselves in a crowd of 101,000 fans, shouted “Roll Tide!” during lean years and title runs. They parade around with a stuffed elephant that plays the school’s fight song, and shortly after Akeba returned from a deployment to Afghanistan as an Army nurse, she surprised her parents with two season tickets.
“We go to every game,” she says. “It’s just a different feeling: Sometimes when I feel the world is divided, Alabama comes down here, and it doesn’t matter what nationality, what race you are, where you work, everybody is just having fun and just loving on each other.”
But then, weeks before Alabama’s first home football game against Mercer on Sept. 11, Akeba knew she had to ask her father to do the unthinkable: stay home. He is in his late 70s, and though he has been vaccinated against the coronavirus, he suffered a heart attack last year and is Akeba’s only surviving parent. She also is a registered charge nurse at a hospital in Tuscaloosa who has worked in intensive care units and covid-19 wards as the case numbers have increased, dropped and increased again.
So she’s not just protective. She’s acutely aware of the virus’s devastation, of breakthrough infections and of the fact that her family lives in a state where only about 41 percent of the population has been fully vaccinated. Only three states rank lower. This past week Alabama’s health officer reported that in 2020 the state’s population shrank for the first time — because more Alabamians died than were born.
Akeba, who’s also vaccinated, tells of friends who checked in to her hospital but never checked out. She says she has witnessed entire families erased by a pandemic that has ended the lives of nearly 675,000 Americans. And as the virus tears through the South and lawmakers nonetheless push back on safety measures and debate freedom over health, Akeba says she is surrounded by people who, even now, don’t take the virus seriously. She says it’s common for patients to insist, even as they are in a hospital bed, that covid-19 is a hoax. She says they then beg, as their conditions worsen, for a vaccine or mercy or a miracle.
“A lot of regret,” she says, “and if we could just go back and change the hands of time ...”
She has vowed, as a result, to live with no such regrets. When a few relatives initially refused vaccines because of potential side effects or because scientists once experimented on Black people not far away in Tuskegee, Akeba, who is Black, offered them medical guidance and stories from inside the hospital. Her father had suspicions, too. He watches too much cable news, she says, but eventually he took Akeba’s advice.
He usually does, she says, though not always. Before he took the Moderna vaccine, Akeba begged her father to stay home and avoid crowds as the pandemic raged in 2020 and an estimated 7,200 Alabamians died. But he called one day and admitted that, instead of having his groceries delivered, he had masked up and gone to the store.
“I have to live my life,” she recalls him saying. “I did have some feelings on that, but everything worked out okay.” A member of National Nurses United, the country’s largest nurses’ union, Akeba asked that The Washington Post not identify her hospital or use her father’s name in this story, and he declined to be interviewed.
Would everything work out okay, she wondered, if he attended a football game? A year after Alabama allowed 20 percent capacity at home games and prohibited tailgating, the school announced before its season opener that the stadium would be full and the Quad open before, during and after games. Though experts have said outdoor gatherings are far less risky than those held inside, large crowds clustered in tightly packed spaces may still increase the chance of virus transmission.
Alabama requires face coverings in all nonresidential campus buildings, including indoor suites and elevators at Bryant-Denny Stadium. But that doesn’t apply to the facility’s concourses or outdoor seats, where the overwhelming majority of fans are clustered. Coach Nick Saban appeared in a public service announcement in the spring to encourage fans to get vaccinated, but unlike rival LSU, which requires proof of vaccination or a negative coronavirus test for entry to Tiger Stadium, Alabama hasn’t installed a similar mandate. The NCAA leaves virus protocols to individual schools with guidance from conferences.
“We’re hopeful that we’ll be able to have full capacity in the stadium,” Saban told reporters last month. Ninety percent of the program’s coaches and players had been vaccinated, he said, but the staff would nonetheless use last year’s more stringent safety protocols. “I’m hopeful that more and more people will get vaccinated so they’ll have the opportunity to do that. But that’s everybody’s personal choice.”
As the season approached and the delta variant spread, leading to increases in new and breakthrough cases, hospitalizations and deaths, Akeba’s dad said he hadn’t made a decision on whether to attend Alabama’s home opener. Going to games had been part of his life for so long, and even when he suffered the heart attack last fall, he called his daughter to recap the Tide’s performance and to complain that the team hadn’t been as dominant as he had hoped. Following a year of quarantine and recovery, he missed more than ever the smell of hot dogs and popcorn and the thrill of hugging and high-fiving strangers as they cheered after a touchdown.
Akeba missed those things, too, but she no longer believes high-fives and cheers are consequence-free celebrations. She told him about three friends who had wound up on ventilators — and the two who never made it home. She told him about the outbreak that tore through a family after a get-together, the fact that infected patients must sometimes wait days for a hospital bed to open, that ventilators are at or beyond capacity.
The day after Alabama’s first game, a win in Atlanta against Miami, another nurse stood up in church and pleaded with her fellow congregants to avoid the stadium six days later. New daily cases had surpassed even the worst days of 2020. Nearly 3,000 Alabamians were hospitalized. A year after the state set its grim record, through eight months it was on an even worse pace.
“Do you value my life? Or yours?” this nurse, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because she feared retribution from her hospital, says she told the congregants. “To put a football game ahead of your health — ‘I missed last season; I’m not going to miss another’ — you just have those devout fans who say, ‘I just have to be there.’ ”
The Wednesday before the game, Akeba’s father called and said he had made his decision. He would stay home as Alabama hosted Mercer, a Football Championship Subdivision program from Georgia. He made no promises about the Tide’s next home game or those against Mississippi in early October and LSU a month after that. But for one more Saturday, the family’s seats would indeed be empty.
“I felt like he would listen to me,” Akeba says now.
Her dad followed the game on television, but Akeba couldn’t watch because she spent her Saturday on Army duty. At one point her father called, and she stepped aside and heard concern in his voice. His question: What was wrong with the Tide? Midway through the first quarter, Alabama hadn’t scored. Akeba chuckled, tried to calm her dad, then assured him that if he waited just a little while longer, it would all work out okay.