KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- They gathered from all corners of the college football world on Sunday night to say goodbye to Aaron Douglas.
And that was just a small sampling of the overflow crowd that squeezed into Cokesbury United Methodist Church’s Epworth Hall, all trying to make sense of a tragedy that rips at your heart in more ways than you ever thought imaginable.
The 21-year-old Douglas, who had just started to rekindle a promising football career at Alabama, was found dead this past Thursday morning in Fernandina Beach, Fla. Authorities are still investigating the cause of death.
There are sure to be a multitude of questions surrounding Douglas’ death. But as Dr. G. Steven Sallee so eloquently reminded those in attendance at Sunday’s Celebration of Life service for Douglas, those questions are best left to be wrestled with by Douglas’ family.
Douglas’ college football career never completely took off. He was a freshman All-American at Tennessee in 2009 before transferring to Arizona Western College following Lane Kiffin’s departure and then resurfacing in the SEC this spring at Alabama. He was battling for the Crimson Tide’s left tackle job.
Those who knew Douglas best -- family members, friends, coaches and teammates -- all tell a similar story, that his heart was as big as his hulking 6-foot-7, 280-pound body.
His parents, David and Karla, were both athletes at Tennessee. David was an offensive lineman on the Vols’ 1985 SEC championship team and played several seasons in the NFL. Karla was a member of the 1987 Lady Vols’ national championship basketball team.
In some small way, their grief had to be eased by seeing how many different people’s lives their son had touched despite such a short life of his own.
In attendance were three men who’ve won national championships as head coaches -- Nick Saban, Phillip Fulmer and John Majors. They all sat up front with the family.
It hardly stops there, either.
Duke coach David Cutcliffe, a longtime assistant at Tennessee, was there. So was former Tennessee assistant Dan Brooks, who’s now at Clemson and recruited Douglas to Tennessee.
Tennessee defensive line coach Lance Thompson was on hand along with former Vol great and current assistant athletic director Condredge Holloway, associate athletic directors David Blackburn and Carmen Tegano and Tennessee radio broadcaster Bob Kesling.
Alabama, still dealing with the fallout from the devastating tornado that ripped through Tuscaloosa earlier this month, brought two planes full of people.
In addition to Saban, athletic director Mal Moore, offensive coordinator Jim McElwain, offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland and former offensive line coach Joe Pendry made the trip.
Alabama strength and conditioning coach Scott Cochran left a family vacation in Florida and drove to Tuscaloosa so he could fly to Knoxville with the Alabama contingent and be at the service.
That’s not even counting the more than 30 members of the Alabama football team who carpooled together and drove on their own dime to pay their last respects to a fallen teammate they'd known for less than six months.
There were also several of Douglas’ former Tennessee teammates in attendance, including Nick Reveiz, Chris Walker, Jonathan Crompton, Cody Sullins, Cory Sullins and Josh McNeil, not to mention Douglas’ Maryville, Tenn., high school coach, George Quarles, and scores of his former high school teammates.
Arkansas assistant coach Steve Caldwell, also a former Tennessee assistant, had a conflict and couldn’t be at the service Sunday, but Caldwell flew in Saturday to visit with the family.
Agent Jimmy Sexton, who represented Douglas’ father when David was playing in the NFL, was there. So were members of Alabama’s academic and training staff, members of Tennessee’s equipment staff along with current and former team managers for the Vols.
Even Douglas’ first babysitter was there.
They were all there to say a tearful goodbye to a young man who was taken from us much too soon.
I think I speak for all of us in the SEC when I say this is an area where we’re all on the same team.
No matter where you live or who your allegiances are to in the fall, when you get home tonight, hug your kids a little longer and a little tighter.