Karle's Korner: Nick Saban a race fan? How the Bama coach helped broker a young man's dream

Published: May. 5, 2015 at 12:40 AM CDT|Updated: May. 5, 2015 at 1:01 AM CDT
Email This Link
Share on Pinterest
Share on LinkedIn


The following is a commentary blog from FOX6 Sports Director Rick Karle:

He knew he had a mountain to climb. He knew the chances of seeing measurable playing time with the Alabama football team were slim. He knew that coming out of a small 2A school (Hale County) near Moundville would not make him a 5-star recruit.

But Rowdy Harrell had something that Nick Saban would soon admire. In fact Rowdy Harrell exhibited traits about which the Alabama football coach had long preached: Character, drive, resolve.

You see Rowdy Harrell, an Alabama walk-on back linebacker in 2009 had a great motor, and four years later, Nick Saban would help broker a deal that sent Harrell in the direction of one of the biggest motorsports teams in America.

It's a Sunday at the Talladega Superspeedway, and the rear tire man stretches as the green flag drops. Rowdy Harrell is a member of Dale Earnhardt, Jr's pit crew, and throughout the Geico 500 he will lug around 80-pound tires to help Junior complete the quickest pit stop he can muster.

As the 88-car pulls onto the pit road, Harrell grabs a tire, climbs over the wall and works hand-in-hand with his teammates in one of the most furious fifteen seconds you can imagine.

Thank heavens for all of those brutal weight-lifting sessions with Bama strength coach Scott Cochran. Thank heavens for Harrell's own drive, and thank heavens that a football coach cared enough about a walk-on to help the young man continue his dream.

So how did it all happen? How did a linebacker who used to simulate Manti Te'o as a scout teamer wind up working for the most famous race team in NASCAR?

As his college days dwindled, Rowdy Harrell, his NFL options a pipe dream, thought that perhaps becoming a strength coach would be his calling. After all, he survived those sessions with Cochran, he survived four years under Nick Saban.

And then, when he least expected it, Harrell's phone rang. It was Nick Saban asking Rowdy if he'd interested in pursuing a career with a pit crew. And this was no ordinary company, this was Hendrick Motorsports.

You see, Coach Saban has been longtime friends with Chris Burkey, who was a scout for the Dolphins when Saban ran the show in Miami.

But now, Chris Burkey worked in Charlotte as the pit crew coach for Rick Hendrick.Burkey wondered if Saban knew of any player who might be interested in racing.

It was then that Nick Saban picked up the phone and called the young man who possessed one of the best motors on his football team.

Life certainly throws you some curves, but it can also throw you some fastballs right down the middle of the plate. Rowdy Harrell was about to go deep.

Harrell, a great listener and a fast learner, soaked in all of that Hendrick pit crew knowledge in a hurry, and suddenly found himself in pit crew tryouts.

Harrell was ready, as he learned how to persevere under Saban.

"Mr. Hendrick was looking for something that Coach Saban taught: true work ethic. It's something Saban also preached, and it has helped me be where I am today," Harrell said.

So at the age 25, the kid from south of Tuscaloosa is sitting on top of the world.On Sunday, Harrell and the rest of Junior's pit crew must have done something right, as Earnhardt, Jr. won at Talladega for first time in 11 years.

I asked Harrell what he likes better, pancaking a running back or completing a 15 second pit stop.

"Both sports are similar in many ways. Like in football, you need to make decisions in a split second, but I tend to like NASCAR as with cars going 60 miles an hour, equipment flying everywhere, it's very satisfying when a successful pit stop is completed," Harrell said.

Do pit crew members call audibles like in football?

"Of course," said Harrell. "Just yesterday in the XFinity race, we had car come in, the tires slid, and we had to make quick changes, calling an audible. We reacted perfectly and completed a successful stop."

And by the way, just like in football, each moment of action is caught on video tape. Moments after Earnhardt, Jr left his pit stall, there was Rowdy Harrell studying the play-back video to make sure he did everything correctly.

And the workouts? While Scott Cochran may not be yelling in his ear, Harrell reminds me that he and his crew members do yoga every Monday and lift weights every Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday.

You never know where life will take you. Rowdy Harrell is a perfect example: A winner of three national championship rings while in college and now a young man calling Rick Hendrick and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. as boss.

He smiles as he puts his sunglasses on and walks away, appreciative of a football coach who took time to lead a walk-on player to a dream.

This is merely the opening drive of Rowdy Harrell's career, but wherever his motor leads him, he will always have two giants from the world of sports to put on his resume.

Wouldn't you like to have Nick Saban and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. as references? No wonder Rowdy Harrell is smiling.

Copyright 2015 WBRC. All rights reserved.