While Todd Bates, a 6-5, 255-pound defensive left end for the Crimson Tide, is looking more to the future than the past, he can't help but have a little bitterness about the circumstances that denied him the chance to play last season and also cost him that year of eligibility. Now he is approaching his final season for the Crimson Tide.
Bates was ruled ineligible last year because he had used a supplement (purchased from a national health food store) that contained ephedra, a substance that has been linked with catastrophic health problems and since banned. Bates did not know he had used a banned product and was shocked to learn he had failed a drug test shortly after returning from Christmas break in 2003. During spring practice, Bates suffered an injury that developed into an infection that required surgery. He was in the hospital when he had to appear for his appeal in the office of Bama Associate Athletics Director for Compliance Chris King. Despite complete support from Athletics Director Mal Moore, Trainer Rodney Brown, Director of Health Services Bill McDonald, Team Physician Dr. Jimmy Robinson, and others, Bates' appeal was denied by the 3-2 vote.
"It was hard," Bates said. "It was the roughest time I've ever had in my life. In just a short span I had the foot surgery, the suspension, and then my grandfather, who I was very close to, died."
When Mike Shula was named head coach last May, Bates wasted no time in meeting the new coach and explaining his situation. "He told me what I had to do, that I had to keep working, and that things would fall into place," Bates said. "And it looks like that is what is happening.
"I am so gratified that this coaching staff accepted me. They could have put me in the doghouse."
Now, said Bates, he is very close to Paul Randolph, who coaches Alabama's defensive ends. He said, "I think it's very important for team success for the players to be able to be close to their position coaches."
Bates' head coach has an appreciation for what the senior from Heflin has accomplished. "It's tough not being able to play, and he was very helpful," Shula said. "He had a great attitude. And as a member of the scout team he gave our offense a great look. He made himself better and he made the guy across the line from him better. He carried that same attitude into the off-season. And then in spring practice he got a lot better from Day One to Day 15. He doesn't make mistakes. He's very solid, particularly against the run."
Bates said, "I felt a little sluggish when spring practice started, but I think I made a smooth transition. I think I ended up having a good spring."
Since the players returned from spring break, they have been in a strength and conditioning program that stresses weight-lifting. "I've been working hard," Bates said. "Everyone has."
Bates knows that Alabama lost some good players from last year's defense, including defensive ends Antwan Odom (who left following his junior season) and Nautyn McKay-Loescher, and linebacker Derrick Pope. "But we've got good people back," Bates said. "And we've got some back–me and Cornelius–who had to sit out last year. (Linebacker Cornelius Wortham missed last season with an injury.) And now we'll have had a full year-plus with the same defensive coaching staff, and that will make a difference."
Bates worked with Alabama's offense last fall, working with the scout defensive team. He said it was "remarkable" that the offense could do as well as it did considering the short time it had with its coaching staff. Because of the arrival of Shula after spring practice last year, the 2003 Crimson Tide went into the season with only a few weeks work on the offensive game plan.
Bates said there were many times watching Alabama games last year he thought about what he might have done had he been playing. He said, "Sometimes I'd see us break down and I'd think, ‘I'd have made that play.' "
He went to Bama home games and sat in the stands with other students. On road games he said, "I always had people around me. My parents would come down and watch the games with me. And if (walk-on defensive tackle) J.P. Adams wasn't on the travel squad, he'd invite me to his house. His mother would cook for us and we'd watch the games on his big screen TV. A lot of people supported me."
Bates has been in the arena. In 2001 he was the only member of the freshman signing class to see playing time. He was in nine regular season games, including starting against LSU, and had 23 tackles and two fumble recoveries that led to touchdowns. After post-season shoulder surgery that caused him to miss most of spring practice in 2002, Bates played in every game that sophomore season and had 28 tackles and a fumble recovery.
He said getting back into action this fall "is going to be something. I got all tingly at A-Day and the stands were just half full. I can't tell you what it means to me to be dressed and in that tunnel with my teammates and running onto the field at Bryant-Denny Stadium. I can't wait."