WASHINGTON – Gigantic men stood crammed on tiny risers in three neat rows on stage,beaming smiles to the crowd and fidgeting for 10 minutes.
Dressed in their Sunday best,pressed suit coats and crisp collared shirts,the Alabama Crimson Tide football team waited in the East Room of the White House for the arrival of President Barack Obama.
Obama honored the team Monday for winning the 2009 Bowl Championship Series National Championship Game. The team defeated the Texas Longhorns 37-21 in the game held Jan. 7,which left the Tide with an undefeated season.
Obama walked in to the chandelier-lit room with Coach Nick Saban,whom he recognized for leading the team to its first national championship in 17 years.
“I think it's safe to say that the Tide is back!” Obama said to the cheering crowd.
This season's victory is the 13th National Championship the Crimson Tide has won.
The White House event drew a crowd of about a hundred people,including Alabama senators Jeff Sessions and Richard Shelby; Surgeon General Regina Benjamin,an Alabama native,and distinguished University of Alabama graduates from the Washington area.
Missing from the event was Press Secretary Robert Gibbs,an Auburn,Ala.,native and fan of the rival Auburn University Tigers.
“He's hiding in his office right now,” Obama said to much laughter.
Athletic Director Mal Moore and University President Robert Witt stood on stage with the team as Obama praised the group.
“To all those who make this program what it is – the students and the trainers and the staff and the ticket takers,fans in Tuscaloosa and all across the country,you should all be very proud,and I want to congratulate you,” he said.
Obama also congratulated several players for their individual accomplishments. He honored running back Mark Ingram for being the first Alabama winner of the Heisman Trophy,noting Ingram's record of more than 1,500 rushing yards during the season.
Team captains Rolando McClain,Mike Johnson and Javier Arenas were also recognized. Obama congratulated McClain for winning the Butkus Award as the nation's top linebacker,and said McClain's talent stemmed from his intelligence and judgment.
“In fact one of his teammates was asked to describe him – he said,‘Just picture Coach Saban being huge and being able to play football,'” Obama quipped.
Obama thanked the team for contributing 3,500 hours of community service last year. The Tide took time before the event to meet with D.C. kids from a tough neighborhood to stress the importance of staying in school and making healthy decisions. Some of the children were in the White House audience.
“That's how champions act – in football and in life,” Obama said.
The team gave Obama a Crimson Tide football,jersey and helmet,though he didn't put on the helmet because “it'd mess up my ‘do,” he said.
Obama shook hands with most of the players,who took a whirlwind tour of Washington after the ceremony.
“Pres. Obama was much taller than expected,” quarterback Greg McElroy said in a Tweet from the tour. “I did get buried in the back [because] we aligned tallest to shortest. But I did get my handshake.”
Obama wished the team members luck next season and joked they should enjoy their last few days of freedom,as spring practice starts Friday.
“Roll Tide!” he said to thunderous applause before he left the room.