HENAGAR, Ala. – Pedaling past tornado-tossed homes and broken trees, Heisman Trophy winner Bo Jackson and about 100 bicyclists started a five-day, 300-mile bike trek across north Alabama on Tuesday to raise money for storm relief in the state.
The ride — dubbed "Bo Bikes Bama" — will pass through some of the communities hit hardest by more than 60 twisters that destroyed thousands of homes and businesses and killed about 250 people last April 27. It coincides with a week of observances of the anniversary of the devastating onslaught.
The ride will include several celebrities, including former Major League Baseball player Ken Griffey Jr., seven-time Tour De France winner Lance Armstrong, NBA star Scottie Pippen and downhill skier Picabo Street.
"They say there's a couple of areas we're gonna pass through that look somebody took a weed whacker and just took out a hundred yards or so," said Griffey, who has never seen tornado destruction up close.
A crowd of about 200 people cheered "Go Bo, Go," as the ride began in tiny Henagar, located in northeast Alabama's DeKalb County, where more than 30 people were killed. Before going to the starting line, Jackson met privately with 11-year-old Bryce Ferguson, whose parents and little sister Emma were among the dead.
"Everybody asks me why I decided to do this ride. It's because of people like Bryce," Jackson said. "He lost everything, but he is standing tall. He is going on with his life, and he's got people in his life that care about him and are loving him."
Jackson rode a specially made bike painted orange and blue, the colors of his alma mater, Auburn University. It also bears the name of every person who died in the twisters.
The storms left a path of destruction that, all put together, stretched 1,000 miles long and 20 miles wide. The ride ends Saturday in Tuscaloosa, where more than 50 deaths were blamed on a tornado.
Riders got a glimpse of the way twisters hop-scotched across the state a year ago, passing from unaffected neighborhoods into zones that looked like logging crews had cut down every tree and left bare, scarred dirt.
The group passed a splintered green house that doesn't appear to have been touched since the twister yanked it from its foundation; riders pedaled past the roofless remains of a country store. Speeding down a hill, riders came within yards of an old yellow milk truck that has been buried in a hillside to serve as a tornado shelter.
Jackson, who grew up near Birmingham in Bessemer but now lives in Illinois, said he hopes to raise $1 million for the governor's relief fund and increase awareness about the continuing problems caused by the twisters. Gov. Robert Bentley said the state still has some $140 million in unmet needs.
Organizers will auction off five different bicycles Jackson plans to ride during the event, and individuals can ride along for a donation of $200.
Bicyclist John Maples, who rode with two friends on the first leg, said the region needs a boost like "Bo Bikes Bama."
"It means a lot to me. We had a lot of people affected," said Maples. "It's great. It's appreciated."
Shannon Pruett, a fan of Auburn, where Jackson won the Heisman in 1985, kept her three children out of school to stand along the roadside and cheer the riders as they passed a road still lined with tornado debris and twisted, splintered trees.
"I told my husband this isn't going to happen again, they needed to see it," said Pruett.