The student superfan knew how to stand out in a crowd. To become “Fluff,” the Alabama basketball zealot beloved by the Crimson Tide faithful for his colorful antics, each game day Luke Ratliff dutifully slipped on his armor — a custom-fit dark plaid sport coat, an Alabama pin on the right lapel and a pair of white Nikes. Usually, a couple of Budweisers helped him step fully into character.
A year ago, when the NCAA welcomed 68 teams to Indianapolis for a March Madness unlike any other, with all 67 games staged in a “bubble” to minimize travel and exposure to COVID-19, Fluff was not going to miss it. Heck, he had attended every road game all season as the pandemic played on unchecked throughout the Southeast.
“I’ll do anything for my head ball coach,” Fluff liked to say of Alabama’s Nate Oats.
The Crimson Tide coaches and players had come to count on Fluff’s presence. The sight of the heavyset 23-year-old in the black-rim Oakley frames, taking on the persona of a fire-and-brimstone preacher, was a source of comfort. And apparently the team wasn’t alone in its appreciation.
After Alabama’s first game of the tournament, a win over Iona at historic Hinkle Fieldhouse, a line stretched along one of the concourses packed with fans who wanted their picture taken with Fluff. Alabama athletic director Greg Byrne would later tell Ratliff’s parents that he had to ask for security to manage the situation.
Fluff never understood all the attention. He once told a radio host who asked him what it was like to be famous, “I’m just a kid from a little small town in North Carolina that loves Alabama basketball. That’s it.”
His mother, Pam, had noticed that there was “a little bit of Fluff in Luke and a little bit of Luke in Fluff.” Luke shone through when Fluff would always take the time to stop for a picture with his admirers. Throughout the pandemic, she took solace that the only time he would take down his mask was for those seconds when he was smiling for someone else’s camera.
Luke had actually taken COVID seriously. At his size, he knew he should fear it, and he did. He often got tested to make sure he was protecting those around him, particularly the Alabama basketball team. In Indianapolis, his friends saw him washing his hands vigorously and, in many photos taken that week, he was among the few who had a mask around his neck.
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But Fluff still kept the mood light. How could he not? Alabama was the Southeastern Conference regular season and tournament champions. The No. 2 seed Tide handled Iona and then Maryland to advance to the Sweet 16.
“He told everyone, ‘This is the best day of my life,’” says Alabama assistant coach Bryan Hodgson.
Ratliff hightailed it back to Tuscaloosa, Ala., for a few days of classes before returning to the Indianapolis bubble for the Tide’s next game against UCLA, putting another thousand miles on his black Honda Civic.
At lunch the day of the game, his friend Hunter Johnson was surprised that Ratliff turned down a beer. He said he wasn’t feeling his best.
His day would only get worse from there. The Bruins beat Alabama 88-78 in overtime, ending Fluff’s dream of a Final Four to cap his senior season.
“Thank you for the ride of a lifetime,” Ratliff tweeted from his Twitter account @Fluffopotamus88. “Alabama, goodnight.”
Early the next morning, he arrived back in Tuscaloosa and tweeted a pin emoji. His mother replied, “Glad to know you made it back safe.”
Four days later, she would hold her boy’s hand as he took his last breaths.
Hailing from Wadesboro, N.C., Luke Ratliff understood the importance of college basketball. His dad, Bryan, was a North Carolina fan, but Luke was introduced to Alabama by some proud Bama alums who lived down the street. Somehow, that connection was enough for the Crimson Tide to earn his devotion from a young age.
Of course, there was no doubt where he would go to college. That first fall, he joined the Crimson Chaos basketball student fan group, and by January 2018, he was ready to assert his spirit and creativity.
Before the Auburn game, Ratliff scoured all sources looking for one of those dark blue FBI jackets with the yellow lettering. The rival Tigers were caught up in the federal investigation into bribery in the college basketball recruiting world, and Luke wanted to let them have it when they came to Alabama’s Coleman Coliseum. Sure enough, he procured the jacket.
That night, he was stationed behind the Auburn bench, reminding the country of the alleged transgressions of Bruce Pearl and his staff.
“I’m like, ‘OK, I want to be friends with this kid,’ ” says Hunter Johnson, a noted Alabama basketball diehard.
At halftime, an Alabama athletics employee picked Luke to take the halftime shot to win a prize, which brought him further into the spotlight.
“From then on,” Pam Ratliff says, “he was that kid who wore the FBI jacket.”
Luke Ratliff created such a stir that, before the Louisiana State game the next year, he got a call from Byrne, the athletic director. LSU had also been targeted in the FBI stuff, and Byrne was hoping to avoid an encore. By then, the sophomore had staged “a coup” to take over the Crimson Chaos, so he had a direct line to the athletic director’s office.
“I just want to make sure you don’t have anything planned for tonight like last time,” Byrne said.
“Oh no, we’re not doing anything,” Ratliff fibbed.
“Little did he know,” Pam Ratliff says, laughing, “Luke had all the students bringing fake warrants. He called me and said, ‘I got caught. Now I’ve got 1,200 people to call.’ ”
Luke Ratliff was able to quiet that particular prank, but he stayed undaunted going forward. No SEC coach was safe when they came into Coleman. Rumor had it that South Carolina’s Frank Martin put up a picture of Fluff in the locker room. Arkansas’ Eric Musselman blocked him on Twitter.
Given his performance as Fluff, few could have imagined that Ratliff was in the middle of an intense battle with social anxiety.
Hodgson, the Alabama assistant, knew Fluff very well as president of the Crimson Chaos. But he didn’t meet Ratliff until one night after a game during the 2019-20 season.
“I walked out about two hours after the game had ended, and he was the only person left sitting in the building,” Hodgson says. “I could tell he was uneasy. He was shaking. I walked over there, and he opened up to me.
“His story kind of struck me. He said, ‘Coach, I can stand up on a chair in front of 15,000 people and make a fool out of myself and wear all these goofy outfits, but simple things like getting up right now and walking out of the arena bring me the biggest amount of anxiety. I just don’t understand it.’ ”
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Luke had been keeping his inner struggle from Pam — he did not want her to worry — but during one visit she noticed him shaking in line at Sam’s Club and forced it out of him.
“When it was bad, he had very few places where he felt comfortable,” Pam says. “Basketball was a refuge, and I think going into the persona of Fluff, it helped.”
His senior year, Fluff was not going to be stopped — even by a global pandemic. Every week it seemed, he was sending his father a fresh picture of some new state’s welcome sign on the highway.
At Mississippi State in late February, the Crimson Tide clinched the SEC regular-season crown. Fluff didn’t know it, but the team made sure to clip a piece of the net for him.
Days later at his final game as a student at Coleman Coliseum, the coaches presented it to him, along with a ball commemorating his galvanizing run as president. He cried.
“Mama cried, too,” says Pam, who was there to cheer him on. “He was humbled.”
Ahead, there was the SEC tournament in Nashville, and the specter of the unprecedented NCAA tournament bubble in Indy. But there was one thing Pam wanted Luke to take care of before all that.
She and Bryan had just gotten their first shot of the COVID-19 vaccine. They were able to get it in North Carolina because they are caretakers of their autistic 19-year-old son, Noah. Luke would be able to get one, too, if he’d just make a quick trip home. The vaccine was not yet available for Luke’s age group in Alabama.
“He wanted a vaccination more than anybody I know,” Pam says. “But he was such a fan, and I think he had just set that goal that he was going to go to all the games. It was his last opportunity. I tried to talk him into coming home and getting a shot, but I think he felt like it was his responsibility. As good as the team was doing, he didn’t want to jinx it.”
In mid-March, with the bracket set and Madness ready to begin, Luke fired up his car and floored it to Indy.
Everybody handles grief in their own way. Visiting Pam and Bryan Ratliff at their home in Wadesboro, it is clear they have no intention of trying to leave behind the special time when their family was still whole.
In the living room, they created a shrine to Luke on the wall, featuring four large canvas pictures grouped together around a framed “Fluff” No. 88 jersey the school gave them. On the TV, there are dozens of Alabama basketball games saved on the DVR if they ever want to just see him at his happiest. To the right of the TV, a tall cabinet displays the mementos and possessions that best define him:
That FBI jacket, folded neatly. An Atlanta Braves cap. His eyeglasses. His bulging wallet, the items left untouched. A bottle of nice bourbon. A picture of him and Pam at his last home game. Two tickets from when they took a mom-and-son trip to Graceland. A degree from the University of Alabama in public relations and a senior class ring he never got to see.
Nearly a year has passed, the many firsts without their Luke slowly turning month by month into mournful reflections of their lasts with him as the calendar trudges on.
March, well, March has been rough.
“Yesterday was the last hug,” Pam says.
She did not get to hug him on April 2, 2021, the day he died. The last hug came March 6, as she was leaving Tuscaloosa for North Carolina.
On March 30, Pam got a call from Luke. He said he had a dry cough and a scratchy throat. The doctor tested him for COVID-19, it came back negative, and Luke was treated for bronchitis at first. On April 1, Luke barely slept, feeling like his lungs were filled with water. He went back to the doctor, and the X-ray showed signs of COVID pneumonia. Luke went to the hospital, and the Ratliffs headed for Tuscaloosa.
Once Pam got to his room, she was able to help calm him. His anxiety had taken control. She had never seen him so panicked.
“The more upset he got, the worse his breathing got,” Pam says. “It was this vicious cycle.”
The pulmonologist told her that if they could just keep him at the same oxygen level for a few more days, he would likely be OK.
Unthinkably soon, Luke was gone.
“I go back and forth between sadness and anger,” Pam says, returning to the here and now, “because I think he should have been able to get a shot by then. They played political ping-pong with the whole COVID pandemic for a year before my child died instead of jumping on it and taking care of it.”
“Like America should do,” Bryan interjects.
“My child would still be here,” Pam says.
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Since that moment, the Ratliffs have been lifted up by seemingly neverending support from the Alabama athletics family. Hodgson started a GoFundMe to help with their expenses, which raised about $60,000. Oats and his staff came to Wadesboro for the memorial service, where Alabama star forward Herb Jones served as a pallbearer.
They buried Luke fully Fluff, wearing his trademark sport coat and holding his piece of that championship net.
At home, the letters of condolence poured in. Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill and his wife, Cindy — they had become friends with Luke — sent several, including an official state resolution mourning his passing.
A woman from Indiana — with a name they’d never seen before — sent a letter telling Pam and Bryan about her chance encounter with Fluff just weeks before in Indianapolis.
“I had the pleasure of meeting Luke in Indianapolis at the end of March,” Bryan reads. “Even in a short period of time, he made such an impact. He was so incredibly kind and very funny …”
Bryan has to stop reading as he gets choked up.
“We’re just country people,” Bryan says. “We’re overwhelmed with the sympathy for us.”
Schools and fan bases across the SEC sent their love to the Ratliffs, making it clear that their sparring with Fluff was all in good fun. The Ratliffs like to joke that even Arkansas got them flowers.
Eventually, in November, another season of Alabama basketball had to tip off without the team’s No. 1 supporter.
“I knew going into that first game at Coleman it was going to be tough,” said Johnson, Luke’s friend, “but yeah, I cried, man. It got to where he was so synonymous that you don’t think about Alabama basketball without him.”
Alabama held a ceremony to honor Fluff with a plaque on the back of his seat, which will now be where the Crimson Chaos president sits each year.
“Fluff did more for us than we could ever do for him,” Hodgson says. “I miss him like crazy. We became so close. It was weird. In my whole coaching career, I never had a bond with a student fan, but when I hung out with him, it felt as if he was older than me. It was like hanging out with your uncle.”
In early March, the Ratliffs attended Alabama’s home finale. It just happened to be on the anniversary of Luke’s last game there.
“I can honestly say that I feel closer to my child when I’m sitting in Coleman Coliseum than I do anywhere, than I do here at home,” Pam says. “Tuscaloosa is soothing to me. It really is.”
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Pam’s portal to Tuscaloosa and those memories opens anytime Alabama basketball is on the TV. They try to make it festive, inviting other Tide fans they’ve met in the area. Recently, a leftover keg from a watch party sat empty in the living room.
Pam has also taken over some of Luke’s traditions. She’s become very active on Twitter using the account @irbransmom, and every game day she sends the same GIF of a sweaty minister preaching from his Sunday pulpit, just like Luke would.
“When he’d stand on those seats and lead those kids, he’d look like an old Southern Baptist preacher standing there,” Pam says, laughing. “He could have told those kids to strip naked and run around Coleman Coliseum, and I really think they would have done it.”
Friday afternoon at 1:15, Alabama will play its NCAA tournament first-round game in San Diego. It is a certainty that Fluff would have been there.
For the Bama fan base, there is no replacing him. But Pam will wake up Friday morning in Wadesboro, load up her preacher tweet and hit send one more time, simply doing all she can.
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