Alabama students and faculty mourn loss of Luke Ratliff

The senior built a “lasting foundation” for men’s basketball’s devoted student section.


CW / Hannah Saad

Maxwell Donaldson, Contributing Writer

Pictures of plaid jackets dotted the front steps of Coleman Coliseum. Two Budweiser cans, a hardhat and a basketball with the word “forever” scrawled in black Sharpie laid in front of the hundreds gathered on a breezy April Saturday. 

It was exactly what Fluff would have wanted, loved ones said.

Nearly 200 Alabama fans, students and faculty came together on Saturday to remember Cameron Luke Ratliff, whose signature plaid jacket, hard hat and command on the student section made him the heart of Alabama’s fanbase. Just hours prior, news broke that the 23-year-old UA senior had died of potential COVID-19 pneumonia

Ratliff, lovingly known as “Fluffopotamus,” started to attend basketball games his freshman year. Some, like walk-on senior forward Tyler Barnes, originally thought of Ratliff as “some crazy fan,” as he put it on Saturday. But soon, Ratliff would become a beloved fixture in Alabama sports. 

After his last men’s basketball game as a student, Ratliff, the face of Crimson Chaos, said goodbye to his yearlong stint as the leader of Alabama’s student section.

“Thank you for the ride of a lifetime,” Ratliff tweeted Sunday after Alabama’s loss to UCLA, just five days before his death. “Alabama, Goodnight.”

Ratliff travelled to Indianapolis to attend Alabama’s Sweet 16 run in the NCAA Tournament. Health officials in Indiana opened an investigation shortly after his death to contact trace people that were around him. 

GALLERY: UA community gathers for Luke Ratliff memorial

“Luke was one of the best people I ever met, he was one of my closest friends,” said Reagan Starner, the owner of R&R Cigars and Ratliff’s close friend. “We talked every single day. What I saw today is just a testament to how big his reach was in Tuscaloosa and how beloved he was by everyone here. I wish there was more we could do for him. It’s amazing, I think it speaks for itself how beloved Luke was by everyone.”

By his senior year, Ratliff became a staple at Alabama men’s basketball games. He attended 44 of the past 45 conference and post-season games, including the final 42 games straight. Whether one was in the stadium or watching on the television, his presence at Coleman was easy to spot. 

“I could always expect to see the student section with the energy you couldn’t explain,” said Ronald Nigel McWilliams, the deejay for Alabama home games. “Fluff gave off an energy that was contagious.”

McWilliams, also a video producer, traveled with men’s basketball for Crimson Tide Productions. He always made an effort to include Ratliff in his projects. 

“The student section was amazing,” he said. “It would not have had the energy it had if it weren’t for Fluff.”

 UA President Stuart Bell talked with the Ratliff family during Saturday’s memorial but stayed toward the back as others spoke to honor the senior. Athletic Director Greg Byrne added a few words during and after the ceremony. He mentioned that the department will do something to honor and recognize the memory and impact Ratliff had on the school and sports.

“Our student body thrived off his leadership and set the tone for this year and the past year,” Byrne said. “But also, he’s going to leave a lasting foundation for our athletic department and our university. We’re very fortunate for that.”

Rival coaches outside the program, including Auburn’s Bruce Pearl and South Carolina’s Frank Martin, sent their condolences. Other Alabama head coaches also paid their respects to the beloved fan. Alabama softball coach Patrick Murphy wore a plaid blazer during the pregame of the softball game, and the coat was hung next to a sign made for Ratliff in the dugout throughout the game. Alabama baseball placed a tall Budweiser on an empty seat in right field in Ratliff’s memory. Inside Coleman Coliseum for the gymnastics’ regional meet, a tribute graced Ratliff’s seat in the front row of the student section.

Tuscaloosa mayor Walt Maddox said Ratliff’s death is a reminder of “how fragile life is.”

“Understanding this, in honor of [Ratliff], the lights at [Tuscaloosa City] Hall will be red and white tonight and tomorrow,” Maddox tweeted Saturday. “May [Ratliff’s] fandom remind us all that to exercise passion for something greater than yourself is a life worth pursuing.”

The whole community has been touched by Ratliff’s presence, but those who knew him best were grateful for the outpouring of support for his parents there and friends. Assistant men’s basketball coach Bryan Hodgson started a GoFundMe fundraiser to cover funeral costs for the Ratliff family. Donations have already surpassed $45,000.  

“Fluff meant a lot to me and really everyone who has watched Alabama basketball in the time that he has been a student,” Matthew Travis, a friend of Ratliff, said. “To see all these people showing their support for him, even people who never knew him, truly means a lot because he meant a lot to me and everyone here.  He was a great person and he made everyone feel like they were the most important person in the room even if they hadn’t met him.”