October 19, 2012 10:23:20 AM
Vinnie and Sal Sunseri are on opposite sides of a prominent Southern rivalry, and not overjoyed about it.
Vinnie is a safety for No. 1 University of Alabama and father Sal is the University of Tennessee's defensive coordinator, making Saturday night's game a highly stressful family get-together in Knoxville, Tenn.
Father and son have almost identical takes on the situation.
It's a "very, very tough" week, Vinnie said.
It's "very, very, very tough," agreed his father.
"A lot of mixed emotions," said Vinnie, a pained expression on his face. "Hard. Hard, hard, hard. I'm getting a lot of calls from the family saying good luck to me, but I know they're just giving the same, exact advice to my dad. It's tough. It's really tough. But I'm excited to see my dad."
If it's hard for them, double that for mother-and-wife Roxann. The trio watched Vinnie's brother Tino, Pittsburgh's quarterback, play during a shared open date for Alabama and Tennessee.
"I had never witnessed it before, but she becomes a wreck," the Crimson Tide safety said. "She's emotional, she -- oh, my gosh -- she just wishes the best for us at all times. She's so passionate and loves us all so much. Especially when one of us gets hurt, it just kills her inside. She is a fan favorite of all of us and is, honestly, our biggest fan. It's definitely going to be really tough on her. I don't even think she's coming to the game."
It's a different twist on the traditional Third Saturday in October rivalry.
The Volunteers (3-3, 0-3 Southeastern Conference) hired Sal Sunseri in January after he spent three seasons coaching linebackers for Nick Saban at Alabama, giving him a chance to run a major college defense for the first time. His son stayed in Tuscaloosa, where he was a top recruit last year.
"He's done a great job in preparation, what he's done all the way up this year," Sal Sunseri said. "But emotionally for the family it's been really, really, really tough. I didn't imagine it would be this hard, but it is very, very, very tough. But we're both going to be professionals about it. We're going to do what we have to do and go out and try to play our best football."
The saving grace for the Sunseris is they're not going head to head, so one's success isn't the other's failure.
Vinnie jokes that his sister Ashlyn, a freshman on Tennessee's volleyball team, came up with the only possible solution that won't create more angst in the family.
"She says it's going to be a defensive game in her mind," Vinnie said. "She said, 'Hope it's a 0-0 game' and I pick one off and take it to the house. Naw, she didn't say that."
Sal Sunseri's defense has struggled even as the Tide leads the nation in all the major defensive categories. Tennessee ranks 87th in total defense and 90th in points allowed.
Vinnie, a converted linebacker, has started four games for Alabama and is fourth on the team with 22 tackles after becoming a key special teams player as a freshman. He picked up his second interception last weekend at Missouri.
"Vinnie's a very instinctive player," Saban said. "He's a really bright guy and I think football's really important to him. He works hard at it all the time. He loves to play."
He doesn't necessarily love playing against his father's team, though. Vinnie said there would be "a lot of orange and red this weekend being worn in the household" and a number of family members will be attending the game, perhaps excluding his mother.
Sal Sunseri said the conversations this week are typical father-son stuff, not game-related.
"The family's extremely close," he said. "When we talk, it's more about his technique, how he's playing, asking how I'm doing. It has nothing to do with the game itself. It has to do with making sure he's feeling good, making sure he's healthy; making sure I'm feeling good, making sure I'm healthy. That's basically what the conversations have been.
But Saturday night won't be all business.
"It's going to be hard Saturday night when that kid walks on the field and hugs me."