Story: Lisa Sollie | Photo: Cody Ingram
When Matt Gurley moved to Livingston in 1996 to play football at the University of West Alabama, he had no inkling he and his family would develop intrinsic ties to the university and the community they now call home.
Gurley, a four-year letterman at UWA, met his future wife, Brooke Morris, at a Phi Mu Camo Crush party. It was her first year at UWA and his last season playing for the Tiger football team.
“I really didn’t want to go to college, but I wanted to play football,” he chuckled, “and since I switched my major a few times trying to figure out what I wanted to do, that extended my stay at UWA.” After he graduated in spring 2002 with a bachelor of science degree in industrial technology, Gurley moved back to Morris, Alabama, and Brooke went with him, completing her undergraduate nursing degree at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and later earned a master’s degree from UAB the same year Matt completed a graduate degree in construction engineering management.
Twenty-one years after they said “I do,” the couple are back in Sumter County.
“Brooke and I never imagined we would be living here full time,” noted Matt, “or that our kids would both be students at UWA. We never wanted to pressure them to go here just because we did, we just wanted them to go somewhere and get an education,” added Brooke.
Against all odds, it was their daughter, Bailey, who first chose the University of West Alabama.
“I didn’t know where I wanted to go but I received the most scholarships from UWA,” Bailey said. “I initially wanted to go somewhere close to the beach and maybe study marine biology. My great grandmother, Granny Dot, whom I visited every day after school, suggested I try it here for a year. She knew I always liked going to Livingston.”
Now a junior elementary education major, Bailey can’t imagine going anywhere else. “I still remember coming here as a child,” she recalled. “I was young and I guess I thought it was going to be a big city like Birmingham. Even though it wasn’t, I still really liked it because the people smiled and waved and time seemed to slow down.”
The people were the reason Matt and Brooke never lost touch with the University or the town.
“Many people we met here became not only our life-long friends,” noted Brooke, “but are truly more like family. They gave us a reason to keep coming back,” added Matt.
Their son, Lake, a sophomore engineering technology major, also didn’t know where he wanted to go to college. To him, Sumter County meant getting to hunt and fish at the family’s camp in nearby Gainesville, not necessarily going to school.
“I wanted to play football and I was grateful to be given that opportunity here at UWA. I can play football, earn the degree I want and I can still hunt and fish, sometimes even before class,” Lake said. “And there’s a family history here too. I’ve been coming for years and wherever I go, I always see someone I know. In a way, it’s like being in my hometown.” Especially on Monday nights when Lake, Bailey and a bunch of their friends show up at their parent’s place for their weekly Monday night suppers, a tradition that began in high school.
“When I was at UWA, somehow I always got stuck with the cooking duties,” noted Matt, “and then when Lake played high school football at Mortimer Jordan, he and Bailey were the fourth generation to attend that school, I would cook for some of his buddies. When we moved to Gainesville, I continued doing that and now every Monday night, both he, Bailey and around 10 to 20 of their friends will show up to eat.”
“I know my parents didn’t move down here to watch over us or anything, but it’s been really nice having them close by,” said Lake. “Monday nights are now my favorite part of the week. I also like that Bailey and I see each other all the time. I’m not sure if we would be as close as we are right now if I had gone to college somewhere else.”
Bailey remembers how excited she was when she heard Lake would be attending UWA too. “It was really hard to leave Lake and go to college,” she admitted, “because we had started to get really close my senior year of high school. Then one day he sent me a text message, that was actually a video of him playing football at our high school. Suddenly there was a lot of static and then Lake appears in a UWA football uniform before the screen goes black. I was so excited yet I was crying too.”
Homecoming is another family tradition the Gurley’s have always embraced, and this year’s was particularly poignant since not one, but both siblings were out on the field during the homecoming game; Lake in his football uniform and Bailey, a member of the 2023 Homecoming court, escorted by Matt.
“As a kid, my favorite thing about homecoming was always the parade, I didn’t even care about the candy, I just loved watching it. I even remember thinking, when I was around 10 years old and the Phi Mu float went by, my mom rode on that float years ago, and when I pledged the same sorority, I got to do that too. But this year, when I was on the float with the Homecoming court and I looked down at all those excited kids lining the street, I saw myself in their faces, and it was really special.” Later that same evening, Matt caught himself taking it all in as he escorted his daughter across the football field during halftime. “It was such a special day for both Brooke and I, and it was truly a blessing to see our kids healthy, happy and doing what they love. We love this place. I don’t know many people who can say all four members of their family went to the same university—I’m glad we can.”