UAB and Birmingham soar to the future with new stadium
Gene Bartow’s mind looks down this week and smiles.
He probably shakes his head in disbelief too, as the miracles that happened at UAB would surprise even the most loyal of Birmingham Saints.
They said UAB football was dead. Now he’s the Conference USA champion in two of the past three years. They said a new stadium would never be built in Birmingham. The city’s new football palace opens on Saturday for the Blazers’ first home game of the 2021 season.
It is still impossible to believe how it all happened.
Bartow, the father of UAB athletics, fought to bring UAB football to life with the help of former university president Scotty McCallum and football coach Jim Hilyer. This fighting courage survived even when the team they created had to die first before uniting a city.
There has never been a team that embodies the soul of a city like these UAB Blazers.
After being killed in 2014, UAB football is playing in a brand new stadium in the city center which was built thanks to the inspiration created by the team’s unlikely return. And now it’s time to party. And dance. And sing. And be grateful – grateful to UAB football coach Bill Clark and so many students who fought for their school and their city, and grateful that Bartow’s vision may now soar higher than he never would have believed it possible.
The Blazers play Liberty at 6 p.m. Saturday at Protective Stadium, and, man, it feels good to write. The players are so excited that many of them have gone back to school for another year just to experience this day.
“We joke all the time that maybe they’ll make a movie of it someday,” said UAB offensive lineman Colby Ragland, a fifth-year senior. “I think it’s crazy when you sit down and think, but it’s something that should happen. We are working for it. We worked our tail for Birmingham and everyone who was a part of it.
“We are grateful, we are grateful and we want to keep going out there and make everyone proud.”
As Clark likes to say, this is not the end of a journey. This is actually just the start. With this new stadium, UAB football can finally start to realize its true potential.
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What is UAB football? Why is this so important? What is actually celebrated on Saturday at Protective Stadium? From now on, UAB football is more than just a team. It is a celebration of unity for a city that has almost divided to the death. These Southside Dragons are a representation of the hope for a better future. Their new stadium in Uptown was built with love for this powerful idea: that a difficult city cannot be defeated.
“We could be here all day talking about why it’s special for our program, the story of what happened to us, bringing the program back and really dreaming of building a new stadium for our city,” Clark said Monday at his weekly press conference. “To all the people who had to come together… it’s such a great story for all the reasons so many different groups had to come together to make this stadium a reality.
“It was really a team effort for something that a lot of people said it would never happen. It’s really special for all the things that we had to go through to get there. So I really am. excited.
There is no origin story in college sport that truly lives up to what is now UAB football. It was never meant to exist, so start there.
In a divided state, where Birmingham, the city of, was billed as a villain a long time ago, the elders will tell you that UAB was never meant to play sports. It may sound crazy to young people now, but it is true. Former Governor George Wallace even ran campaign ads in rural Alabama newspapers that presented the UAB as some sort of existential threat to… who really knows? But fear works. Hating the idea of Birmingham has won many votes over the years.
If you understand the history of Birmingham and UAB, it’s impossible not to think back to the past this week as the city and its university look to the future. And just in case people still can’t figure out why all of this happened, there is a permanent sign proudly reading “Home of the UAB Blazers” above the Protective field.
For the people of Birmingham and UAB graduates everywhere, and the tireless medical professionals who have cared for so many people across the state during the pandemic, this week and this team and this stadium are the makings of a modern and larger than life fable.
UAB football is about death and rebirth and the power to believe in each other.
Joseph Goodman is a columnist for the Alabama Media Group. He’s on Twitter @JoeGoodmanJr. His first book, “We Want Bama: A season of hope and the making of Nick Saban’s ‘ultimate team’”, will be released on November 9.