Blazing in Birmingham

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September 3rd 2020
Published: September 6th 2020
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Why the hell am I in Birmingham, Alabama? And on a Thursday night? Under normal circumstances, those would be good questions. But 2020 has been anything but normal, and when it comes to college football, everything has been up in the air. So the short answer to those questions is, because it’s actual FBS-level college football where fans are allowed to attend. Spoiler alert: this post will have lots of reflection in it.

In a year when most of us have been concerned about surviving, or on the other end of the spectrum, about government overreach and conspiracy theories, I’m just glad I got to attend a college football game at all. As it turns out, the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) has cheap tickets, is allowing fans to attend, and also hosted the very first FBS game of the season. Plus, Birmingham is relatively close to my home (a little over three hours away) and virtually a straight shot. Last season, I ventured through Birmingham as many or more times as I did through any other major city, like Atlanta or Charlotte. It’s the first major city on any westward trip I take, after Atlanta, of course. But Atlanta is home (or at least it was for four years, so these days it feels more like a hurdle to get through, timing the drive so that I don’t end up in rush-hour traffic). But Birmingham was my destination this time, instead of a guidepost letting me know that I was heading further west.

Perhaps that sounds a bit dismissive of Birmingham, and in truth, it is. UAB is the only college football school in the city, and it’s had a tumultuous history in that regard. The school is large, but when I went to visit the campus, I couldn’t find anything that looked too “campus-y” when I drove through/past. I had hoped to treat it like any of the colleges I visited last season, walking around and getting a feel for the campus and its culture. But being in the middle of a large city takes away some of that. At least with Georgia Tech in Atlanta, the campus existed before the city expanded, and so the campus had staked out a quiet space that can make you forget you’re surrounded by a major urban area. Not so with UAB. It looks like the campus has tried to reclaim some blocks in the city, but the outward signs of the campus are rather nondescript. Sure, many of the buildings resemble typical college “halls” as you pass them on major roads through the city. But I couldn’t see any green spaces, despite being shown on a map that there was indeed a campus green. And the football stadium was at least a five-minute drive away, when there’s low traffic.

But for all my talk of traffic, it doesn’t even compare to Atlanta. I arrived at my hotel in Birmingham around 4:15 PM, and after I checked in, I hoped to see the campus before the stadium opened at 5:30. In Atlanta, this would be a big deal with traffic, but Birmingham felt more like Athens or Macon during rush hour: a little slow, but no traffic jams to speak of. Even so, the campus didn’t appeal to me, and the need to pay at a parking meter if I wanted to park anywhere on the street near the campus turned me off to the idea. So I circled a couple of blocks and then headed to the stadium, where I arrived about fifteen minutes before the gates were due to open.

UAB plays football at Legion Field. Or at least they have done for the past few decades, with plans for a new stadium to open next season. So in all likelihood, this will be the final season at Legion Field. I can see positives and negatives here: in no way do I think UAB will have a larger stadium, since Legion Field seat 71,000 people. But when you don’t have a large crowd, which I can’t imagine happening even when a pandemic isn’t on, it makes the stadium look empty. The stadium is also quite old, for a college stadium, being built in the late 1920s, with various additions and renovations ever since. It was also the location of the Iron Bowl, the annual rivalry game between Alabama and Auburn, from the 1950s until the 1980s, because it was larger than either campus stadium. It was called the Iron Bowl because Birmingham is the iron city, with its large statue of Vulcan being one of the major city landmarks. Several things changed in the 1980s—sizes of stadiums, Auburn’s realization that they were playing almost virtually an Alabama home game since Alabama actually scheduled home games at Legion Field sometimes, etc.—and the annual matchup left the town with a significant loss of revenue. UAB moved in and has played football here ever since. Well, except for the two years when they disbanded the football program altogether back in 2015-2016. But they returned and even won their conference championship in 2018, the Conference-USA (C-USA).

Legion Field is a historic location for college football, not only for the Iron Bowl but for also hosting an actual bowl game in the post-season for several years now.

Walking around the stadium, you can tell that it’s not exactly a place the school is investing in for the long term. For all the talk of iron, it shows; several places are starting to rust as the paint chips away. This is noticeable in the iron towers that hold up the stadium lights outside the stadium, as well as the iron girders that hold up the bleachers in the concession concourses inside the stadium. Still, it looks like the place has been loved.

I entered the stadium right at 5:30, arguably one of the first fans of college football to enter a stadium in 2020. There was another game starting an hour after the one at UAB, but this was the first one of the season. So all the events here would likely be the first for the season, if indeed an entire season eventually takes place: first kickoff, first touchdown, first field goal, first penalty, first whatever. I know several of these things were definitely the first, since they happened before the other game kicked off. So that made me happy.

As I said at the start, I was just happy to be back in a college football atmosphere, even if it had to be UAB. The other game was at Southern Miss, which was twice as far away from me, and the likelihood of arriving before kickoff was slim. Plus I had never been to Legion Field, and with the prospect of the school opening a new stadium next year, this would likely be my only time to attend a game at this historic location for college football.

But it’s a season unlike any other, what with four conferences opting out of fall sports. Conference-USA was not one of those conferences, and when I saw that tickets for this game were relatively inexpensive, I had to go. I’m hopeful of going to other games this season, but I do hope people will abide by the CDC guidelines and the post stadium policies more at other stadiums than they did at this one.

If you didn’t check out the UAB athletics and ticket websites before attending, you were still greeted at the gate with a big sign that said masks were required for entry. Of course, some people take that to mean a mask is on your person, not necessarily on your face or actually covering your mouth and nose. All the gate workers had masks, and properly placed. Once inside the stadium, I noticed a pronounced lack of people. Granted, this was right after the gates opened, but there had been no tailgating allowed this year, and no other festivities taking place. So I thought maybe the people would be getting into the stadium earlier than normal without these distractions. Instead, you had a few people who were genuine UAB fans who showed up early, like me, but the majority of fans didn’t arrive until about an hour later, thirty minutes prior to kickoff.

The tickets were supposed to be socially distanced, but for the life me I can’t tell how. On the visitors side, sure. In that entire half of the stadium, perhaps 200 people were clustered in small groups that were spread out from each other. My ticket was on that side, but other than entering the gate written on my (mobile) ticket, I left that side as soon as I could. On the home side, concessions were more plentiful, but so were people. There was no pattern I could discern for social distancing once the fans began showing up in larger numbers. The only part of the stadium that looked like an actual pattern for social distancing was the band, seated in the endzone under the main scoreboard; they were all staggered in rows, and along each row there was a significant space between each person. This was not the case for the student section, just past the corner of that endzone on the home side. I sat on the far end from the band, on the home side.

I found a seatback—all official, with the UAB dragon on it an everything—in a pile of other seatbacks along the concourse after I watched the marching band warming up outside the fence. The seatback wasn’t being guarded or even roped off, so I picked one up and inspected it. As I did, a couple of official-looking people on a UAB golf cart approached and looked in my direction. I gave them a nod and started to walk away with my seatback. The one driving the cart gave me slight grin, but they kept on moving without slowing down. So I moved to the first entry tunnel to the seating that I could find. I carried my seatback and sat in the second row of that section, on the end. Nobody questioned me at all. No ticket checking, no inspection of my clearly ill-gotten seatback. I locked it into place on the bleachers, and there it sat for the rest of the game. I left a few times for a drink--$4 for a bottle of soda with a souvenir cup and ice—and for bathroom breaks. But my seatback was never disturbed. I wonder if it’ll be there all season.

The pre-game show was hit and miss, frankly. The band stayed in their places in the endzone seats for the whole game, never once taking the field and actually marching. So their fight songs and even the national anthem were played from that endzone. The college president came on the big screen for a PSA about proper mask wearing, but based on what I saw throughout the game, less than half of the people were either paying attention or took his admonitions seriously. It was actually a decent PSA, humorous and informative. Then a couple of statements about two of the players who had been killed in the off-season, moments of silence for them. That was solemn. And then an explicit statement about racial violence and discrimination, since the pandemic isn’t the only thing going on in the USA these days.

As for the game itself, I was invested at times, but it was hard to get too worked up about UAB playing Central Arkansas, an FCS team. The main thing for me was that it was indeed college football, on the first night of the season, and that we at least have it. Jack had texted me a tweet from an ESPN personality as I arrived in Birmingham saying that both teams had fully passed their Covid tests, so the game was indeed going to be played. My heart sank when I first read it because I would only have expected any pronouncement if the tests had been negative. But such is the nature of the world these days. This is just one aspect.

I think UAB were 24-point favorites, or something like that. It didn’t turn out that way, and I’m glad. I only like a blowout when it’s a team I’m invested in. Otherwise, if I’m paying money, a closer game is much more enjoyable. UAB scored the first 14 points and even had a 28-7 advantage late in the second quarter. This was basically what everyone was expecting. But in the final 3 minutes of the first half, UAB decided to get in their own way and give up some turnovers and awful defensive plays to allow Central Arkansas two touchdowns in just over a minute. At the half, the UAB Blazers were only up a touchdown against an FCS team.

The third quarter was much less exciting from a scoring perspective. Defensively, not so bad. UAB got a field goal, and that was it. But by the middle of the fourth quarter, they had tacked on 2 more touchdowns, giving them the expected 24-point advantage. But Central Arkansas wasn’t done yet. They scored 2 more touchdowns themselves, but their offense fell short in the end. Final Score: UAB 45, Central Arkansas 35.

At least this experience felt like a real college football game, unlike when I went to Marshall last year (that felt more like a high school environment). Sure, there were lots of families, with kids wandering down and up the stairs next to me. But generally speaking, the athletic competition down on the field kept everyone’s attention. It was the primary reason they had come tonight, not just to socialize with friends that they already see every day. Even with the announced crowd of just over 12,000 people, it still had the trappings of honest-to-goodness college football. For that, I was grateful.

The crowd was variously into the game, too, which affected my interest in what was going on down on the field. It’s a lot easier to get excited when everyone around you is also excited. I did notice that there wasn’t as much energy when the home team was on defense, since I normally expect to hear more noise and having the crowd actively try to affect the game. Perhaps that had to do with the small crowd. But the thing that kept getting on my nerves was the casual lack of mask-wearing in this crowd. If the groups had been socially distanced, I could understand not feeling the need to wear masks when you’re just in your own group. But people were packed so close together, and some groups were made up of smaller groups that arrived at different times. It was pretty careless. Then after the game, no one was allowed onto the field, but everyone who had stayed until the very end went down to the fence surrounding the field to greet the players. None of the players were wearing masks, but so many were touching the fans and vice versa. Many were probably family members, true, but in this chaotic environment, when can you ever be too careful?

Finally, I found my stadium souvenir of choice this season: every game I go to, I’ll be purchasing a mask for the home team (and wearing it!) for that game. It could be a decent collection, if I end up attending several games. And it’ll be a unique piece of 2020-ana, I image. I’m very happy with my UAB mask, by the way. It has a decent nose clip on it, with plenty of space for underneath the chin, too. I even got complimented on it when I stopped by Whataburger (my addiction) on the way out of Birmingham on Friday morning. It helps to be safe AND stylish.

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