When most UAB fans are asked about Legion Field, you can physically see their body language change. It has reached a point that the Old Gray Lady is hindering the program on a constant basis. UAB is constantly mentioned in national media reports about “lack of atmosphere” or “horrible facilities.” If an article is written about either subject, you can bet the Blazers are going to get mentioned. It amazes me that nobody has taken the time to research or mention the Blazer’s recently renovated weight room and training room that strength coach Steve “Murder” Martin has at his disposal everyday. The improvements made to those facilities were life giving to the program, but somehow remain one of college football’s best kept secrets. That topic is for another column as the real sour note for Blazer fans is Legion Field.
Legion Field was first opened in 1927, and 400 Graymont Ave was on its way to being one of the South’s best showcases for college football. The stadium would be added upon multiple times and eventually seat over 83,000 fans. Over the years, the stadium has hosted many large scale events such as the Iron Bowl, SEC Championship game, Olympic soccer, Magic City Classic, SWAC Title game, the high school Super Six, numerous post season bowl games, and several professional football teams.
More than just athletic events have been held at the stadium-concerts have always been a part of the venue’s use. Legendary artists such as The Rolling Stones, Living Color, Counting Crows, Pink Floyd, and U2 have all been brought to Birmingham to perform in the stadium. In one of the biggest events in Birmingham’s history, Billy Graham came to preach at Legion Field. It wasn’t just any service, not even for Billy Graham. You see, Graham came to Birmingham and preached to an integrated crowd at the height of the Civil Rights Movement in Alabama on Easter Sunday in 1964. One of the first things to shine Birmingham in a positive way during the Civil Rights Movement throughout the nation happened at Legion Field.
UAB football came into existence in the early 1990’s and became Legion Field’s newest tenant. By this time, Legion Field had fallen onto hard times despite the illustrious past of the stadium. Over the next two decades as the Blazer football program grew up, its home stadium continued a downward spiral. Many events would leave. The Iron Bowl, professional teams, SEC Championship, and even the Super Six vacated the facility. The only permanent tenant that remained was the Blazers. Even though the upper deck had been demolished, the stadium remained way too large for UAB to have hope of filling the stadium, leaving an atmosphere at games that is less than what Blazer fans crave. The area around the stadium has suffered along with the stadium, and now the game day experience inside and outside the stadium is far different from the glory days that 400 Graymont Avenue had once had. It doesn’t help the feelings of UAB fans when local media members describe Legion Field as a dump when the Blazers are playing in the stadium, yet when the BBVA Compass Bowl comes to town with an SEC team in tow, it is rebranded “Historic Legion Field.”
Blazer fans have a lot of reasons to be excited about the potential of a new on campus stadium on the Southside; it would dramatically change the atmosphere of Blazer games and I am looking forward to the day the stadium becomes reality, as most Blazer fans are. I know UAB fans will be happy to leave the Old Gray Lady behind for a shiny new stadium that better fits the team’s needs on campus. But recently, I’ve heard comments from some Blazer fans, and Birmingham people in general, that they will celebrate the day that Legion Field is tore down. I myself cannot share that thought.
The day that Legion Field will face the wrecking ball and go the way of the dinosaur will surely come in the foreseeable future. The costs to repair the stadium to its former glory would be astronomical, especially without a permanent tenant. But I cannot look forward to that day. I have had many firsts at Legion Field, like my first college football game, attending the Olympics, and becoming a UAB fanatic. And no matter how great an on campus stadium might be, I will always have visions of Roddy White, Darrell Hackney, and Joe Webb in Legion Field. I’ll never forget Hiram Atwater bringing back an interception for a touchdown for the Blazer’s first win over Southern Miss, or the hail mary catch Jackie Williams made in Bryan Ellis’s coming out party last year against Troy. So memories will remain at the old stadium.
The main reason I can never look forward to the day that UAB plays their final game at Legion, or when the stadium may be brought down is something much more precious to me than football. My first year as a student at UAB I had attended the first annual “Battle of the Bones” against Memphis. It wasn’t my first time to watch the Blazers, not even close. But it was the first (and last) time my grandfather came with me to cheer on the Blazers. Despite remarkably good health for a man in his late 80’s, coming out to the games and going down those stadium steps were a task for him. But he wanted to come, and we watched the Blazers win the Bones trophy. During the game, we talked about when he lived in Birmingham and what the city used to be and what it could be again. He told me it had been thirty years since he attended a game there, but the first game he ever attended was a Howard College (now Samford) game. It is my greatest memory as a Blazer to have my father figure come with me to the watch my beloved Blazers.
My grandfather attended only one game with me at Legion Field, yet every time I walk through the gates, I find myself looking at where we sat, and I can feel a connection with him as he had attended so many things at the stadium. My mother still talks about him bringing the family to see Billy Graham when she was a child. Even when I was covering practice for BlazerTV.com this spring in a nearly empty stadium, I could feel a special connection to him when I was there. I realize that an on campus stadium is vital to the future of the UAB football program. This is in no way an argument to stay at Legion Field, just one to say I appreciate what the stadium has allowed our Blazers to do and the city of Birmingham as well. I will never be more proud to be a Blazer fan than when we open our new stadium; it will be a wonderful day, but I must admit that part of me will stay at 400 Graymont Avenue sitting with my grandfather at his last football game. So you can’t expect me to be happy when the stadium goes down someday, as it reconnected a city long ago on an Easter Sunday, and it reconnects me with my grandfather every time I walk in. For me, it will be missed. But if she has to go (and she does), we might as well send her out with a CUSA Title game. It would be the one last memory of Legion Field that I could keep.