UAB Blazers vs. Liberty Flames at Protective Stadium
Dakota Nichols has been prepared for this moment all his life.
A native of Town Creek, a small Alabama town about 20 miles southeast of Muscle Shoals, Nichols, a lifelong UAB fan, is one of the first UAB fans to set up a tailgate in the east green lot next to newly-constructed Protective Stadium.
Nichols’ crew rolls at least 16 deep, gorging themselves on pre-grilled hotdogs and adult beverages, and represents a wide spectrum of Birmingham citizenry that encompasses an even wider range of alma maters.
The list is long and with passionate support for the hometown program.
Nichols’ gathering consists of graduates from Alabama, Auburn, Florida State, Jacksonville State, Memphis, Missouri, Ohio State and, of course, UAB.
“We all love Birmingham,” Nichols said. “This is our home and this is our team.”
The Blazers played to a 3-all tie in the first half but eventually faltered in a 36-12 loss to Liberty, Saturday, Oct. 2, at Protective Stadium in Birmingham. Despite the loss, the grand opening of UAB’s new football home is a moment that will not be soon forgotten.
Almost four hours before kickoff, Nichols, a two-time graduate of the University of Alabama while receiving a second master’s degree at UAB, is impressed enough to call it a new day for the UAB football program. He makes the daily drive to Hanceville, where he is an academic advisor at Wallace State Community College, but calls Birmingham home for the last decade.
A lifetime of attending UAB games at Legion Field is cause for some nostalgia but Nichols insists that better days are ahead as the Blazers leave the aging derelict behind.
“It’s already changed the perception of the program when it comes to home games,” Nichols said. “I had people tell me they were coming to this game when they wouldn’t before when we were at Legion Field. It’s going to bring in the casual fan.”
It’s now three hours from kickoff and UAB athletic director Mark Ingram is making the rounds at various tailgates around Protective Stadium. On a rooftop garage, located above Eugene’s Hot Chicken in the uptown district, Ingram meanders his way to newly-hired baseball coach Casey Dunn and men’s golf coach Matt Whall.
Dunn and Whall are hosting recruits at their own tailgate and Ingram riles up the nearby fans with his boundless enthusiasm. The three men discuss the business of the day and the immediate impact that Protective Stadium is having in the eyes of recruits and fans of college athletics.
“We’re thrilled that people decided to come early,” Ingram said. “We’ve been trying to get that message out and a lot of people have done that. The tailgate scene is even better than we imagined and everybody seems to be having a good time. The weather is spectacular so we couldn’t ask for more there.”
Less than an hour until kickoff and Tuscaloosa mayor Walt Maddox arrives om the club level of Protective Stadium.
Immediately handed a beer by a colleague, to celebrate his alma mater’s grand moment, Maddox, a former UAB football player and graduate assistant, becomes speechless as his eyes gaze upon the field from the open-air edifice.
“In 2014 when we lost our program, many of us worked really hard to get it back,” Maddox said. “And we knew this could be UAB if we could get the buy-in of the community. People saw what we lost at that moment and it actually gave everyone a vision of what we could actually achieve. For me, it’s very satisfying.”
Maddox played for UAB between the 1991 and 1995 seasons, accepting a graduate assistant position upon graduation, and eventually was elected mayor of Tuscaloosa in 2005, a position he has held for almost 16 years and counting.
While his own city was the site for one of the biggest games in college football on Saturday, Alabama taking on Ole Miss, Maddox was in Birmingham celebrating what is arguably the proudest moment in UAB football history.
“Unfortunately, we could have never achieved this at Legion Field,” Maddox said. “But today is a special day for Birmingham, a special day for our university, UAB, and a special day for us former players that set the foundation and made this happen.”
“Let’s be clear, Bill Clark was the genesis of this,” he added. “It’s a milestone moment. This is a beginning and not an end. Let’s make no mistake about it, this is only the start of something special for the city of Birmingham and UAB football.”
Although the Blazers were defeated by the arm and legs of potential first-round NFL draft pick Malik Willis, UAB head coach Bill Clark, making apologies to fans in his postgame interview, was not shy when it came to describing the moment he and countless UAB fans, players and administrators have been waiting on for almost 30 years.
“Gosh, what a great opening to our stadium,” Clark said. “I had tears in my eyes when we showed up today. It was unbelievable and electric. Going down that Blazer Walk, it’ll be something I’ll never forget and want to thank everybody that was part of that. There are tons of heroes.”
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UAB Blazers vs. Liberty Flames at Protective Stadium