Among the crashes and bangs at a downtown intersection where the University of Alabama-Birmingham’s state-of-the-art football facility rises is another sound.
The signals of victory that resonate across this state each fall Saturday by those typically dressed in Auburn’s orange and blue or Alabama’s red and white are being blown by those in green and gold. The noises represent the excitement in seeing the reconstruction of UAB football.
When Darrin Reaves’ drives by in his BMW X5, he slams on the horn.
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“I just have to blow (it) because I’m so excited,” Reaves, a former UAB Blazer and current Chiefs running back, said in a phone conversation. “That’s where I came from.”
The excitement in his voice and the horn-blowing itself are products to an unthinkable chain of events that have played out at his alma mater since Dec. 2, 2014.
That’s when UAB became the first Football Bowl Subdivision school since 1995 to discontinue its football program.
Reaves remembers what university president Ray Watts said that day. He hated hearing the words: “I know this is the best decision for UAB.” Time’s flown since, but the hurt lingered.
“It was a big slap in the face,” Reaves said. “It was a devastating move for a lot of people, man.
“It changed a lot of people’s lives in a big way.”
With parents that graduated from UAB, Reaves always hoped to play for the “Southside Dragons,” as some locals call the team.
Reaves, who went undrafted in 2014 but was signed by the Carolina Panthers, said he’s with the Chiefs now because of what he learned at his alma mater.
“I loved playing at UAB,” Reaves said. “The different groups of people, the things we went through together, the times we had to endure because of certain situations that we had — not having high quality fields and stuff like that — it brought you close together.”
As a freshman, Reaves played nine games and scored two touchdowns. Then came his breakout sophomore year, when Reaves earned first-team All-Conference USA honors while rushing for 1,037 yards and scoring 13 touchdowns. He finished his college career as UAB’s No. 3 rusher with 2,337 yards and ranked second with 27 rushing touchdowns.
Reaves graduated a year before now UAB coach Bill Clark took over, the last year the Blazers suited up.
At the time, Reaves had confidence in Clark to take the program to new heights. Clark showed promise as the head coach at Jacksonville State, as a defensive coordinator at South Alabama and as a state-championship winning coach at Prattville High School.
Clark’s first impression is still vivid for former Blazers tight end Tristan Henderson.
“He stood up in the first meeting and he said, ‘Hey, I don’t like losing and we’re not going to do that here,’” Henderson said.
UAB was one win from bowl eligibility when it played its final home game, against undefeated Marshall. The Blazers only bowl appearance was a loss to Hawaii in the 2004 Hawaii Bowl, and the conversation surrounding the possible demolition of the program was prevalent.
The Blazers took the Thundering Herd to the wire and lost 23-18 in front of 28,355 fans at Legion Field. Afterwards, Clark said words that a number of former players echoed: “I think you saw what Birmingham’s about today. It could be special if we want to do it right.”
Clark’s rallying cry went unanswered even after the Blazers secured a sixth win in the season finale at Southern Miss. Just hours after the Marshall game, the paint was wiped from the Legion Field end zones — symbolism for the decision made by the University of Alabama Board of Trustees.
Once a club football team founded in 1989, UAB football was discontinued based on decisions supported by a CarrSports Consulting report that said the program needed to invest $49 million over five years to stay competitive.
Henderson hasn’t forgotten Watts’ words in the locker room that day to the team, which shouldn’t surprise. Nor has he forgotten his own comments that grabbed headlines on ESPN and other outlets.
Speaking in his office — one filled with pictures of former players, family members and designs of the first “indoor” practice facility without walls, which is part of the $22 million project that also includes an operations center and a turf field — Clark recalled the speech Henderson remembered.
It, Clark says, along with a vocal effort made by alumni, fans and himself, is why the program was reinstated June 1, 2015.
It took the publicity, a commitment from coaches, Conference USA and players to allow the crashes, the bangs and the horns to be heard. It took all of that to push along the new the “UAB Football Operations Center and Legacy Pavilion” that is expected to be done in July.
To raise the money for said facility, Clark helped set up the UAB Athletics Foundation, a 501(c)3 organization “that will support the UAB Athletics Department in its quest for excellence in all programs,” according to a release sent out in November 2015.
The money was raised, the facility was approved on June 17, 2016, and construction began Aug. 29 of that same year.
Seeing the construction on the south side makes Henderson proud.
Coming from Cerritos College, Henderson, who served in the military for six years and was stationed in Iraq, was drawn to UAB for a few reasons. First, his wife, Monica, was looking for a school with a capable medical school. Maybe more importantly, though, was the connection Henderson saw in the players.
“I was sold on the fact that those guys on the team were so close,” Henderson said. “Coming from a military background, you want the closeness. You want your “battle buddy” to have your back at all times. When I got here, I felt that. I felt the togetherness and I felt they wanted it to be a family and that they were striving for the same goal.”
Like they’ve been through the entire process of the program revival, Reaves and a number of alumni — former Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Roddy White and former Dallas Cowboys safety Izell Reese, among others — have been focused on the same goal, too.
Each wants others to receive a better opportunity than they did at their alma mater. Thanks to the efforts made by Clark and so many, those others will.
This past weekend, the Blazers held their spring game in front of 7,822, and come Sept. 2, the Blazers will return to the sidelines of Legion Field to host Alabama A&M.
“They couldn’t keep football out of Birmingham too long,” Reaves said. “It’s good to have things back to the way they’re supposed to be.”