The massive steel girders and beams of Birmingham’s Legion Field have thrilled me since I was a kid growing up in the city. “The Old Gray Lady” is 90-years-old and, even though her best days are likely behind her, she maintains a majesty and charm. Another proud old sports arena, Rickwood Field, sits a short drive from Legion Field and is the oldest remaining professional baseball field in the country. Rickwood opened in 1910 and the first Legion Field game was played in 1927.
When I was in college, the University of Alabama’s significant games and major rivalries were played at Legion Field. In those days, Denny Stadium on campus in Tuscaloosa was a perfect little 60,000 seat bowl and half of the home games were played there while the other half went up the highway to Birmingham. This is years before Bryant-Denny became the 101,000+ seat behemoth that it is today and before big-time college football had become so “corporate.”
Coach Paul “Bear” Bryant was the coach then and, depending on which national polls you’re counting, my freshman year was the year of Alabama’s ninth national championship and Bryant’s fourth of six. The most enduring memory of my years attending Alabama games at Legion Field is the image of Bear Bryant, hat always in place (despite the legend, it wasn’t always a houndstooth hat), leaning casually against the goal post and watching the team warm-up. One time, when Alabama offered Bryant a significant boost in salary (which would be paltry by today’s standards), he commented that it would be unseemly for the football coach to make more than the college president. Times have changed.
In those pre-ESPN days of a finite number of television channels and networks, the weekly choice of televised college football games was limited and it was always a treat when Alabama football was nationally televised – usually on ABC and usually with the great sports broadcaster Keith Jackson calling the game (“Whoa, Nellie!” and “Hold the phone!” Jackson would say at particularly exciting moments).
In 1981 Bryant broke the record of the most wins by any college football coach up to that time. Keith Jackson was in the booth. The opponent was Auburn and the game was played in Legion Field. The final score was 28-17. At halftime, Bryant growled to interviewer Verne Lundquist that his players were acting “like they’re afraid they’ll hurt somebody’s feelings or something.”
During those years the upper deck was in place on the east side of the stadium and the capacity of the stadium was around 70,000 with more expansions to come. For many years the words “Football Capital of the South” were displayed inside Legion Field and for most of those years that was true. At its peak, Legion Field could hold over 83,000. When a structural review in 2004 determined that the upper deck was not up to code, the city removed the deck and the stadium now seats about 71,000.
With the increased capacity of Bryant-Denny in Tuscaloosa, the University of Alabama began to schedule more home games away from Legion Field. The annual “Iron Bowl” between Alabama and Auburn was always played at Legion Field from 1948 to 1988. Tickets were split evenly between the schools and they alternated the “home team” each year. After Auburn moved the game to Auburn in their “home team” years, Alabama would continue to play the game in Birmingham in their “home” years until the end of the century. The Birmingham location is the reason that the game is called the “Iron Bowl” in the first place. And the game is still and forever the “Iron Bowl’ even though it will probably never be played in Birmingham again.
The last time I lived in Birmingham, I could see Legion Field across town from my apartment on Red Mountain. When an Alabama game was televised I would host watch parties at my place; if the game was at Legion Field and something went wrong I was known to go out on the balcony and yell toward the stadium (a couple of times, maybe more …).
Among the monumental architecture at the entrance to Legion Field, which was named to honor the American Legion, are two reclining lions and, at the base of the two flag poles, American bald eagles. A later monument, centered between the flag poles, memorializes Bear Bryant. A quote from Reagan at the time of Bryant’s death is engraved beneath Bryant’s bust on one side and Bryant’s own words about what it takes to be a “winner” are on another. On the façade of the stadium these days are the words “Built by Legends.”
The Iron Bowl is gone but Legion Field still hosts annual games like the “Magic City Classic” between Alabama A&M and Alabama State. The Classic has been played in Birmingham for seventy years. The Birmingham Bowl is the latest and longest lasting in a series of post-season bowl games played in the stadium. The first two SEC championship games were at Legion Field. The stadium has been the site for high school football and major soccer events and was home to local football teams of the several short-lived efforts to challenge the NFL (WFL, USFL, XFL, etc.).
Legion Field will once again be the home field for the resuscitated University of Alabama at Birmingham Blazers football team in fall 2017. For those of us who remember the Old Gray Lady’s glory years, it’s somewhat sad to see the mostly empty stands for UAB games.
Legion Field was already in its fifth decade when the Houston Astrodome opened and was declared the “Eighth Wonder of the World” in 1965. These days, the Astrodome is virtually obsolete — empty and avoiding the wrecking ball – but Legion Field soldiers on.