The Legacy of Legion Field
Ode to the Old Gray Lady
Time catches up with everyone sooner or later. No matter how young and invincible a person, place or event is, eventually their moment in the sun will come and go. Time can be a bastard, but we learn this is part of the deal in this thing called life.
In December, I worked the SWAC Championship game at Birmingham's historic Legion Field. As I walked inside "The Old Gray Lady," as she is referred to, I could not help but to have a heavy heart knowing she was way past her prime. Like a 90-year old former beauty queen playing out her final days surrounded by medical personnel, the once beautiful woman on Graymont Avenue looked quite similar.
Construction of the stadium was completed in 1927. It got its name, Legion Field, from the American Legion, so they could honor all American war veterans. As Bear Bryant and Shug Jordan's football programs began to ascend, so too did the fortunes of Legion Field. In 1961, the upper deck was added, in 1965, a new press box was constructed, and to help with a new phenomenon called television, lights were installed so the drama of what happened between Alabama, or Auburn, and their rivals could be seen. The place was dubbed, "The Football Capital of the South" and the title was painted on the front of the upper deck.
As I walked into the stadium and made my way to the press box, I noticed how somber and run down the place was. Even the elevator looked like it had not been changed since that first game in 1927. But it was here I began to think about how I was sharing this space with some pretty important people from the past who are guardians of the legend of southern football Keith Jackson, Eli Gold, John Ward, John Forney, John Ferguson and Jim Fyffe once had taken the same elevator. There was also Furman Bisher, Bill Lumpkin, Benny Marshall, Fred Russell and Tony Barnhardt, who wrote about the greatness of what happened on the field.
What these men recorded, either into a microphone or a typewriter, also humbled me. As I looked down to the field, I could see the ghosts of Bear Bryant, Frank Thomas, Shug Jordan, General Bob Neyland, Eddie Robinson, Bobby Dodd, and John McKay roaming the sidelines barking instructions to Joe Namath, Pat Sullivan, Bowden Wyatt, Buck Buchannan, George Morris and Sam Cunningham.
When talking about Legion Field, it would be a southern sacrilege to forget the great Simpson Pepper. Who is Simpson Pepper, you ask? I am positive everyone in the state of Alabama could tell you he was the legendary voice of Legion Field from 1970 until 1997. An institution, you might call him. And by the way, is there not a more perfect name for the PA Announcer of Legion Field than Simpson Pepper? That's like having a Bloodhound named Dixie.
As the game unfolded, I wondered if the players realized they were on hollowed ground. In this very stadium, games that were played decades ago are still talked about today, and will live on forever. Of course there were all those classic Iron Bowl matchups, but there were also some others as well.
One has to be the 1958 Auburn destruction of Tennessee. In the 13-0 Tiger victory, the defending National Champions held the Vols to minus 30 yards total offense and no first downs. That's has to be a record for futility that stands to this day. What many people forget is Auburn played a few games in Birmingham every year, since traveling to Auburn in those days was difficult for most of the other teams in the SEC.
There was not a more fitting venue to witness history as Bear Bryant notched his 315th career victory to make him the all time career leader in wins for a head coach. Incidentally, the victory came over Auburn in the 1981 Iron Bowl, which made the vixtory even sweeter.
In 1969, Archie Manning dueled Scott Hunter in an all-time classic that was carried nationwide by ABC. Manning threw for 436 yards, while Hunter had an even 300, including a 14-yard pass to George Ranager to give the Tide a thrilling 33-32 victory. People still talk about that game as one of the most exciting games ever played at Legion Field, except for…
December 2nd, 1972. Undefeated #2 Alabama, who was a step away from a national championship, played once beaten Auburn, who came into the game a 16-point underdog. "The Amazins" as they were referred to because of their incredible Cinderella season, followed the script into the fourth quarter as the powerful Crimson Tide ran up a 16-0 lead, which was poetic justice to the odds makers prediction.
With ten minutes to play, Auburn's Gardner Jett kicked a field goal, which was met with a chorus of boos from the Tiger faithful, since three points was not going to make a difference in this game. There was hope on the ensuing drive as Alabama was forced to punt. Auburn's Bill Newton blocked Greg Gantt's punt and his teammate David Langner ran the ball back 25 yards for an Auburn touchdown.
Minutes later, the same situation. There was no way it could happen again, could it? Yep! Once again Newton blocked the punt and Langner again returned it for a touchdown. Gardner Jett kicked the extra point to give Auburn a 17–16 lead. The stunned Crimson Tide never recovered and lost the game, and their chances at another national championship. Before the sun had set outside Legion Field that afternoon, people were selling bumper stickers reading, "Punt, Bama Punt," which became an Auburn slogan for years afterward.
I have some Legion Field memories of my own. I sat in the upper deck in 1995 watching Peyton Manning's coming out party as Tennessee ended nine years of frustration with Alabama in a 41-14 victory. Speaking of the upper deck, it no longer exists. In 2004, and evaluation determined the deck was no longer safe it was removed the following year.
I was also in the stands the day Jay Barker and David Palmer pulled a magic act and rescued Bama from certain defeat to a 17-17 tie in one of the most exciting finishes in Legion Field history.
My most memorable day at Legion Field had to be the 1991 game, which was another Alabama victory over Tennessee. My partner in crime, Coach B, was wearing his most obnoxious Tennessee orange and light blue plaid blazer that must have been a reject from a 1971 Knoxville Kiwanis Club Skit Night. As we walked towards the stadium, one of the sidewalk vendors was hawking merchandise. "I've got pennants, souvenir programs, hats, t-shirts," and when he spotted us he added, "And a nice orange plaid jacket walking by me..."
After the 24-19 loss, I made the mistake of walking into the bathroom on our way out. Never do that when your team loses, it's an open invitation for every middle school dropout to take a shot at you. I was using the urinal when someone walked in beside me who was so ugly, when he enters a bank, they turn off the surveillance cameras. I was really hoping none of the ugliness would rub off on me since I was worried it would never come out.
As he was doing his business next to me, he smiled and said, "Sorry ‘bout the loss, son, but ROLL TIDE, BY GOD!!!"
I thought about moving my aim six inches to the left, but since the guy obviously had a shift at the local Texaco in a few hours, and I was sure he didn't have a chance to go back to the trailer to change his Lee jeans beforehand, it was too much for me to want to deal with.
Some of Legion Field's history can be quite amusing. In 1974 the new World Football League awarded a franchise to Birmingham, and the Birmingham Americans were born. They rewarded their fans with a World Bowl Championship, a 22-21 victory over the Florida Blazers at Legion Field.
The funny part was the Americans players had not been paid in months, or the coaches for that matter. Eventually, the IRS got involved due to back taxes and placed a lien against them. After the game, members of the Jefferson County Sheriff's Department seized the team's equipment and uniforms from the locker because the Americans had not paid their bill to a sporting good store that supplied the gear.
In 1993, Alabama Industrial Development officials erected a 27-foot emblem of the Mercedes-Benz Company atop the stadium's main scoreboard. This was done to promote the vehicle production plant in Vance, Alabama, which would provide jobs and boost the state's economy. This was met with an outcry by some who pointed out the stadium was dedicated to the American Veterans, some of those were men who fought in World War II against Nazi Germany. Since Mercedes was part of the German war machine, this was a severe conflict of interest. Eventually, the emblem was brought down to comply with Olympic regulations banning advertising at Stadiums hosting events as Legion Field hosted Olympic soccer.
After the SWAC Championship ended, and I walked out of the Old Lady, and took one last look around, not for sure if I would ever get back to see her. There has been talk about a domed stadium being built, and if that happens, we will have to get the bugles out and play Taps.
Sure, she is old. She is in a rough part of town. There will never be another gigantic game ever held there. As I looked at the rusted pillars, leaking pipes and walls that needed a paint job, I felt a sadness to see a place so important to decades of southern football fans now forgotten.
It's important to remember that time moves on, and we have to move along with it. However, it's all right to think about the Old Gray Lady when you when you want a happy memory. Maybe you were eight years old and your Dad took you to see Bear and Namath plotting their next offensive move. You might have been a sophomore in 1972 and swore that Shug was the dumbest coach ever, and then swore he was the greatest coach ever just ten minutes later. Maybe watching the excitement of the Iron Bowl was one of the first memories you have of your wife, or husband, as you sat together under a blanket. Or you might have brought your grandkids to their first game, explaining the Rammer Hammer song, or what War Eagle means.
From all the great southern football fans, we say thanks, Old Gray Lady. You might not be a beauty queen any longer, but you will always be beautiful no matter how much we think about our times together.
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