Josh Evans gets emotional when he talks about the role UAB football played in his life.
As one of the first players to join the program when it officially began in 1991 and the first UAB player to play in the NFL, Evans said the opportunity UAB gave him saved him from a life that would have either resulted in jail or an early grave.
“It was a couple of us and we could either be dead or in jail,” Evans told Yahoo Sports. “It was just the type of environment we were living in. And my coach, he gave us an opportunity. He got us to buy into this program. Just the environment we were in at the time. For me, I know that I’d be in jail or hell. For me, UAB really saved my life.”
Evans, who played 10 years in the NFL as a defensive tackle, is one of several formers players who will return to Legion Field in Birmingham this weekend for a spring game that both celebrates the football program’s past and encourages a future. UAB football was disbanded in December and while efforts are underway to get the program reinstated, this weekend’s flag football game might be the last organized contest UAB plays.
“A lot of the former students and alumni asked to put it together,” Justin Craft, a former player and head of the UAB Football Foundation, told Yahoo Sports. “It sounds like their purpose was just to get former players together since we‘re not having a spring game this year due to the cancelation of our football program, which obviously, we’re working hard to get back. It was just to get everyone together, reunite the players and give the alumni and students something to rally around and something to remember.”
More than 120 former UAB players are expected to participate on Saturday, including Carolina Panthers teammates Joe Webb and Darrin Reaves. The hope is to raise awareness about the program and show that despite the university’s decision to end it, the support is still there.
“I was devastated,” Evans said of hearing the news the program would be disbanded. “That program actually saved my life. It saved so many lives. So many guys benefitted from the program. I always talk about my senior class. We went on to produce mayors, lawyers and doctors. I mean, we had one of the more successful senior classes from ’91 to ’95. It just produced good men and it gave all of us an opportunity. And it was just devastating to see other kids won’t get that opportunity.”
UAB has never been known for its on-field success. It’s had just three winning seasons since becoming a Division I-A member in 1996 and has been to just one bowl game — a 59-40 loss to Hawaii in the 2004 Hawaii Bowl. However, the 2014 season was one of the most encouraging since that 2004 season. The Blazers finished 6-6, their first bowl eligibility in 10 years, and they were averaging nearly 22,000 people per game, which was more than double the attendance from the previous season. By all accounts, UAB was actually trending in a positive direction and not the negative one university president Ray Watts and the Alabama Board of Trustees tried to portray when they announced the end of the program in December.
Watts said in a press conference that a feasibility study showed that it cost more to run the football program than it was producing. The school also shut down the women’s rifle and bowling programs.
"As we look at the evolving landscape of NCAA football, we see expenses only continuing to increase,” Watts said in a statement in December. “When considering a model that best protects the financial future and prominence of the Athletic Department, football is simply not sustainable."
However, in the past month, outlets such as AL.com have uncovered that ending UAB football was actually decided before the 2014 season was a few games old and that the motives behind the decision may have stemmed from old grudges by members of the Board of Trustees.
No matter what success the football program was having on the field and the increased attention and support off it, football never stood a chance, which was most disheartening to people like Craft, a lawyer who has dedicated his efforts to bringing the program back.
“You know, the way that it happened, it was extremely difficult,” Craft said. “No one was given a chance to help. We really felt we were finally on solid ground with great leadership from (coach) Bill Clark. Our attendance was up over 100 percent. Donations were up, we were bowl eligible and it was just such a different vibe around the program. Kind of like what we had in the early years, in the late 90s and early 2000s when we were beating programs like TCU and Baylor and Mississippi State. It was a great vibe and it felt like we were turning a corner. And then all of a sudden out of the blue to have our president pull the plug and now to find out that it was premeditated and done without any input from the alumni or the business community was really disheartening.”
The UAB Football Foundation has helped create a task force, an idea that was actually sparked before the official disbanding announcement, to see exactly how much it would cost to bring back and ultimately sustain UAB football. A website called freeUAB.com was created to educate people about the process that led to the disbandment of the program and ways to help reinstate it. The UAB National Alumni Society has asked its members to attend a special meeting in May that will discuss releasing a statement calling for the immediate reinstatement of football, rifle and bowling.
Players like recently departed kicker Ty Long said he and his teammates who are working toward professional careers are constantly asked by NFL scouts about what happened at UAB. Long said he’s eager to share the story and hopes that the Blazers can continue to be represented in the NFL.
“For us guys trying for the next level, it’s hard for us,” Long told Yahoo Sports. “Everywhere we go, the scouts we talk to, one of the first questions is, ‘What happened?’ In some ways it’s always on our minds because we’re always asked about it. All we’re trying to do is keep playing as long as we can to keep the Blazers in the NFL. If we’re still playing, we’re still on people’s minds. That’s what we’re trying to do. Let no one forget about us.”
Former players know that one game on a spring Saturday isn’t going to change the perception of UAB football, but Craft hopes keeping it in the spotlight will continue to help the cause. He’s confident that with the support the program is already receiving, he and others can make a case to bring UAB football back for 2016.
As for Evans, he hopes this game becomes a mainstay and a way to give back to a program that gave him so much.
“I think we should do this every year,” Evans said. “We have no history at UAB because of everything that’s taken place. And we need to establish a history for ourselves as far as these games and start doing things through our alumni association. We need to get the ball rolling ourselves if we want football back and really get behind it.”
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