After watching Birmingham Legion Football Club take on Atlanta United in a “friendly” (exhibition match), I’m somewhat embarrassed to admit this was my first professional soccer game. However, it will not be my last. I plan to cover several games for Birmingham Vibe in 2020.
My first match made a lasting impression on me, much like college football did when my dad took me to my first game. Soccer has many of the same attributes which drew me to college football more than 43 years ago.
I have always known soccer was more popular around the world, but that never caused me to take a serious look at the sport. In my ignorance, I held soccer players in the same reverence as field goal kickers in football. Before I attended Legion FC’s recent battle with Atlanta United — who stunned the soccer world two years ago by winning the championship of Major League Soccer in their inaugural season — it would have been extremely difficult for me to draw any comparisons between college football and pro soccer. But that was then, and this is now.
One of the greatest attributes of college football is the pageantry of it all. As I entered BBVA Field, I was forced into a time machine, which propelled me back to the day my father took me to my first college football game. I could clearly imagine Bryant-Denny Stadium in 1976 while experiencing BBVA Field. I reimagined the Million Dollar Band marching into the stadium, while my eyes watched radical fans at BBVA Field. There was a large group of Atlanta supporters already in their seats when I arrived an hour and a half before the game. The fans were chanting, singing songs, and waving large flags, which seemed to signal something explosive was about to happen. I was now in two worlds, and they were causing a “big bang” in my heart.
I couldn’t help but smile while reliving October 30, 1976. It was a tragic day for this 11-year-old, because just a half-hour prior to entering Bryant-Denny, my dad informed me he was divorcing my mom. It was a devastating moment. However, my dad intentionally planned my first visit to Bryant-Denny with the hopes of softening the blow of the impending divorce. His plan was successful because the day ended with a big smile on my face.
My dad and I took our seats at Bryant-Denny while the song “Sweet Home Alabama” was playing over the sound system on that fall day. As the memory gave way to scenes at BBVA Field, I saw Atlanta fans wearing crazy costumes, and singing their own not-so-flattering version of “Sweet Home Alabama, “Some overzealous Atlanta radio host, wearing a T-shirt and cowboy hat, ran up and down the sidelines to encourage the fans to sing it louder.
I could feel the intense passion of those fans as you walked by them. They were all decked out in Atlanta United colors. Some wore cowboy hats. Some wore crowns. Some had painted faces, and some looked at me with a look which reminded me of the movie “Braveheart.” I saw at least a dozen William Wallaces in the crowd, each aching to take the bullhorn for a freedom speech. It was hard to imagine that this was an exhibition match.
I looked at my watch and saw we were still close to 90 minutes from kickoff, and I smiled at the pageantry of the game, just like in 1976.
￼PHOTO SOURCE: Birmingham Vibe/Atlanta fans filled their supporter’s section
Not to be outdone, Legion FC supporters group Magic City Brigade was in chaos before the game. Soccer took the 1976 college football fandom up a notch, when they broke out trumpets, horns, sirens, drums, and — smoke? Yes, smoke. Everything I remember around college football in 1976 was present, and more. As it would with any fan, pride awakened in me for the players and the city. Birmingham fans, who have starved at times for a professional team, watched Legion play hard as it could in an exhibition game. They represented their city well, despite a 3-2 loss as a result of a United goal in the last minutes of the match.
PHOTO SOURCE: Birmingham Vibe/Randall Woodfin, Mayor of Birmingham, leading chants for Legion Spoorters
In 1976, college players were different, not that there is anything wrong with players now. There are legitimate reasons why the college game has changed. But back then, Alabama players played for the state of Alabama. Why? For most, it was easy. They were from Alabama. Soccer culture exemplifies that same pride, but amazingly, most players are from everywhere in the world but Alabama — the biggest exception being Chandler Hoffman, the former Oak Mountain High School star who Legion fans call “Native Son.” Soccer culture almost demands that players adopt the city for which they play, and they embrace that culture and use it for motivation.
In 1976, college football players were more interested in the success of their team than their own success. That dedication to the team was apparent as I watched the Crimson Tide play in 1976. In those days, if Alabama reached a two-touchdown lead, the starters left the game, and reserves took their place. No one complained because the starters knew Coach Paul “Bear” Bryant was doing what was best for the team. I saw the same thing at the soccer match — not just with substitution, but how the team played the game. One may not notice while watching soccer on television, but one can see all the moving parts when you see the match in person. The precision, discipline, and unselfishness are overwhelmingly apparent. It was even more impressive than what I saw in 1976.
PHOTO SOURCE: Atlanta United/Birmingham Defending Atlanta (white uniforms)
I never really imagined soccer as a physical sport, but that was then, and this is now. Again, it’s not always easy to capture the physicality of a game on television, but it’s glaring in person. There’s contact all over the field as players fight for their positions and assignments. Atlanta United’s George Bello was carted off the field on a stretcher after colliding with a Legion player. Bellow’s neck and head were stabilized before he was taken off the field.
PHOTO SOURCE: ajc.com
In 1976, players acknowledging fans were fairly common. But soccer takes this to another level. After every game, many of the players walk towards the supporters’ section, clapping and acknowledging the fans for their part in the game. If wearing their all-red uniform kit wasn’t enough to make fans swell in pride, the moment players acknowledged the fans certainly did.
The pageantry of the soccer environment, the pride and connection between Legion’s fans and players, the selflessness of the players, and the physicality of the game were all undeniable. The entire soccer culture caused a big smile on my face and reminded me of a day — made a little brighter — of attending that game in 1976. Legion FC is an organization of which this city can be proud. The city of Birmingham has found an ambitious organization which believes in excellence. I am quite sure there are many successes and playoff runs in Legion FC’s future, and I am a fan.
PHOTO SOURCE: al.com/ Birmingham native, Chandler Hoffman, signing autographs for young fans