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Return on Investment

Players prove saving UAB football was worth the effort

UAB football’s return was featured in the Summer 2017 issue of Champion.

Darious Williams was loading flowers into a truck two years ago.

Let that sink in for a moment. Then, consider the season the senior just had in closing out the remarkable rebirth of football at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. He was an all-Conference USA defender, led the conference in pass breakups and provided the lockdown corner on UAB’s defense that the Blazers rode to an 8-5 record in their first season back after shutting down the program in 2014.

Brian Hendrickson

It’s guys like Williams that gave that story meaning — not because of his play, but because he got another chance.

UAB’s story is easy to celebrate because it was all about second chances. A second chance at having a football program in a state and city that worship the sport. A second chance for supporters who believed they could build the program into something Birmingham could hold up proudly if given the chance. But most importantly, it was a second chance for 15 players who chose not to transfer to other schools — and then got one more shot to show what they could do on the field.

Williams was just one of those inspiring stories — one that demonstrates how college sports can change young people’s lives. Because when UAB closed the program in December 2014, citing the financial hardship of an athletics department that was annually receiving a $20 million subsidy from the school, Williams ended up drifting. He returned home to Jacksonville, Florida, and considered his football career to be done. UAB was the second school for which he’d competed, and he’d never felt more connected to a team. He’d rather go to a community college to get his education than join another program, he’d decided, but he didn’t enroll right away. He got a job delivering flowers for a local hardware store. As a result, his plans for a college education were dangerously close to slipping away.

Then came a phone call that changed everything. UAB football was back, he was told. Several community leaders had raised $17.2 million in the span of a few months to save the program. Williams had a home again.

So did 14 other players who chose to believe, who got another chance because the NCAA froze their athletic eligibility clocks, allowing them to play again. Guys like Shaq Jones, who worked on his master’s degree while the program was getting restarted, then led the team in tackles for loss this season with 13. Or guys like Tevin Crews, who went from his job as a valet when the program shut down to leading the Blazers with 102 tackles and was second with 12 tackles for loss. And of course, there was Williams, who led Conference USA with 15 pass breakups and was second in the conference with five interceptions.

The excitement will surely get people in Alabama talking about how UAB went undefeated at home and led Conference USA in attendance, the 28,749 average stiff-arming the days when they struggled to draw five-figure crowds for a nationally televised game. UAB finished the regular season 8-4, tied for second in C-USA’s West Division at 6-2 — both school records — before falling to Ohio, 41-6, in the Bahamas Bowl on Dec. 22.

But it’s players like Williams whose stories should stand out most. Because as his life’s direction turned around when football returned, it showed why the sport was worth saving.

About Champion

Champion magazine goes behind the headlines and beyond the scoreboards to celebrate the unique connection between Americans and college sports. Champion is published by the NCAA.