By Barnett Wright
The Birmingham Times
Shortly after the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) administration shut down the football, rifle, and bowling athletic programs in December 2014, Timothy Alexander went into football coach Bill Clark’s office and said he wanted to help bring back those programs. At the time, few knew about Alexander, a graduate of Birmingham’s E. B. Erwin High School.
Alexander traveled the Birmingham metro area to get nearly 60 city councils to pass resolutions of support for return of the sports. He became the face of the student movement to reinstate UAB football—and it paid off.
After a two-year hiatus, UAB makes its historic return to the football field as the Blazers take on Alabama Agriculture & Mechanical on Sept. 2 at Legion Field. Kickoff is set for 2:30 p.m.
Supporters pledged more than $40 million, which enabled the school to build a covered turf football practice field and officially open the Football Operations Center and Legacy Pavilion. And a lot of the credit goes to Alexander, say those in the fight to bring back football.
A 2015 UAB graduate with a master’s degree in communication management from the College of Arts and Sciences, Alexander said he wanted to invest in a program that had meant so much to him.
“I’m forever grateful for this university and the football program,” said Alexander, in an interview with UAB Magazine. “I’ve grown a lot by being here and being around this football team. The team taught me how to be a man and how to demand excellence in myself.”
Alexander, director of character development for the Blazers football squad, is a key member of the team, Clark told UAB Magazine.
“[Alexander] is a big part of our program,” said the football coach. “He works out religiously. The players see that and are inspired by it. He’s just a winner, and I’m glad he’s with us.”
According to UAB Magazine, Alexander’s association with Blazer football began in 2012, a year after he enrolled at UAB, when he convinced then-head coach Garrick McGee to make him an honorary player. Today, Alexander, a full-time motivational speaker, is often seen exhorting players during and before practices.
A decade ago, Alexander was a star football player at Erwin High School and confident that he could go to any college he wanted with a football scholarship.
“Before my injury I was ranked number eight in the state, and I could have gone anywhere,” Alexander said in an interview with the Associated Press.
Tragedy struck in October 2006, when Alexander got into a car crash after his friend fell asleep at the wheel. He described how the car swerved off the road toward a cliff, all while he was holding a 2-year-old baby on his lap.
“I punched the window out and threw the baby out the window before we went off the cliff. The car went all the way down, and I became paralyzed instantly,” Alexander said. “My friend asked, ‘Is everyone OK?’ I said, ‘No. I can’t feel my legs.’”
For a while, Alexander said he was paralyzed from the neck down, but treatment and therapy helped him gain use of his upper body again.
“I had a traumatic brain injury,” he said. “I couldn’t read, couldn’t write, couldn’t do anything. When I tried to talk to my mom, they put a marker in my mouth and tried to make me move my head.”
“When I first had my car wreck, there were a lot of doctors and therapists that did give me a chance. After my insurance ran out, they said there was nothing they could do. The first year, I was very suicidal.”
He spoke to his bishop and his family and “embraced a positive attitude in 2008.”“I just started working out and praying. I had a dream of playing football at UAB,” said Alexander, who did his physical therapy at the UAB gym.
“When I went into the training room, the sports trainer said, ‘Hey, are you here for football?’ I said, ‘Are you talking to me?’”
Alexander told ABC News he then became the first paraplegic to ever get a scholarship in Division I football. He attended every practice and game and served as a motivator for his teammates. Despite being on a Division I football team, he still could not stand up on his own—but that changed.
Natalie Shannon, Alexander’s physical therapist and athletic trainer, told ABC News in 2016 that she was thrilled when she saw him stand up completely unassisted for the first time. Shannon added that everyone has different injuries and responds differently to therapy, but Alexander always worked hard toward his goals, training with a standing chair as often as he could to build muscle.
Alexander said he was inspired to never give up by his older brother, who told him to set his sights high.
“My big hero was my big brother, David, who passed away [in a house fire] on April 14, 2006,” Alexander said. “The day before he passed, he said, ‘I want you to go to the NFL and make a great name for yourself, to take care of the community and the family.’ He ended by saying, ‘I love you.’ Those were the last words he said to me.”
Alexander said he still hopes to realize his brother’s dream of being drafted into the NFL “not for money or fame, but to show that if you believe that all things are possible, you can achieve your goals.”
Alexander continues to work as a motivational speaker and inspire others with his journey to never give up hope.
As for this year’s UAB team, Alexander said he likes what he sees. After the spring game, he said the team is “bigger. They’re faster. This is not like the UAB teams you’ve seen in the past.”
For more on Timothy Alexander and UAB’s return to football, visit www.uab.edu/uabmagazine.
The Associated Press, ABCNews.com, and UAB Magazine contributed to this report.