Solomon Crenshaw Jr.
For the Birmingham Times
Birmingham has long declared itself the “Football Capital of the South,” so it’s not surprising that some of the metro area’s biggest sports moments and events took place on the gridiron. Some have occurred away from the football field, as well. Here’s a look at a few.
Banks vs. Woodlawn (1974)
The 1974 high school football game pitted the nationally ranked Banks Jets against the rival Woodlawn Colonels. Banks quarterback Jeff Rutledge and Woodlawn running back Tony Nathan, Parade All-Americans and future University of Alabama teammates, squared off in front of an estimated crowd of 42,000, which is still the highest attended high school football game in state history. The game, won 18-7 by Banks, was depicted in the 2015 movie “Woodlawn.”
Alabama vs. USC (1970)
It is doubtful that any college football game—not the classic Iron Bowls, including Punt Bama Punt or Van Tiffin’s game-winning kick—was as significant as Alabama’s 24-14 loss to the University of Southern California (USC) in 1970. The game, as nearly of all the Crimson Tide’s significant contests of that era, was played at Birmingham’s Legion Field.
The Showtime cable network explored that game in the 2013 documentary “Against the Tide.” AL.com writer Bob Carlton cited the film’s synopsis in an article published before its premier: “The documentary paints a vivid picture of the turbulent state of Southern culture during the Civil Rights Movement and the struggle for integration. Did University of Alabama Coach Paul “Bear” Bryant and University of Southern California Coach John McKay purposefully schedule the first game of the 1970 season—the first time a fully integrated team had played in Alabama—as a statement against segregation?”
Birmingham’s annual 26.2-mile Mercedes Marathon draws thousands of runners from across the U.S. and even the world. It was run for the first time in 2002, taking the place of the Vulcan Run Marathon that ended its run (pardon the pun) in November 2000.
“That’s a qualifier for the Boston Marathon,” said Faye Oates of Birmingham’s Mayor’s Office of Sports and Entertainment, who also noted the significance of Davis Cup and Fed Cup tennis coming to the Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex (BJCC). The Davis Cup was played in Birmingham in 2009 and 2017, and Fed Cup was in the Magic City in 2010.
Birmingham Barons (1994)
Barons General Manager Jonathan Nelson mentioned the 1994 season of the Barons, when Michael Jordan came to town. That season was big, not just for Birmingham but the country.
“From the moment Jordan was assigned here, the baseball and sports worlds turned their attention to Birmingham because the greatest basketball player had retired at the top of his game and started his baseball career with the AA Barons,” Nelson said. “ESPN was the ultimate source for all sporting news [in 1994], and one athlete captured the full attention of the world—[Jordan].”
The perennial National Basketball Association (NBA) all-star was the catalyst for the Barons shattering all club records, from season attendance to single-game attendance, and the August 1994 Major League Baseball strike attracted even more attention to the Hoover Met.
“While Birmingham has had a rich legacy—with both Barons and Black Barons baseball teams and players, such as Willie Mays, Satchel Paige, Reggie Jackson, Rollie Fingers, Frank Thomas, and so many others—the number-one [person] associated with the Barons today has and will likely always be Jordan,” said Nelson.
Olympic Soccer (1996)
“That was one of the most successful non-Atlanta-based events of all the [1996 Olympic Games],” Oates said. “Of course, it was big because we’re American football-ized versus European football. It was a huge story for a Deep South football stadium to host an extremely successful soccer [event].”
World Games (2021)
The impact of the World Games, set to be held in metro Birmingham in July 2021, will eclipse the impact of the Magic City hosting soccer as part of the Atlanta Olympic Games. D.J. Mackovets, CEO for the 2021 World Games Birmingham Foundation, told BirminghamWatch.org that this collection of sports events will have an economic impact of a quarter of a billion dollars: “That’s with a ‘B,’ with 100,000 visitors.”
The CEO compared the impact to that of hosting a National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Final Four. And while it is not quite on par with a Super Bowl, it is definitely a big deal for the participants and those who follow those sports.
“For these sports, for the 30 federations that will be here, this is their Olympic Games,” Mackovets said.