By Solomon Crenshaw Jr.
For The Birmingham Times
For years, Birmingham has called itself the Football Capital of the South, and its capitol building was Legion Field.
Now, as the United States Football League (USFL) kickoff nears with all eight of its teams playing downtown at Protective Stadium, the Magic City is set for a promotion – to Football Capital of America.
The first game of the reborn USFL is 6:30 p.m. on Saturday, April 16, pitting the Birmingham Stallions against the New Jersey Generals at Protective Stadium on FOX and NBC.
The national profile that comes from being broadcast across the country on FOX, NBC, USA, FS1 and streamed on Peacock has some thinking the USFL could make football in Birmingham bigger than ever, a city that produced the likes of Jeff Rutledge (Banks High School), Tony Nathan (Woodlawn High), Cornelius Bennett (Ensley High), David Palmer (Jackson-Olin High) and Sam Shade (Wenonah High and now the head coach at Miles College).
“I think just by having a professional team here is most definitely going to help our kids,” Ramsay High School football coach Ronnie Jackson said. “The main thing is that we’re bringing more attention to football as a whole. Our guys will get a chance to see what (pro) guys look like. That would help them out as far as getting motivated to be better players so they can reach that ultimate goal.”
A.H. Parker High coach Frank Warren acknowledges that football is already big in the state of Alabama but the USFL being in town could also spark interest in children.
“It might reach a kid (who says), ‘I love the Stallions. I want to play for the Stallions one day,’” Warren said. “I can see that.
“As a kid, I grew up with the Iron Bowl. I grew up with the [New Orleans] Saints vs. the [Atlanta] Falcons. I always wanted to play in college,” the Parker coach said. “I always wanted to play in the NFL but seeing somebody just down the street? That could motivate some kids.”
However, George Washington Carver High School football coach Rod Carson questioned just how much impact the league will have on youth football in the Birmingham market.
“Just coming and saying, ‘Boom, we’re here!’ I don’t think that provides an immediate impact to a young man growing up,” he said. “What I will say is (the league) could find different ways to supplement youth football. I think we should be thinking more in terms of what is the USFL going to do to promote getting more young men to play football in low socioeconomic areas? How do they supplement this area to help impact getting more kids out, or getting kids to do different things.”
Carson offered suggestions on what the USFL can do.
“Maybe they can buy area parks jerseys, things of that nature that’s going to get young kids excited to start out playing football,” he said. “And how can (they) supplement that middle school level? Doing the same thing, putting on camps in high school. But just simply saying we’ve got eight teams playing downtown? I don’t think that’s gonna have any impact.”
Darryn James, USFL spokesman, said Birmingham is the league’s home and has taken steps to become part of the community starting with a recent football clinic at Legion Field.
“It’s important for us to do outreach like this so that people feel it, see it, hear it,” he said. “We’re not just about what we’re doing on the field, but what we’re doing off the field as well.”
The USFL hosted football skills clinics at the end of March. More than 225 youngsters – including two girls – signed up to receive guidance and instruction from the professionals who will call the Magic City home when the league kicks off its inaugural season.
Roland and Karon Spann brought their son Jocq Dennis to the Saturday session. The family lives in Madison, Alabama, after having recently moved from Birmingham, where Dennis played youth football with the Wahouma Seminoles and then the East Lake Cowboys.
Dennis was a running back on the football team at Liberty Middle School in Madison, Alabama.
“I was just telling my wife that this is very strategic for the USFL,” Spann said. “If you start with this generation, now you’ve got generations to come that are focused on the USFL in Birmingham, which means they can begin their recruiting locally from the high schools through the colleges. Then they can move them into this league and continue their recruiting and continue their strategy to build and grow and continue to be financially stable.
“I think it’s awesome,” he said. “We need it. It is long overdue.”
Kay ‘Nana’ English of Pell City, couldn’t wait to bring her grandson, 6-year-old Taelon Fomby, to the clinic.
“I saw it on the news and I called his mama right away,” she said. “I told her, ‘Oh, we’ve got to get him registered.’ She did and I brought him.
“He’s been playing since he was 4,” English continued. “I just want him to learn all he can because he’s really good. I’m not saying that just because he’s my baby. He’s a really good football player.”
James said the USFL hopes to add to the football-centric nature of central Alabama.
“One of the great things about Birmingham, Alabama, the entire South region is that people love football here,” he said. “One of the great things about the USFL is that we’re built to love football. We have a passion for it. We’re going to be able to bring spring football to this region as a home, as a hub for 40 regular season games.
“There can’t be enough football from our standpoint,” he said. “We’re really excited about having all the fans on out to the game. April 16 is when it starts. As you can see today, with the kids being here, we plan on being part of the community.”
Following the Saturday season kickoff, a tripleheader follows on Sunday at Protective Stadium. The Houston Gamblers face the Michigan Panthers at 11 a.m. on NBC, the Philadelphia Stars square off with the New Orleans Breakers at 3 p.m. on USA and the Tampa Bay Bandits meet the Pittsburgh Maulers at 7 p.m. on FS1.