A Saturday in Football's Gray Area
Photo Credit: Brandon Vogel

A Saturday in Football’s Gray Area

February 17, 2019

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. –– There have been Huskers on this field before, but it was a long time ago. Forty years ago. An entire upper deck ago. Five pro teams from offshoot leagues ago. Legion Field was once home to every Iron Bowl from 1948 to 1988 and most of the big Alabama games of the 20th century, including Nebraska’s trip here in 1978 for a nationally-televised season opener.

Now the Iron, Birmingham’s team in the Alliance of American Football, plays here. And that brought four former Huskers to Birmingham for the second week of the AAF season.

Only three saw the field for the Salt Lake Stallions as wide receiver Kenny Bell showed up on the inactive list an hour before game time. Wide receiver De’Mornay Pierson-El, linebacker Josh Banderas and running back Terrell Newby all got on the field against the Iron, however. 

Newby, primarily inserted on passing downs, had two carries for a net of 0 yards. Banderas made a tackle on special teams. Pierson-El, through two games, probably gets the most usage of the Huskers in the upstart league. He had four catches on six targets, one 14-yard carry on a reverse that reminded of his Nebraska days and five punt returns. Pierson-El also, as head coach Dennis Erickson noted, muffed a punt for the second straight week. This fumble led to Birmingham’s first touchdown of the game in what would be a dreary 12-9 win for the Iron.

That’s OK. This isn’t a league about results. It’s one of the big challenges for any upstart league. You can get some fans and drum up some excitement. They’ll go to the games and drink beer and boo the opposing team just like always. But they’ll never feel a win or a loss the way they do when the Crimson Tide or Tigers win or lose. It won’t make or wreck their weekend, it won’t alter their behavior. Lives won’t be planned around these games.

And that’s OK, too. Simply having games is good enough even if the less time we spend on them the better. That’s the hidden beauty of a league like this.

Instead of the game itself, I’d like to try to describe just how gray, perfectly gray, this particular game day was. 

The colors of the Birmingham Iron are black and gray. The fans tailgating outside of the stadium, all of them with plenty of crimson in the closet, or blue and orange in some cases, were outfitted in black and gray in what was an impressive wardrobe switch. The midfield logo, a football made of iron, is gray. Legion Field once had a beautiful brick exterior that was then covered up by 60 years of its expansion and the concrete, steel and iron that requires. Gray, gray, gray. The back of the video board, the side that faces the street on the south side of the stadium and could’ve been painted any color, is gray. Across the street from the back end of that video board sits the Tide and Tiger Lounge. Like Legion Field, it feels like it could’ve been quite the place to be during the Iron Bowl days, a place neatly bisected into crimson and blue halves, the perfect slice of rivalry that only college football can offer. Now it’s a dive bar with two football-shaped windows on the front. The windows have been there since the 1940s, a building that can’t blink, as the “Football Capital of the South” faded into a stadium in search of tenants. The Tide and Tiger Lounge is gray. This entire scene was given another coat of primer by a hueless sky on a cold day.

Brandon Vogel
The Tide & Tiger Lounge, just across the street from Legion Field in Birmingham, Alabama.

And it was perfect. Everyone who was there was thrilled to be in football’s gray area. Many leagues have tried to fill that space and the AAF is the latest. I always have a soft spot for these leagues. Not because I need more football. I barely watch the NFL. I can live comfortably for the rest of my life on college football, thanks.

But very good football players need more football.

The thing that sets this game apart from all of the others in America is the impossibility of it all. Not the impossibility of making it at the highest level or the next-highest level or the level after that, but the impossibility of playing a real game of football at all. It takes an army, fully padded and protected, taped and trained, just to play it, and another army to put a game on. 

Football fans know this. There has to be a player to wear the helmet, yes, but also someone who buys the helmet, a team of people to decide what color it should be, someone who maintains the helmet, another person who drives the helmet to the game so the person that maintains it can grab it and get it to the player who will wear it while everyone who got the helmet there watches and hopes that the existence of this helmet will prompt more people to want to watch. You could follow such an exponentially expanding chain for every detail that goes into a football game. But the more the spectacle is dialed up at the highest levels, the easier it is to forget.

You definitely notice it with a new franchise in a new league trying to find its place between the college game and the NFL. You can’t help but notice the labor required, the strain on the system, the extraordinary cost to give Americans something they seemingly always want—more football. The sport that this country loves the most is the one that requires hundreds of people and a solid infrastructure to pull off.

Now think about that reality from a player’s perspective. For the person who wants to keep playing this game, the sport is brutally black-and-white. Whenever a football career ends, it totally ends. You can play catch in the yard or two-hand touch on Thanksgiving, but that’s not the same. That’s playing with a football, not playing football. If you love basketball, you can play in basketball games for as long as you want. There are satisfactory versions of soccer for the highly competitive but not highly skilled. It’s reasonably easy to pull off a decent version of a baseball game with enough grass.

Brandon Vogel
Half of what you need to play basketball is right outside Legion Field.

One’s ability to play real American football, however, is defined by his access to the war chest the game requires. The longer one wants to play, the more restricted that access becomes. You have to stay in the black and the only way to do that is to be one of the very best in the world. The top 13,000 or so players get to play major college football and the top 1,700 get to play in the NFL.

That’s the black-to-black jump you have to make if you want to keep playing football in your late 20s. That leaves a lot of guys who either were in the black and could be again or were close enough to it that they will take on the daily burden of staying in world-class shape while never knowing if the call they want is going to come. There are enough of those guys to fill up an entire league. The AAF, and all of its various predecessors, give athletes like that a comfortable gray area to live in. There’s hope, yes, but more important than that, there are games to play.

That’s the gift. Football fans seem appreciative of it so far. The players absolutely are. 

None of that, based on history, guarantees sustainability. The Iron are the sixth gray-area team to call old, gray Legion Field home. It has already seen the Alabama Vulcans (AFA, 1979), Birmingham Stallions (USFL, 1983–86), Fire (WLAF, 1991–92), Barracudas (CFL, 1995) and Thunderbolts (XFL, 2001) come and go. Birmingham is always one of the first places people think of for these leagues because Birmingham really loves football.

But that on its own isn’t enough to guarantee sustainability either. When I got down to the field late in the fourth quarter on Saturday, the Iron had just taken the lead. The security guard, in his 60s, keeping me off the field was nice enough and really hoping Salt Lake, then in plus territory, wouldn’t get the field goal it needed to force overtime. We chatted and he asked me where I was from as “my accent ain’t from Alabama.” (Accent?) I told him I was there to watch some former Huskers play. That started the conversation that always seems to follow in a football hotbed.

Man, what happened to Nebraska? I assumed he didn’t want the three-hour answer that question requires, so I said something about coaching hires and quickly tried to change the subject to the time the Huskers were on the field that was just over the fence and a few yards in front of us.

He didn’t want to talk about that game, a 20-3 Alabama win, but the game the year before, a 31-24 loss in Lincoln for the fourth-ranked Tide. Both were big games. Impossible to forget.

There was a game happening right in front of us, a potential game-winning drive, but we both stepped out of the gray and into the black. It wasn’t even a choice, it just happened, the normal course of conversation.

I don’t know how a fledgling league ever gets past that, but a gray Saturday at Legion Field was enough to show that it sure is a beautiful fight.

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