I hadn’t paid much attention to the Alliance of American Football, the startup football league that drew comparisons to the much-maligned original XFL before it even began play, until the organization’s teams were almost set to play their first games. One of those teams was in Birmingham. Despite its beloved Magic City moniker, as well as the city’s rich college football history, professional football hasn’t been much of a fairy tale in Birmingham. The AAF was the latest in a long line of leagues, among them the aforementioned XFL and the Canadian Football League, to attempt to install a pro football team in Alabama. Birmingham’s Iron was scheduled to compete against the Memphis Express on Sunday, February 10, 2019.
I had gotten my hands on four tickets to the game. I have been a huge football fan for almost half my life, and wanted to see what this rendition of spring football was all about. Trent Richardson was the player to watch in my mind, as the former Heisman Trophy nominee played in some of the first games I ever witnessed, both in-person and on TV. I was also glad to get to see many other Alabama alumni hit the field again.
I’ve enjoyed the games I’ve gone to at Legion Field. Before the AAF, I was at the 2016 and 2017 Birmingham Bowls. I entered the stadium again for the Iron game and took in the atmosphere. In a humorous moment, I observed former San Francisco 49er Quinton Patton throwing one of the Alliance’s new technologically-enhanced footballs back and forth with a fan. After an official told him to stop, Patton, seemingly irate, tossed the ball down the sideline. Patton’s interaction with the fan had previously made its way onto the Alliance’s official Instagram story. As a matter of fact, so did I; you could briefly see me during a short video of the Express’s huddle. Minutes later, myself and a friend ventured over towards the Memphis Express, who were huddling up just before the game. I remember recognizing Zach Mettenberger, the former LSU quarterback who was once also a member of the Tennessee Titans and Pittsburgh Steelers. I had been curious before the game as to the level of fan interaction we’d see within the AAF.
When the game began, I was impressed with the play of starting quarterback Luis Perez. Perez, who had spent the 2018 NFL preseason on the Rams, logged over 250 yards passing on the day. He seemed in his element as his throws soared through the air. Patton also didn’t seem to have missed a beat, catching four of Perez’s passes for 107 yards. I particularly recall one of these catches, an impressive one for a first down. He became Perez’s favorite target in the game for long passes. Seeing Patton play featured an element of nostalgia for yours truly, as I had his rookie card from his San Francisco days. More nostalgic for many fans present was Trent Richardson, who got some of the biggest crowd reactions during game time. He scored two touchdowns against the Express defense. At one point, he was penalized for spiking the football in celebration, apparently because the AAF did not want the special footballs getting into the hands of fans (the ball had bounced out of the field of play). Not unlike Patton during pregame, Richardson didn’t seem too enthused with this development. Defensive play was the story early on as the Iron were held out of the end zone in the early stages. Birmingham picked off the Express passers once each; starter Christian Hackenberg was replaced by Brandon Silvers following putrid play. It was a good day for a great crowd. The Birmingham fans were loud, supportive, and into the game. Memphis fans in attendance had little reason to reach this level as their team was shut out by a margin of 26-0.
Attending the Iron’s opener made for a fun day. I enjoyed it all, from seeing the familiar faces to watching them play well. The experience did not dwindle as the season moved past the first week; I attended the following week’s nail biter against Salt Lake and had an equally pleasant time. Although the AAF didn’t pan out (which is a shame, as Birmingham had clinched a playoff berth), I’d be very happy to see pro football return to the Magic City.