The Wire

  • New tunnel, premium RV section at Talladega Superspeedway on schedule despite weather

    Excerpt:

    Construction of a new oversized vehicle tunnel and premium RV infield parking section at Talladega Superspeedway is still on schedule to be completed in time for the April NASCAR race, despite large amounts of rainfall and unusual groundwater conditions underneath the track.

    Track Chairman Grant Lynch, during a news conference Wednesday at the track, said he’s amazed the general contractor, Taylor Corporation of Oxford, has been able to keep the project on schedule.

    “The amount of water they have pumped out of that and the extra engineering they did from the original design, basically to keep that tunnel from floating up out of the earth, was remarkable,” Lynch said.

  • Alabama workers built 1.6M engines in 2018 to add auto horsepower

    Excerpt:

    Alabama’s auto workers built nearly 1.6 million engines last year, as the state industry continues to carve out a place in global markets with innovative, high-performance parts, systems and finished vehicles.

    Last year also saw major new developments in engine manufacturing among the state’s key players, and more advanced infrastructure is on the way in the coming year.

    Hyundai expects to complete a key addition to its engine operations in Montgomery during the first half of 2019, while Honda continues to reap the benefits of a cutting-edge Alabama engine line installed several years ago.

  • Groundbreaking on Alabama’s newest aerospace plant made possible through key partnerships

    Excerpt:

    Political and business leaders gathered for a groundbreaking at Alabama’s newest aerospace plant gave credit to the formation of the many key partnerships that made it possible.

    Governor Kay Ivey and several other federal, state and local officials attended the event which celebrated the construction of rocket engine builder Blue Origin’s facility in Huntsville.

2 months ago

Football preview: Troy treks to Murfreesboro for season opener vs. Middle Tennessee

(Troy Athletics/Contributed)

Troy football coach Chip Lindsey knows that Middle Tennessee offensive coordinator Tony Franklin will make his Trojans defend the whole field when they open the season at 3 p.m. Saturday at Floyd Stadium in Murfreesboro, Tennessee.

But Lindsey says that nothing is making his squad “defend the whole field” like the novel coronavirus.

“It’s definitely made you rethink some things,” the second-year Trojans coach said, referring to the need to adapt if players or coaches contract the virus. “It’s made you rethink some things from the standpoint of personnel. If you’re down to your third or fourth quarterback, what do you do then? If you’re short wideouts, does that change the way you play on offense? Or defensively if you’re short D-linemen? Does that make you play more odd fronts?

300

“All those things are scenarios that we definitely had to think through,” Lindsey continued. “Even coaching-wise, what happens if one of our coaches tests positive for corona? We’ve got a play for that as well. I think the best thing we can do is just try to plan for the unexpected and somewhat hope it doesn’t happen. At the same time, if it does, we’ve got to handle that and move forward.”

The Troy coach calls 2020 the Year of the Unknown. “We’re gonna need everybody at some point,” Lindsey said.

Middle Tennessee opened its season last week with a 42-0 loss to Army.

The pandemic has left the college football schedule in the state with slim pickings this week as the Trojans are the only state team taking the field. UAB and South Alabama are off this week before they face one another next Thursday in Mobile.

Troy coach Chip Lindsey, players talk about their team and the season ahead from Alabama NewsCenter on Vimeo.

HIGH SCHOOLS

Class 7A: At 4-0, coach Cris Bell’s Oak Mountain team has climbed to No. 9 in the latest Alabama Sports Writers Association poll. The Eagles will be tested in their quest to remain undefeated as they leave the friendly confines of Heardmont Stadium to visit No. 3 Hoover.

Class 6A: Minor is 3-1 following its 33-28 fall to No. 4 Pinson Valley. This week, the Tigers welcome No. 5 Clay-Chalkville.

Class 5A: No. 5 Faith Academy hosts No. 2 St. Paul’s in a battle of unbeatens. Each is 4-0.

Class 4A: No. 1 American Christian (4-0) heads to No. 2 Bibb County (4-0).

Class 3A: No. 5 T.R. Miller (3-1) entertains No. 9 Bayside Academy (4-0).

Class 2A: Aliceville (3-1) welcomes Cold Springs (3-0).

Class 1A: No. 4 Maplesville (3-1) hosts Loachapoka (2-1).

AISA: Tuscaloosa Academy (1-2) ventures to No. 9 Patrician (2-1).

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

7 months ago

Homewood mural delivers a masterpiece message

(Solomon Crenshaw Jr./Alabama NewsCenter)

Shawn Fitzwater was confident his latest mural wouldn’t hang around very long.

“If I got in trouble over it,” the owner of Fitz Hand Painted Signs said, “I could easily cover it up.”

But a funny thing happened on the painter’s trip to buy whitewash. The feel-good message of his mural – We Are All In This Together – struck home and, for now, the mural has a home, not just on a building in downtown Homewood but on T-shirts that provide food for health care workers.

635

Shawn Fitzwater talks about his uplifting Homewood message mural from Alabama NewsCenter on Vimeo.

Like many small business owners, Fitzwater has seen potential clients hit the pause button as the economy ground to a halt because of the novel coronavirus pandemic. Beyond his bottom line, he wanted to inspire others.

“What can I do to give back through my business or give back through my skill set?” the 41-year-old wondered. “I thought, ‘What if I just paint a message somewhere, a positive message, maybe an uplifting thing for people to see and put a smile on people’s faces?’”

And the painter knew just where he wanted to put his message, on the north side of the building that houses Battle Republic, a boxing-inspired gym. He had talked previously with the business owners about using their bare white outside wall as a canvas.

However, this rendering would be an unsanctioned job, without their permission.

“I kind of know those people,” Fitzwater said. “Once they figure out it’s me (and), if they’re mad, I’ll cover it up.”

But the emotion evoked by the mural wasn’t anger. Fitzwater’s work, done under cloak of darkness and secrecy, brought a smile to the faces of the business owners, even if they worried about their landlord’s reaction.

Lindsey Miller, an owner of Battle Republic, said she was lounging at a lake when she got word of the mural from one of her coaches. He snapped a picture and texted it to her.

“I was, like, panicking a little bit because I didn’t want the landlord to think we did it and get upset,” she said. “My first instinct was definitely, ‘This is so freakin’ cool,’ but I really hope nobody gets upset.”

Miller alerted her landlord Pronce Acker, explained that it wasn’t her doing and asked, “Can we keep it?”

“He was like, ‘Oh man, this is such a great message,’” the gym owner recounted. “Once he was cool with it, I kind of got to where I could appreciate it a little bit more than be worried about it.”

The inspiration of Fitzwater’s mural hasn’t stopped at the wall. Vulcan Apparel Co. owners Michael Whitten and Drew Binkley have carried it further.

“Obviously with everything going on, it was just kind of an uplifting moment,” Binkley said. “Honestly, every time I’ve passed, it’s kind of been one of those things that you pass by and it kind of lifts your spirits a little bit.”

The business partners decided to lift more spirits by putting Fitzwater’s alternating black and white block text on T-shirts.

“What better way to combine both of our efforts and start a campaign,” Binkley said. “We can let people wear that mural and have that good feeling when they’re wearing it, and maybe help somebody that’s maybe going through a tough time.”

And the shirts have done more than just uplift. Vulcan Apparel sold the white T-shirts, giving all the money raised to BHMcares to provide food for health care workers.

“We haven’t heard the final number,” Binkley said, “but I’m pretty sure we ended at 255 (shirts sold). That’s just over $3,300 in money raised for bhmcares.com. It has exceeded our expectations.”

The campaign has fed medical workers through multiple restaurants, providing a boost to those struggling businesses. And while that campaign ended April 17, another one could launch if demand prompts it, the Vulcan Apparel website said.

As a result, Fitzwater said he feels the love.

“Just knowing that it is helping people,” he said. “To see people post and tag the mural (online) so many times during the day and then just put messages like, ‘Whoever did this, thank you so much.’ That made me smile.

“And with the T-shirt sales and the campaign, that’s probably right up there with it. That’s what it’s meant for and that’s what means a lot to me.”

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

8 months ago

Food companies serve free meals, treats to those in need and front-line workers during pandemic

(Solomon Crenshaw Jr./Alabama NewsCenter)

Mary Drennen said she didn’t really understand the far-reaching effects of the COVID-19 pandemic until she and others handed out free meals March 30 on Birmingham’s Southside.

“It’ll tear your heartstrings up,” the Nourish Foods co-owner said. “It’s a greater purpose that we didn’t even realize that we could serve until this disease came about, or virus, however you call it. It is certainly rewarding for us to know that our business can step in and provide something for people that they literally have no access to.”

Nourish Foods is one of several companies – local and national – that have stepped in to help where they can to support those who are on the front lines in the battle against the coronavirus.

564

1918 Catering helping others during COVID-19 pandemic from Alabama NewsCenter on Vimeo.

Drennen and her business partner, Tiffany Davis, have connected with students who are not attending school for the rest of the year.

“Now that they’re without that one or two meals that they would have gotten at school, that’s obviously not an option,” she said. “We’re trying to work through that problem with Avondale, Woodlawn, Gate City areas in particular. Those are the first ones that we’re working with to find a solution for that.”

And they’re not alone. Every Monday, Krispy Kreme is giving a dozen doughnuts to each healthcare worker who visits.

Brittney Payne, a sterile surgical technician at UAB Highlands, said the sweets give healthcare providers their due.

“It’s nice,” the wife and mother of three said, “because healthcare workers don’t get enough credit for the things they do, especially when you work and go home to your family.”

Cristin Buentello said it’s not uncommon for her to pick up a dozen Krispy Kreme doughnuts on her way to or from her job at Brookwood Hospital and Women’s Center.

The 12 glazed rings she picked up this week at the Hoover Krispy Kreme location were for her co-workers.

“It helps us all out and gives us a little treat,” said Buentello, a surgical assistant. “Any little thing is nice, like food, getting water. Everything’s helping us right now: a little pick-me-up.”

Starbucks is giving a free tall brewed coffee – hot or cold – to front-line responders through May 3. In addition, the Starbucks Foundation is donating $500,000 to support front-line responders.

The $500,000 comes in equal donations to Direct Relief to support the delivery of personal protective equipment and essential medical items, and to Operation Gratitude to deliver 50,000 care packages and handwritten letters to first responders and health care workers.

Similarly, companies and volunteers have rolled up their sleeves to help people who have been adversely affected by the pandemic, including children who might not otherwise be fed because their schools have closed for the school year.

Nourish Foods is among companies offering gifts for healthcare providers at UAB. Some community philanthropists are donating money to be used at area restaurants to provide food for health care workers.

UAB’s Food Services staff is organizing this project through its Meals For Heroes link.

Full Moon Bar-B-Que established its Feed a Friend program, accepting nominations for families to receive a free meal. That program was to have ended this week but is being extended indefinitely until the shelter-in-place order is lifted.

The barbecue restaurant chain’s Tuscaloosa location gave 180 lunches to staffers at Druid City Hospital, while its Montgomery restaurant gave 500 lunches to schoolchildren through the Mercy House nonprofit. The company also gave 100 lunches to the Levite Jewish Community Center and served lunches at the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office.

“Serving our communities is always a top priority at Full Moon Bar-B-Que and we are dedicated to providing meals in this trying time,” co-owner Joe Maluff said in a prepared statement. “Now more than ever, people need hope and we believe a warm meal can do just that. Full Moon Bar-B-Que aims to serve the communities surrounding each of our locations the best way we can throughout this pandemic.”

Last week, J&R Bar & Grill – formerly Peyton Place Restaurant – gave free lunches to first responders. On April 2, 1918 Catering gave free lunches to healthcare workers with ID at its location in Homewood.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

8 months ago

Lakeshore Foundation weighs in on postponed Olympics, Paralympics

(Lexi Branta Coon/Contributed)

Joe Delagrave grew up in Wisconsin but was raised on a staple of a Southern breakfast – grits.

“My mom used to make those growing up, so I have no problems with grits,” said Delagrave, the captain of the U.S. Paralympic wheelchair rugby team. “She had a Southern heart. She always made some good home cooking.”

For 12 years, Delagrave and his fellow wheelchair rugby players have feasted on the home cooking at the Olympic and Paralympic Training Facility at Lakeshore Foundation in the Birmingham suburb of Homewood. Lakeshore is home for this U.S. squad as it prepares to contend for Paralympic gold.

513

But that team and athletes in other Olympic and Paralympic sports learned this week they’ll have to put the brakes on their chance to represent their country with the announcement that the 2020 Summer Olympic Games have been postponed until 2021 because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Lakeshore Foundation CEO Jeff Underwood said the likelihood of that decision seemed more and more likely as the Tokyo Games drew closer to their scheduled July 24 to Aug. 9 competition window.

The Paralympics were to have been Aug. 25 to Sept. 6.

“It just underscores the seriousness of the situation and the fact that it’s having impacts on every aspect of our lives,” Underwood said. “On the other hand, it was not a cancellation; it was a postponement. That’s an important distinction. The games will go on, just not on their predicted schedule.”

A few days before the announcement to postpone the games, the United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee surveyed American athletes on the matter. They overwhelmingly suggested postponement and USOPC formally supported that move.

While Lakeshore staffers were disappointed by the needed delay, Underwood said the true pain is felt by athletes who put their lives on hold the past four years in pursuit of a dream.

“They put their families, their jobs, their careers on hold with the idea that as of this summer they would have maybe moved on to other things,” he said. “Now they’ve got to decide whether they want to keep their lives on hold for another year.”

The delay will benefit some who weren’t quite ready for 2020. Some had circled 2020 as the end of their career, one last shot. “Who knows,” the Lakeshore leader asked, “whether they’ll be able, willing to participate again?”

Underwood particularly feels for the wheelchair rugby team that lost in double overtime to Australia in the 2016 gold medal game in Rio de Janeiro.

“My sense is they were at the top of their game,” the Lakeshore CEO said. “They had just come back from the tournament in London a couple of months ago, where they won handily over some of their top opponents.

“We watch these guys train so hard,” he continued. “They’re hungry. And they’ve been working darn hard and everything seemed to be falling in place for that team, leading up to the games this summer.”

Delagrave had even more motivation. He was an alternate in 2016 and didn’t get to compete. The captain of the current squad compared his anticipation to being a child waiting all year for Christmas.

“We were almost at that Thanksgiving point where ‘Man, it’s here. It’s coming quick,’” he said. “Now it’s postponed.”

It’ll be a while before athletes have a definitive new target for the games. Delagrave said they’re caught in limbo amid rumors the Olympics and Paralympics may be in the spring or perhaps on the same dates in 2021.

“Once we find that out, I think it’ll add some more clarity,” he said. “We’ll get our schedule down from the administrators and from our head coach and we can start to circle some dates and then get really re-excited and re-energized about everything.”

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

8 months ago

Mel Kiper assesses Alabama, Auburn players in his mock NFL Draft

(Kent Gidley/University of Alabama Athletics)

Mel Kiper Jr. called Tua Tagovailoa the most intriguing player in the upcoming NFL Draft.

Kiper, the NFL Draft analyst from ESPN, released his NFL Mock Draft 3.0 on Tuesday and fielded questions from media during a teleconference today. Easily, the player about whom the most questions swirl is the Heisman Trophy runner-up whose season was cut short by a dislocated hip, his third lower-body injury of his career in Tuscaloosa.

That history of injury – which includes procedures on each ankle – has some scratching their heads about making a trade to move up in the draft to get him. Tagovailoa’s injury kept him from participating on the field at the NFL Combine although he met with team executives.

790

The draft analyst has the Alabama QB pegged to be taken fifth by the Miami Dolphins. He acknowledged in releasing his mock draft that he did not factor in trades because that is wildly speculative.

Tuesday, the Tide signal-caller released a 10-second video that showed him going through a fast-paced, drop-back passing drill. And while Kiper acknowledged that Tagovailoa looked good, questions would persist.

“Tua would be the most intriguing because of … the limited ability to see and the limited knowledge with the medical and what’s going on in the world right now and in our country,” Kiper said. “If everything would have been perfect and everything was done the way it’s always been done, you still have the durability concerns.

“Even if he’s medically cleared and everything looks OK with the hip and progress has been made and all that, you still have three separate injuries that all occurred,” he continued. “Can he take hits? Can he sustain hits, come back and then be healthy from those hits? Durability for Tua would still be a question regardless if this was a perfect draft scenario or draft process scenario.”

While not factoring trades into his mock draft, Kiper acknowledged that “it would be a great opportunity” for Detroit to move down from No. 3 to No. 5.

“If you’re Detroit, it would be a great opportunity to go from three to five and still get Jeff Okudah, the cornerback from Ohio State or Isaiah Simmons, the linebacker from Clemson,” he said. “You don’t lose anything if you’re the Lions.”

He mentioned Miami and the Los Angeles Chargers among teams that might consider moving to get Tagovailoa.

Kiper was asked who among the potential draft selections is the most NFL ready. After Simmons, he cited Auburn’s Derrick Brown, who could have bolted for the pros in 2019.

Brown “got another year of experience and did a great job at Auburn,” Kiper said. “I think with Derrick Brown you know what you’re getting out of the defensive tackle.”

Another NFL-ready player, he said, is Alabama right tackle Jedrick Wills Jr.

“He’s a solid player, he’s technically sound (and) he was consistent,” Kiper said. “He didn’t have any hiccups at right tackle this year. He’s the kind of guy who’s a plug-and-play right tackle.”

Kiper repeated that the deepest position in this draft is wide receiver. He compared this draft to other years in which three wideouts distanced themselves from the rest. Among those, he has Alabama’s Jerry Jeudy set to go 13th to the San Francisco 49ers and Henry Ruggs III 15th to the Denver Broncos.

“I think Henry Ruggs III is right there for some teams as the top receiver,” he said, noting that the New York Jets might make a move for him. “Michael Irvin and all those different receivers in (that) draft, they were very hard to separate and that’s the thing with Jeudy, (Oklahoma’s CeeDee) Lamb and Ruggs. I would still go Jeudy, Lamb, Ruggs, (Clemson’s Tee) Higgins, in that order.”

Speaking of Oklahoma, Kiper was asked if former Alabama quarterback Jalen Hurts could follow in the successful footsteps of 2019 NFL MVP Lamar Jackson.

“In terms of where he is right now, I think he’s a late second, early to mid-third (round selection),” Kiper said, calling claims that Hurts would drop into the sixth round “way, way low.”

“He threw the ball well at the combine,” the analyst said. “He had a heck of a year at two different big-time programs. He won a ton of games, he rushed for a lot of yards, he scored a ton of touchdowns.”

Hurts’ value is enhanced, Kiper said, because of the many things he can do. Even a team with a great starter in hand can put packages in place for Hurts, Kiper said.

“That’s going to help him to be a late second, early third round pick.”

Kiper said Auburn defensive end Marlon Davidson is close to being a first-rounder in his mock draft. He’s got him pegged in the late first round or early to mid-second round.

“You’ve got versatility and you talk about production in Senior Bowl week. All that adds up,” he said. “There’s really not much else there (below him at that position), so if you need one, you better take him early — late first, early second.”

Kiper has Auburn cornerback Noah Igbinoghene penciled in at No. 31, going to the San Francisco 49ers. He said he likes his versatility.

“He’s helped out on special teams and the return game,” the analyst said. “He keeps getting better and better. His tackling improved and his instincts in coverage made progress this year.

“He still has some work to do in terms of his coverage technique, but he’s got awesome talent,” Kiper continued. “He’s just touched the surface of what kind of player he can be at corner.”

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

9 months ago

Bassmaster Classic makes itself at home with ninth visit to Birmingham

(Solomon Crenshaw Jr./Alabama NewsCenter)

You couldn’t blame B.A.S.S. CEO Bruce Akin if he lobbied to make Birmingham the permanent host of its flagship event – the Academy Sports + Outdoors Bassmaster Classic presented by Huk.

Personally, Akin would be very comfortable with that move.

“I would love that,” the Homewood resident said. “I could stay in my own bed every night. Fortunately, it’s become very popular in recent years, the Classic, and there’s been a lot of competition for it.”

723

Through today, 53 anglers are taking part in the Academy Sports + Outdoors Bassmaster Classic presented by Huk. The 50th championship event of the Bassmaster Elite Series returns to Birmingham for the ninth time.

This is the 13th time the classic has been in Alabama and the third time it has been on Lake Guntersville. Once again, the weigh-in and expo will be at the Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex.

Birmingham drew 90,000 fans when the Magic City was weigh-in central for the Bassmaster Classic in 2014. Last year, Knoxville, Tenn., established a record with 153,000 fans.

The 2019 Bassmaster Classic in Knoxville, Tenn., was recognized as a 2019 Champion of Economic Impact in Sports Tourism (Mid-Market Division) by Sports Destination Management.

The award honors organizations and local partners who “worked together to produce events that have made our industry a more vibrant, more exciting, more varied and more interesting place.”

Akin is rooting for Birmingham to show up and show out.

“Let’s beat the record that was set last year,” he said. “I’m ready to shatter that record. This is something Auburn and Alabama people can come together on, beating Tennessee.”

Record attendance is nothing new for the Classic. Before it was in Knoxville, a record crowd of 145,000 were at the championship event in Greenville, S.C.

“Each year it’s gotten bigger and bigger and bigger,” Akin said. “We do have people coming from all over the country – and all over the world, really – to the Bassmaster Classic. They put it on their calendar, and they make it a family vacation in many cases.”

Those visitors are expected to have an economic impact of $30 million.

“It’s a big number,” said David Galbaugh of the Greater Birmingham Convention and Visitors Bureau, “but again, when you’ve got this many people that are coming to an event, it really adds up. I am in awe sometimes when we talk about these numbers. It’s very impressive and that’s what makes the event so special to be in Birmingham.”

Alabama Power partners with B.A.S.S. on conservation projects from Alabama NewsCenter on Vimeo.

While Birmingham has been part of the Bassmaster Classic more than anywhere else, fans who were here in 2014 might feel they’re in a new place.

“We didn’t have all of Uptown in place,” Galbaugh said. “We didn’t have things going on in our downtown renaissance with Second Avenue and all the new restaurants that we have.

“We’re like a new product,” he continued. “I’m going to be really excited for people that are accustomed to coming to the Classic and being in Birmingham. If they haven’t been here in six years, they’re going to find something that’s really special. And I think they’re going to be very impressed.”

Hosting athletic events has become something Birmingham does. Faye Oates, commissioner of Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin’s office of sports and entertainment, said the Classic is a huge opportunity for the metro area.

“It’s a really big deal,” she said. “It has a great following. They bring a lot of folks to the city. Their expo alone is big. Without any fishing, the expo is huge.”

The expo, like the daily weigh-in, is free. It features 200 exhibitors and is what Akin calls the largest fishing consumer show in the world.

“People laugh that you’re just going to see fish being weighed, but it’s really quite a show,” the B.A.S.S. CEO said. “It’s a Hollywood-style production, and it’s truly made for TV. It will be broadcast on ESPN2 in about a month.”

A lot has changed in professional bass fishing since B.A.S.S. began 52 years ago and hosted its first Bassmaster Classic two years later. Since then, rival professionals tours – including FLW and MLF — have come on the scene.

Akin said the industry is very strong now, but B.A.S.S. and the Bassmaster Classic provide the biggest stage.

“We have everything from websites to magazines to television to a radio show to the events themselves,” the CEO said. “Throngs of people want to come out and see fish being weighed but also to sample the sponsor products. We don’t want to rest on our laurels by any means, but we’ve been the leader for 50 years and plan to continue to be the leader.

“We are the big fish in a big pond too,” Akin continued. “The industry is very vibrant and very strong now, but we are the biggest organization in bass fishing.”

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

9 months ago

Alabama, Auburn football stars among those supporting veterans and wounded warriors

(Solomon Crenshaw Jr./Alabama NewsCenter)

The oft-told joke is that you have to pick a side when you arrive in this state. You’re either for Alabama, someone will say, or you’re for Auburn.

More than 200 people gathered as one team Feb. 21 at The Club in Birmingham. They weren’t divided by Roll Tide and War Eagle, although each battle cry could be heard. The second One Yard at a Time Gala was the latest effort of Lettermen of the USA, sports rivals who’ve united under a common banner to help veterans, including wounded warriors.

Darryl Fuhrman, a former Alabama linebacker and founder of the organization, called it a celebration of the accomplishments they’ve had and a chance to let supporters help them do more.

574

“Since last year’s gala, we’ve given a motorized scooter for a World War II veteran and a down payment on a Chevrolet Avalon,” Fuhrman said. “Also, we did an ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act)-compliant renovation on a veteran’s home in Florence.”

That veteran is U.S. Army Airborne Private Jason Melhiser, who was permanently disabled with a broken back and leg, and torn knee during a mission in the first Gulf War.

Lettermen of the USA puts former Alabama, Auburn players on one team to score a win for veterans from Alabama NewsCenter on Vimeo.

Lettermen of the USA grew out of the tornado outbreak that raked across Alabama on April 27, 2011. Former football players from Alabama and Auburn got together for a fundraising flag football game at Hoover’s Spain Park High School, raising $150,000 for the Governor’s Emergency Relief Fund.

Former Auburn offensive guard Todd Boland said the effort “kind of evaporated for a couple of years” until Fuhrman had the vision to pick it up and continue to carry the torch.

“Since that time, Darryl and I have worked closely with Desmond (Holman, vice president and director of operations) and all the guys who are part of Lettermen of the USA to organize events like this,” Boland said.

The effort began with giving autographed footballs and memorabilia to veterans but has grown to being more impactful.

“It started as an Alabama vs. Auburn thing,” Fuhrman said, “and it’s turned into a whole slew of athletes in general, guys who are here to support the veterans and wounded warriors.”

Birmingham native and former Alabama linebacker Cornelius Bennett spoke at the 2019 gala and was back Friday.

“It’s a tremendous experience to be here serving,” Bennett said. “My father was a veteran, and having a chance to give back to the community, not only to veterans but also former football players. I’m always happy to come home and to serve.”

Medal of Honor recipient Capt. Gary Rose and UAB football coach Bill Clark were honored during Friday’s event. Clark said he got involved in the effort about four years ago, autographing footballs before his Blazers returned from a shutdown of their program.

“I was able to go to Huntsville and really hang out with veterans and give them some footballs,” he said. “You talk about heroes of mine, these guys who have served and fought for our country. I’m glad to help out in some small way.”

Clark applauded what LotUSA does for former college athletes. “It’s great this organization has a heart for these guys, especially those who have fallen on hard times,” he said.

Fuhrman said the first football given by LotUSA was autographed by former Auburn quarterback and Samford football coach Pat Sullivan, who died on Dec. 1, 2019. Patrick Sullivan Jr. was on hand to aid in the fundraising effort.

“We always knew that if we could prove that rival fan bases could work together, there was much more undiscovered country that we would be able to traverse,” Fuhrman said. “It’s because of that flag football game and what it started that we are here tonight.”

Friday’s event exceeded its $20,000 goal. On stage was a new motorized wheelchair and a motorized scooter; one was donated by a radio listener and the other a viewer of a Birmingham morning television show.

Saturday, Fuhrman and others traveled to Huntsville to give the wheelchair to Vietnam veteran Gary Hallman, a former tail-gunner with the 281st Assault Helicopter Company.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

11 months ago

UAB faces giant-killer App State in R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl

(Solomon Crenshaw Jr./Alabama NewsCenter)

Appalachian State has made its reputation as a giant-killer in college football, including what’s been called the greatest upset in history – its 2007 34-32 victory over Michigan when the Mountaineers were still an FCS program.

These days, App State is among the giants. It is No. 20 in the College Football Playoff ranking, is a two-time champion of the Sun Belt Conference and is the defending champion of the R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl.

That leaves UAB playing the role of David as it faces the Mountaineers in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome at 8 p.m. Saturday on ESPN.

512

“It’s almost like it’s flipped for us if you look at them being a top-25 team and what they’ve done, beating South Carolina, North Carolina and winning their division and conference again,” Blazers coach Bill Clark said, calling the first meeting between UAB and App State a preview of next season for his two-time Conference USA West Division champions.

“I was sitting there yesterday and asked the seniors to raise their hands, and it’s a small number of guys,” Clark said. “We want to see what our group does next year. Obviously, we’ll get a few guys back that have been injured.

“We’re really excited about our recruits,” he continued. “I think this has kind of been a preview of next year’s team, with us going up against a top-25 team. It’s a huge deal for us. What a great job done in that program through the years.”

The UAB Blazers talk about their New Orleans Bowl face-off with Appalachian State from Alabama NewsCenter on Vimeo.

The Blazers are 9-4, coming off a 49-6 loss to Florida Atlantic in the Dec. 7 Conference USA championship. Clark and his players say they are eager to make it clear that loss doesn’t represent who they really are.

“It didn’t go like we wanted it to, but it’s also good for us that we have an extra game to redeem ourselves and show the world that wasn’t us that game,” junior linebacker Kris Moll said. “This is a good team, so we have a great chance to show a lot of people otherwise.”

Appalachian State is 12-1 this season, with its lone loss a 24-21 defeat at the hands of conference foe Georgia Southern. Coach Shawn Clark said it all goes back to tradition, what App State was built on and what coach Jerry Moore built there. Moore stepped down after the 2012 season.

And as App State welcomed word of its bowl location, it said goodbye to the man who had been its head coach. Eliah Drinkwitz took over a year ago and guided the Mountaineers to the Sun Belt championship before becoming the head coach at the University of Missouri.

“We take a lot of pride in what we do, and we expect to win every football game,” Clark said. “I don’t care who we’re playing. If we were playing the Dallas Cowboys, we expect to win. We don’t go anywhere to be second fiddle, so that’s what makes us special.”

UAB’s ninth-ranked defense will be tested by Appalachian State’s offense that ranks ninth nationally in scoring, at 39.4 points per game, and averages 435.5 yards per contest. Darrynton Evans is the Sun Belt’s second-leading rusher, with 1,323 yards and 17 touchdowns, while quarterback and Hewitt-Trussville product Zac Thomas has thrown for 2,576 yards and 26 touchdowns.

UAB wide receiver Austin Watkins Jr. is just  67 yards away from joining Roddy White and Derrick Ingram as the only players in Blazer football history to amass 1,000 receiving yards in a season. Watkins enters the bowl game with 47 catches for 933 yards and five touchdowns.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

Charles Barkley’s pep rally talk at Miles College less rah-rah, more role model

(Solomon Crenshaw Jr./Alabama NewsCenter)

Thursday, on the campus of Miles College, Charles Barkley was the very thing he said years ago that he wasn’t.

He was a role model.

Barkley, voted one of the 50 Greatest Players in NBA history, spoke during a Miles College pep rally. But the Round Mound of Rebound’s message was less about rooting on the Golden Bears as they host Lane College in a 6 p.m. football game on Saturday and more about rooting on the students of the historically black college in Fairfield.

606

The product of Leeds and Auburn University told a few hundred students gathered outside the George T. French Jr. Student Activity Center that they can write their own stories by getting their education.

“Control your future,” he said. “Control your future.”

Barkley cited the 1980s Nike commercial in which he said, “I’m not a role model.”

“The reason I made the commercial was I felt too many young black kids think they’re going to play in the NBA,” he said. “First of all, there ain’t but 400 of them (NBA players). You ain’t gonna be one of those 400 but you can be a doctor, lawyer, engineer, teacher, fireman, policeman.

“You can use your brain,” Barkley continued. “I wish everybody could play in the NBA. But you have to be realistic … but you can be anything you want to do academically.”

The former NBA great said his message at colleges and universities is always about education. He said becoming a player in the NBA, NFL or Major League Baseball is “a lucky life miracle.”

Charles Barkley visits Miles College from Alabama NewsCenter on Vimeo.

“I’m 56,” Barkley said. “I’m the only one from my hometown. There’s one in every hometown. That’s it. The rest of the people gotta get a real job. I always tell kids when I speak to them: There’s nothing wrong with digging ditches, but it’s gonna be hot or cold. But if you get that education, you can go to work in a nice suit and control your future. Control your future and your destiny.”

Barkley left Auburn University after a three-year playing career. He was selected with the fifth pick in the first round of the NBA draft by the Philadelphia 76ers, two slots after the Chicago Bulls drafted Michael Jordan.

But Barkley, who is a studio analyst for Turner Network Television (TNT), understands the importance of education, particularly the education provided by historically black colleges and universities. He said he’s contributed to Morehouse College and Clark Atlanta University in Georgia and Alabama A&M here in his home state.

And he plans to add Miles College to his list.

“I haven’t figured out what I’m gonna do with Miles yet,” he told the crowd, “but I’m gonna do something.”

Interim Miles President Bobbie Knight said she has known Barkley for a while but the two have recently talked about projects in which he can get involved in and around Birmingham.

“When he found out I was coming to Miles as interim president, he reached out to me,” the former Alabama Power vice president said. “You normally don’t get people that say, ‘What can I do to help?’ Normally, it’s “How can you help me?’ That was amazing to me.”

Knight said Barkley wanted to visit and tour the campus. The two have talked about potential growth on the campus, including the need for a new gymnasium.

“He’s really interested in seeing how he can help us with that,” she said. “He’s giving back. Being a student-athlete is critically important to him and he likes the idea of giving back to other student-athletes and students in general.”

Among those in attendance at the pep rally was Miles professor Ethel B. Hill, who taught Barkley chemistry when he was a student at Leeds High School. She remembers him being an excellent student who “sometimes liked to play a little bit.”

She recalled him being “a little shy” as a high school junior and senior. Clearly, the fellow who was known by his middle name, Wade, in those days is shy no more.

“He got a little help from home and me,” Hill said with a laugh. “I can’t tell you what but from home and me.”

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

Keeping score: Manual scoreboard at Birmingham’s Rickwood Classic keeps it old school

(Solomon Crenshaw Jr./Alabama NewsCenter)

When teams score 13 runs in a baseball game, you might say they are lighting up the scoreboard.

Unless you’re talking about Wednesday’s 23rd annual Rickwood Classic game, in which the Montgomery Biscuits beat the Birmingham Barons 9-4.

The high-scoring contest didn’t light up the scoreboard at Rickwood Field because the scoring on the board beyond the outfield fence isn’t kept by electrically powered light bulbs. The old-time manual scoreboard is one of the unusual features of the ballpark that drew 7,015 to the 12:30 p.m. contest.

Volunteers from the Friends of Rickwood scaled a 30-foot ladder and stood on a scaffold to change the score each time a baserunner crossed the plate.

627

That was tough, 18-year-old Carson Weldon said, since you can’t see what the fans in the stands are seeing. Tougher still, he said, is updating the men on the mound and behind the plate.

“Pitchers and catchers are hard because you’ve got to see the (jersey) numbers from all the way back here and you’ve got to put it up fast enough for everyone to see,” he said.

Weldon and his brother Connor were among the volunteers working with the Friends of Rickwood. Dan Weinrib, a board member with Friends of Rickwood, couldn’t have been more pleased with drawing scoreboard duty for the Classic.

“The best part of doing this job is you get to watch the game,” he said. “All the other volunteers have to tend to other duties, but the job of the scoreboard folks is to keep current. We get to watch the game, but we also welcome visitors to come up and take in a view of the game.

“They can’t do this at Wrigley or Fenway because those are working areas for staff only,” he said of the major league ballparks in Chicago and Boston. “We’re a living museum. We want people to explore and experience Rickwood from all 360 degrees.”

Scott Marona was among those who scaled the ladder behind the scoreboard. In doing so, he took a trip down memory lane.

The Huntsville resident played at Rickwood as a 15-year-old ninth grader in a state Dizzy Dean all-star tournament. At 45, he was back at the venerable ballpark playing in a 35-older baseball league.

Rickwood Field even transcended generations for him. His son played there as a 17-year-old and the ballpark is where his father saw his first pro baseball game in 1948.

“I come back here every year,” Marona said. “You love the nostalgia of this park. This is one of the meccas of baseball. You don’t see many old-time things that are kept intact, that are kept outdated on purpose, and this is one of them. Unless you go to Fenway Park you don’t experience what It’s like to go back in old-time baseball.

“It’s a great venue, a great atmosphere,” he said. “It’s a shame they only do it once a year. We love it and it’s really worth coming down here for it.”

Birmingham native Richard Kaley drove from Mobile Wednesday morning to take in the game. Well before the first pitch, he ventured beyond the outfield fence to see the X that marked the spot where a mammoth home run hit by Walt Dropo made contact.

Hal Burton, 70, drove Tuesday night from Key Largo, Florida. He snapped pictures of the X, thinking about a time when home runs were no big deal on the diamond.

“Home runs weren’t popular before Babe Ruth,” the Jasper native said. “Babe Ruth made it popular. These old walls were moved in to the current walls. At this (original) distance, nobody could hit it over the wall.

“That’s how baseball has changed over the last 100 years,” Burton said. “I used to come to Rickwood in the late ‘50s. I grew up in Jasper and we’d come over and watch the Barons at Rickwood Field.”

Weinrib, the Friends of Rickwood board member, noted that the current outfield wall was designed for the movie “Cobb” with a 1948 style.

“The scoreboard that was put up by movie studios wasn’t meant to last decades, but it lasted close to 20 years,” he said. “We replaced it but made it look like it did in 1948 once again. People think this is the original scoreboard; it isn’t. It’s a recreation of what was here in ’48. Incidentally, the remnant of chain link fence here was part of the outfield fence in the 1980s when the Barons last (regularly) played here. It’s all part of history.”

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

Baseball legend Lou Piniella is guest of honor for Birmingham Barons’ Rickwood Classic

(Solomon Crenshaw Jr./Alabama NewsCenter)

Lou Piniella recalled spending one year as a student at the University of Tampa, where he played basketball and baseball.

“I saw I wasn’t going to be a Rhodes scholar in college,” Piniella said, “so I signed (a baseball contract) after my freshman season.”

Piniella, 75, would go on to play 1,700 games and manage 3,000 games in the major leagues, earning three World Series championship rings.

626

The former major leaguer was the guest of honor for the 2019 Rickwood Classic, which pits the home-standing Birmingham Barons against the Montgomery Biscuits.

Levy’s Fine Jewelers sponsors the annual return to Rickwood Field on Birmingham’s westside. Tuesday, Piniella visited with baseball fans at the jewelry store and recorded a conversation with Curt Bloom, the radio voice of the Barons.

Piniella signed autographs during his visit to the jewelry store Tuesday. Most of his signatures were placed on baseballs, with a few going onto baseball cards, a replica baseball jersey and one on an old magazine.

Perhaps the most unusual item Piniella signed was a base from his final major league baseball game, Aug. 22, 2010. The autographed base will be a surprise birthday present for the brother of the man who got the autograph.

“The Cubs sold a lot of their stuff to a group called Steiner Sports,” the man said. “He’s a big Cubs fan.”

The former major leaguer said that while his baseball career took him to several stops, he’s “always a Yankee.” Will that bother the man’s brother?

“Nah,” he said with a laugh. “We’re not Yankee haters. We’re big fans of (Piniella). We love his style.”

Mike Eady, 66, had the replica jersey of the Kansas City Royals, the team with which Piniella played his rookie season.

“They were giveaways at the Kansas City ballpark last year when they honored Piniella on his rookie year,” said Eady, a retired school teacher. “I’ll always keep it.”

Eady was at Levy’s because a visit from the Barons’ special guest is an annual part of the Rickwood Classic.

“I haven’t missed one yet,” the Irondale resident said of the Barons’ annual return to the vintage ballpark. “I just love the atmosphere and coming down here and meeting a former ballplayer who’s probably going to be in the Hall of Fame as a manager or a ballplayer.”

An outfielder in the major leagues, Piniella played 16 seasons with the Baltimore OriolesCleveland IndiansKansas City Royals and New York Yankees. During his playing career, he was named American League Rookie of the Year in 1969 and captured two World Series championships with the Yankees.

Following his playing career, Piniella became a manager for the New York Yankees (1986-1988), Cincinnati Reds (1990-1992), Seattle Mariners (1993-2002), Tampa Bay Devil Rays (2003-2005) and Chicago Cubs (2007-2010). He won the 1990 World Series championship with the Reds and led the Mariners to four postseason appearances in seven years.

The former player and manager also captured back-to-back division titles (2007-2008) during his time with the Cubs. Piniella was named Manager of the Year three times during his career (1995, 2001 and 2008) and finished his managerial career ranked 14th all time on the list of managerial wins.

He was nicknamed “Sweet Lou,” both for his swing as a major league hitter and, facetiously, to describe his demeanor as a player and manager.

Tuesday was not Piniella’s first trip to Alabama. He was a member of the New York Yankees team in 1978 that traveled to face the Crimson Tide in a preseason contest.

“They came to Tuscaloosa because George Steinbrenner and Bear Bryant were close,” Eady recalled. “Bear wanted them to come up and they did.”

Piniella recalled that his first minor league stint was for a team in Selma in the old Alabama-Florida League. Well after his playing days, he had a small piece of the Montgomery Biscuits for about 10 years.

While Piniella earned three World Series rings in his baseball career, he wears only one ring, the one he got with the 1977 Yankees.

“I would think the first one is more special,” he said. But even without a ring to show for it, Piniella has fond memories of his managerial stop with the Seattle Mariners.

“We won 116 (regular season games in 2001),” he recalled. “That’s an all-time American League record.”

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

2 years ago

Saban’s fireside chat with students yields sage wisdom

(Solomon Crenshaw Jr./Alabama NewsCenter)

Nick Saban had just told nearly 2,200 people how he ultimately became a football coach when Jeremiah Brown stepped to the microphone, asking Saban’s inspiration to be a coach.

Rather than repeating his earlier comments, Saban ultimately provided the 10-year-old member of Boy Scout Troop 478 with some advice.

614

“Nobody’s ever going to remember anything about what you said (or) did,” the coach said. “They’re only going to remember how you made them feel. I hope you can live your life and make people around you feel good about you being a part of their experience.”

Jeremiah, a Tuggle Elementary student and resident of Elyton Village public housing community, was among hundreds of Scouts on hand as Saban was the featured guest at the annual American Values Luncheon of the Boy Scouts of America Greater Alabama Council.

The Crimson Tide football coach and Alabama broadcaster Eli Gold sat in elevated crimson armchairs for a fireside-styled chat, fielding questions from Scouts and providing life lessons for the youngsters in attendance.

Ten-year-old Ellison Hicks of Troop 86 Green and Homewood’s Hall-Kent Elementary School inquired about the toughest part of being a coach. That, Saban said, is creating a mindset in which “a whole bunch of people” buy into being dedicated to doing what they need to do, what he calls “The Process.”

“Self-discipline is really what I’m talking about,” Saban said. “It’s the decisions and choices we all make. There’s something I know I’m supposed to do that I really don’t want to do. Can you make yourself do it? Over here, there’s something you’re not supposed to do, but you want to do it. Can you keep yourself from it?

“If you can make those choices and decisions from a self-discipline standpoint, you’ll always be able to stay on a path to accomplish the vision and the goal that you have.”

Saban said that boils down to choice.

“You have to choose to do the things you have to do to accomplish the goals that you have.”

Walden Knott, another Troop 86 Green member, asked Saban whether he likes being famous. “I don’t see myself as being famous,” he replied.

Later, the coach said a loss of humility can cause people and teams to not do what had made them successful.

He said he thinks last year’s team, which remained undefeated until it lost the national championship game to Clemson, “got to the point, down the stretch,” where it became focused on winning itself more than on doing the things it needed to do to win.

Saban recalled that a repeated theme of Alabama football seasons had been climbing the mountain.

“What people also have to understand is if you’re in a successful organization and you have a successful company … you become the mountain,” he said, trying not to sound arrogant.

“That’s a different mindset. Now everybody tries to do it the way you do it or do it better than you do it. That’s very challenging.”

Time didn’t permit all the Scouts with questions to query the coach. Alabaster’s Jon Baggette, 15, was among them.

The Thompson High freshman plays euphonium in the school band. The Life member of Troop 548 wanted to know Saban’s favorite genre of music.

“I feel like he might like country,” Baggette said.

Gold asked a few questions of the coach, including an assessment of ongoing spring practice on the Capstone. Saban’s answer included his concern about the future of college football.

That concern is centered on the sense of free agency created by graduate transfer rules and the increase of players leaving school early to declare for the NFL Draft.

Half of the players who left college early either went undrafted or had very short careers. And most of those, Saban surmised, didn’t go back to get a degree.

“There’s not 140 first-round draft picks. I can tell you that,” Saban said. “I don’t think it sends the right message for people who make commitments, that they can just jump ship as soon as things don’t go the way they want them to go.”

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

2 years ago

Lori Locust takes coaching prowess from Birmingham Iron to NFL’s Tampa Bay Bucs

(AAF/Contributed)

Lori Locust just wants to be one of the guys.

Specifically, she wants to be one of the guys coaching a pro football team.

After beginning the inaugural season of the Alliance of American Football as the defensive line coach of the Birmingham Iron, Locust recently stepped into a bigger spotlight as an assistant coach with the National Football League’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

705

The Bucs became the first NFL team with two female full-time assistant coaches when head coach Bruce Arians hired Locust to be an assistant defensive line coach and Maral Javadifar as an assistant strength and conditioning coach.

In a video interview with Buccaneers.com, “Coach Lo” was asked about being an inspiration to girls who aspire to do what she’s doing. She said that has never been her motivation.

“I’ve always just wanted to coach and hoping that my hard work would get me here,” the 54-year-old said. “I hope that that’s an example that anybody can follow. But, yeah, there’s another responsibility to it.

“I want to be an effective coach,” she continued. “I want to be seen as somebody who’s here for the right reasons, and not for, you know, publicity or anything like that.”

Before Locust moved on to the Bucs, Birmingham Iron head coach Tim Lewis said he never hesitated having her on his staff. It’s all about the opportunity, he said.

“It was absolutely on the forefront of my mind that everybody should be given an opportunity,” he said. “It doesn’t really matter about whether female, male, what color, race, creed, so forth. (AAF founders) Bill Polian, Charlie Ebersol saw the vision of this being a league of opportunity. They’ve bestowed the opportunity on me and there’s no way that I would exclude anyone from being a part of our staff.”

Locust began playing football when she was 40 on a women’s team in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. When she was sidelined by a knee injury, she turned to coaching her team, and later joined other teams as an assistant, including the varsity team at her alma mater, Susquehanna Township High School in Pennsylvania.

Locust has coached for the Lehigh Valley Steelhawks of the National Arena League, the Keystone Assaultof the Women’s Football Alliance, the East Preps talent showcase and the DMV Elite community football program. In fall 2018 she interned with the Baltimore Ravens under a Bill Walsh Diversity Fellowship.

Lewis said Locust wanted him to make no concessions for her when she was with the Iron.

“’Coach, I just want you to know that you don’t have to make up any accommodations for me,’” he said, recalling their first telephone conversation. “’I’ve been doing this for a long time. I’ve been coaching men’s football for a long time. You can say, do whatever you want. I’m good.’”

Lewis acknowledged that a locker room can have some salty language, and that Locust helped make it that way.

“She’s one of the guys,” he said. “No one holds back anything that they want to say or do. It’s really funny how football kind of transcends. You go from being teammates to family and brothers. That’s what we’ve done here. And she’s one of the guys.”

After 13 years as a coach, Locust said an opportunity presented itself with the Bucs, which gave her a chance to renew acquaintances with Arians. They crossed paths when she was a student at Temple University and he was the football coach.

“I was gonna say five or six years ago in college, but it’s been about 35, 36 (years) since we were at Temple,” she said, laughing. “I was there … when he first came in. And that’s how I know a lot of the assistant coaches — coach (Todd) Bowles, coach (Kevin) Ross and coach (Todd) McNair and coach (Keith) Armstrong.

“That’s another added bonus of being here now, to be reunited with a lot of the guys I knew from Temple and being part of this program.”

Speaking to ESPN.com, Arians said it’s about time females join the ranks of NFL coaches.

“It’s time, and I’ll be happy when it’s not news anymore. … That’s where it should be heading,” said Arians, who hired the NFL’s first female training camp intern, Jen Welter, with the Arizona Cardinals in 2015.

“They’re what we need. The fact that their gender’s different, who gives a s—?” said Arians, noting that players gravitated toward Welter because of her unusual method of teaching.

“I always go back to Dot Murphy at Hinds (Community College) when I was at Mississippi State. She was one of the best receiver coaches I’d ever seen. This was 25 years ago. So my answer (when asked), ‘Can they coach?’ Hell, yeah. I’ve seen it. It’s just getting opportunities.”

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

2 years ago

NCAA Division I track and field championship shows Birmingham’s potential as sports host

(Solomon Crenshaw Jr./Alabama NewsCenter)

Beth Monson sounded a four-fingered whistle as her daughter Alicia Monson rounded the track Friday night at the Birmingham CrossPlex. The mother of the Wisconsin junior said she tried to remain calm as Alicia competed in the women’s 5,000 meters.

But that didn’t last, especially as Alicia advanced through the lead pack on her way to overtaking the leader in the final lap to win the race.

“I was really cool coming into it, but, when she starts running, I swear I’m out there with her,” the Amery, Wisconsin, resident said. “Any parent is feeling the same way for their kid, whether they win or are just here participating. It’s all the same. It’s just a little sweeter when you win.”

612

For two days, parents, friends, teammates and fans rooted for athletes as they competed in the 2019 NCAA Division I indoor track and field championships. For the record, the Southeastern Conference dominated with the women of Arkansas and the men of Florida winning national titles, the second consecutive indoor national crown for the Gator men.

But even before the first shot was put, the first race was run or the first hurdle was cleared, metro Birmingham was already a huge winner.

“That’s a big event for us, obviously,” said David Galbaugh, the vice president of sports sales and marketing at the Greater Birmingham Convention and Visitors Bureau. “We’ve had a great relationship with the NCAA for a while now with their winter championships. We’ve also hosted this event before, but we hosted across all divisions – Divisions I, II and III.

“It’s the premier athletes in terms of indoor track and field that come to your town over the span of this week, so it’s great for us, and it’s great for economic impact,” he continued. “It is significant.”

The estimated economic impact of the championships was nearly $5.4 million. It was livestreamed via ESPN3.

But the impact spanned a greater time than the presence of the top track and field teams in town last week.

“Whatever division we have that year … since it’s Division I this year … we’re going to see more Division I programs coming during the regular season to get acclimated to the track,” said Preston Kirk, the marketing and development manager at CrossPlex. “Next year when we have Division II national championships, we’re going to see a lot of Division II programs coming.”

That pattern was evident last year when CrossPlex was the site of the 2018 Division III national championships.

“It’s not the fact that they’re all coming during the week of the national championship,” Kirk said. “They’re all coming during the regular season because they now know where the national championship is each year.”

Taunita Stephenson, the director of Birmingham CrossPlex, chimed in.

“As we’re having meets leading up to this, then those teams will say, ‘Hey, that’s a good meet for us to hop in because the national championship will be there,’” she said.

Kirk said there is a trickledown effect that goes all the way into high school and club events.

“They want to come and compete where the national championship is,” he said. “When we have a Division I national championship that year, people want to come and compete. No matter if you’re in college, high school or club. They want to come compete where the national championship is that year.”

Faye Oates is commissioner of Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin’s office of sports and entertainment. She said last week’s championships demonstrate what the city of Birmingham can do with the right support.

That support, she said, comes from the corporate community, government and the Convention and Visitors Bureau.

“It is truly a partnership,” she said. “That’s what this DI national championship is. Everybody’s involved to make it happen. As we build this resume, it allows us to go out and recruit more events, and we can show we’ve done lots and lots of comprehensive events.”

Oates said Birmingham has only scratched the surface of its potential to host sports events.

“It’s a teeny, teeny tiny scratch,” she said. “We’ve got a long way to go and I think a lot of that is in our own head. The World Games is a great example. When that was talked about, it was said, ‘Birmingham can’t do that.’

“Here we are two years out,” Oates continued, pointing toward the 2021 World Games coming to Birmingham. “So, it’s a teeny, teeny tiny scratch, but we’re definitely moving in the right direction.”

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

2 years ago

Birmingham’s first professional soccer franchise set to launch Sunday

(Solomon Crenshaw Jr./Alabama NewsCenter)

Chandler Hoffman has played soccer since he was 5 years old and has experienced the opening of soccer seasons for more than two decades.

But Sunday’s beginning is so much more for the Oak Mountain High product. It is the first United Soccer League game ever for the new Birmingham Legion, which hosts the Bethlehem Steel FC at 4 p.m. on BBVA Compass Field at UAB in a game that can be seen locally on My68. The game was originally scheduled for Saturday but was postponed because of a forecast of bad weather.

675

“This one means the most to me because it’s an opportunity to play professionally in the place that I grew up,” said Hoffman, the first player selected for the team. “It’s an opportunity that doesn’t come around very often. This will be the only chance to play the first game for the Birmingham Legion and to be a part of that history and to hopefully make my mark on the game and create a memory that the club can continue to build on.”

Legion President and General Manager Jay Heaps has been involved in tennis most of his life. His father played the sport in college and he has embraced the sport since he could walk.

The 42-year-old played soccer collegiately and professionally before being head coach of Major League Soccer’s New England Revolution and then taking the reins of Birmingham’s USL expansion club.

“It is a bigger undertaking than I had imagined, more fulfilling than I imagined, but also pretty exciting because everyone here has kind of a startup feel,” Heaps said. “Everyone that’s been hired from Day One and then as we add (staffers) has a real impact on what we’re doing. That’s a unique culture to have. Everyone in the office is impacting what the team is doing in the stadium and on the field.”

The plan is for gates to open about 2½ hours before the game begins. The plaza behind the grandstand will feature a festival environment with beverages, food and music.

“The game is what we want everyone to really fall in love with,” the GM said. “Every roll of the ball matters and I think that’s what’s great about soccer. I’m really excited that these fans walk in, experience the pregame plaza. And hopefully will be inspired by our team.”

Heaps said several teams in Major League Soccer, especially reigning MLS champion Atlanta United, reached out to the Legion, wanting to affiliate with the new club. While the offer was flattering, club owners opted to decline.

“We would rather build our own independent team (so) that when we sign players, we know they’re coming to Birmingham because they want to be in Birmingham, not on loan,” Heaps said. “All the players on loan from Atlanta United (would be) coming here and their real job is to get back to Atlanta.

“We want players that live in your communities, are in your schools, their kids are in your schools, their wives are working in your churches,” he continued. “We want to be a fabric of the community, not just in and out during our season.”

Hoffman, 28, was inspired by the notion of coming back home. That was a huge goal of his, he said, to not only be successful on the field but to continue to push soccer forward in the communities of Birmingham.

“Whether it be camps or clinics or working with local clubs, (I want to) help kind of build the next generation of talent and players in Birmingham,” he said, “and give kids something. They can go downtown and see a game and aspire to play at that level one day and to see it’s tangible and to see someone from their area or from their local school that has gone on to do it.”

Hoffman admits it’s a huge responsibility to be the face of a new pro sports operation. He wouldn’t have it any other way.

“I’ve always been the type of person and player that enjoys the pressure,” he said. “Whenever there’s a penalty kick or there’s a big moment, I’ve always been the one that wants to step up. And whether I make it or not, I’ve always been the one that wants to deal with the repercussions and the consequences, or the glory, that comes with that. For me, (Sunday) is a huge opportunity. It’s a home opener and a first in the club’s history. And for me, there’s a lot of excitement about having the ability to score a goal and to give people a reason to come back and to enjoy seeing the Birmingham Legion arrive.”

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

2 years ago

Auburn AD Allen Greene doing a job that’s ‘rewarding beyond measure’

(Todd Van Emst/AU Athletics)

Allen Greene had it all figured out.

“My plan was to be a Hall of Fame Major League Baseball player,” he said. “I had that plan in high school, which is why, when I got to college, I majored in finance because I wanted to manage my money. And I knew I was gonna have a lot of it.”

Baseball was the sport for which Greene, now the athletic director at Auburn University, had been known. He had played football, basketball and soccer, too, but the diamond was where he expected to make his bones.

978

And the native of Bellevue, Washington, in suburban Seattle, was on his way, earning a baseball scholarship to Notre Dame and getting selected by the New York Yankees in the ninth round of the 1998 MLB draft. But after three seasons in the minor leagues, Greene’s plan appeared to derail when he was told he didn’t measure up.

“It was the first time that … I wasn’t good enough,” the 41-year-old said, sitting in his office in the Auburn Athletics Complex. “The reality of me not being good enough, that was the first time I’d ever experienced that. It creates chaos internally because my identity had been wrapped up into sports, baseball specifically, since I was 5 years old. To be 20, 22, 23 years old and my identity had been erased, truncated, if you will.

“How do you navigate that? You’re used to going to a locker room, being with teammates, playing a game, getting paid to play a game,” Greene continued. “Your world revolves around this lifestyle. When that abruptly comes to an end, you find yourself trying to figure out who you are and what you’re going to do.”

This is why Greene, the guy who dreamed of joining Micky Mantle, Willie Mays and Joe Morgan in the Baseball Hall of Fame, wanted to get his college degree. He knew this moment would come.

“I wanted to be as prepared as I possibly could be, to be able to navigate it,” he said. “The plan didn’t work out the way I wanted it to, but it worked out the way that it was supposed to. And I’m very fortunate, fast forward to right now, I’m here today.”

Greene is a year into his tenure as the director of athletics at Auburn. He is the first African-American to be in that position on the Plains and just the third to join that fraternity in the Southeastern Conference.

Greene’s love of baseball and his study of finance could have put him on a path to the front office of a pro franchise. But his experience in professional baseball opened his eyes to how much of a business sports is, and how professional sports wasn’t a fit for him.

“I would much rather spend time helping shape young people and helping shape their lives as opposed to the transactional side of professional sports,” he said. “Honestly, some people want to be a GM, and that’s great for them. But it wasn’t for me. I recognized that intercollegiate athletics was the way for me to have that impact, particularly at a time in my life that I cherished so much as a student athlete. To have the ability to impact 500-plus student athletes. … It’s rewarding beyond measure.”

Greene began his walk beyond the basepaths in the athletics department of Notre Dame, working in development and NCAA compliance from 2003 to 2009.

From there, he was an assistant athletic director at Ole Miss and then was the athletic director for the University of Buffalo.

As an athlete, Greene can relate to that euphoric time when a player of a sport is “in the zone.” He recounted his most memorable game, a basketball contest in which he took a knee to the head as he dove for a loose ball, proudly pointing out the scar over his right eye.

He’s not sure if he lost consciousness then, but he played that way when he returned to the court.

“I came back in the game and I shot the ball like I wasn’t conscious,” he said. “I remember coming back from that injury and playing better, being in the zone. That was a really unique feeling that most athletes don’t get a chance to experience.”

The Auburn AD paused when asked if athletic directors get that feeling, too.

“I find myself moving on quicker than other people,” he said. “If we win, that’s great. But I’m on to the next thing. It’s hard to try to slow down and smell the roses. It’s hard to slow down and just take it in.”

With 15 programs under his charge, Greene is always moving on to the next thing. In truth, there is no offseason for an athletic director, which makes it tough for Greene to follow the “other” seasons in his world.

His 13-year-old daughter, Rian, is playing travel volleyball. His son, Sammy, 11, just wrapped up basketball and is on to baseball while daughter Seneca, 7, is in T-ball. All three play piano.

“I’ve got my three kids and wife (Christy) at home. That’s one family,” he said, “and I’ve got then the Auburn family. For people like me, in order to do our jobs really, really well, we have to sacrifice a whole heck of a lot.”

But the Auburn athletic director isn’t complaining. He accepts it. He embraces it.

“I get up ready to come to work every single day excited because I know that I get to have such a large impact on everybody else, and (what I) try to do is bring my family into my work world as best as I can.”

Greene said being the first African-American athletic director at Auburn “never, never crossed my mind.” He thought carefully about simply being African-American.

Even now, he said, it doesn’t affect his role on the campus. But he acknowledges it could have an impact on student-athletes at Auburn, and beyond.

“I do recognize that me, a person of my profile in this position has a ripple effect throughout not only our league, but our country,” he said. “I’ve gotten more emails than I could guess with young people of color or females wanting to reach out to connect with me just to have some professional development discussions.

“Our student athletes, particularly our young black men, are probably surprised by the hire but I think welcome it because they see someone who looks like them in a prominent position that isn’t necessarily participating in sport or in entertainment.”

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

2 years ago

Birmingham Iron coach Tim Lewis embarks on a new chapter of his career

(Solomon Crenshaw Jr./Alabama NewsCenter)

Cut Day is a painful day on a pro football team, and Tim Lewis knows that as well as anybody.

The 57-year-old has been on the staffs of football teams – either as an assistant or as a coordinator – for 30 seasons. Twenty-two of those seasons were in the pro ranks, where men’s hopes of living the dream of a professional football player were dashed when they were called into an office and told their days with the team were over.

This year was tougher for Lewis than any before. As the head coach of the Birmingham Iron of the Alliance of American Football, he was the one who delivered the bad news to the men who didn’t make the 52-player roster.

1207

“There were a couple of moments where I got choked up and had a difficult time saying goodbye to certain people,” Lewis said. “It is a difficult time. It’s a difficult thing. I’ve never had to do that.

“Although I will say it is a very necessary part of the game and I understand it and they understand it, there’s still a human element to it,” he said. “None of us like to experience it, but it’s a very real part of the game.”

Lewis is experiencing a new part of the game as he prepares to lead the Birmingham Iron into its first game in the AAF, taking on the Memphis Express at 3 p.m. Sunday at Legion Field. As the new league kicks off without a kickoff – as part of league rules – the former Green Bay Packers cornerback embarks on a new part of his professional career.

“When they say that you’re the head coach and you’re responsible for all of them — I care very much about all the players that we’ve got. I care very much about the staff. I try to keep it in perspective. It’s really not about me. It’s really about the team,” he said.

Against the oddsmakers

Lewis is ranked eighth of the eight coaches in the AAF, according to thelastwordonprofootball.com. His lack of head coaching experience is cited as the main reason. Birmingham’s coach says he understands.

“I figured as much,” he said. “When we had the draft over in Las Vegas, they gave us 15-1 odds on winning. I don’t know anything about gambling or odds or anything like that, but I do know that we were dead last.

“I get it,” he continued. “It’s not because of the players. We’ve got a really good team and we’ve got really good players at all the different positions. It’s just because of the coach. I’ve never done it before, so I get that. That’s natural.”

It’s also natural, Lewis said, for those odds and that website ranking of him to be motivation. But thelastwordonprofootball.com isn’t discounting Lewis, either.

“Although Lewis might not have as much experience as the other coaches listed here, he is what this league should best represent,” the site said. “He is a coach that is looking for an opportunity and he will get that shot coaching in the AAF.”

League of opportunity

Iron running back Trent Richardson said it’s about time for Lewis to step into the top role.

“Really, I don’t see why he wasn’t a head coach in the beginning,” the former Alabama Crimson Tiderunner said. “He should have been a head coach a long time ago because of the values that he has, and what he brings to the table is really bringing this team together.”

Lewis teaches his players like he does his three kids, Richardson said, and he cares about all his players.

“He’s a player’s coach and he really listens to the players,” Richardson said. “He actually played the game, so you look at stuff the way he has done stuff, growing up and the great players he has played with and coached … he’s one of the smartest guys out there.”

Lewis relishes the AAF’s nickname as the league of opportunity.

“(That’s) what they’ve been touting and that’s what I believe that they’ve given me, a wonderful opportunity to showcase, to do what I’ve wanted to do for a long time,” he said. “I’m extremely grateful for that opportunity and I plan on making the most of it.”

A life in football

Lewis’ football life took off as a college player at the University of Pittsburgh and continued when he was drafted in the first round of the 1983 NFL Draft, taken 11th overall by the Green Bay Packers.

As a player, Lewis led or shared the lead on the team in interceptions in 1983 and 1985, finishing with a career total of 16. His 99-yard interception return for a touchdown against the Los Angeles Rams on Nov. 18, 1984, remains the Packers team record.

Wearing jersey No. 26, he played four NFL seasons before his playing career was cut short by a severe neck injury suffered during a Monday Night game against the Chicago Bears on Sept. 22, 1986.

The Quakertown, Pennsylvania, native knew from the time he was drafted into the NFL that football would be his life. By spring 1987, the former Pittsburgh Panther was a grad assistant at Texas A&M.

But there were flirtations with other careers. After getting an undergraduate degree in economics, he had stints with Shearson Lehman and EF Hutton. He also fielded a call from Chris Berman and the late Tom Mees about a 24-hour, all-sports cable station, ESPN.

“I didn’t think it would work,” he admitted. “But I did call live from the Packer locker room the year that we drafted Brent Fulwood from Auburn. But I just didn’t follow up on it. And I had interviewed with ABC and NBC but didn’t follow up with it. Of course, I became a coach.”

Lewis’ coaching career began at Texas A&M as a graduate assistant under Jackie Sherrill, who had been his college coach at Pittsburgh. From there, he was:

Football family

With so many coaches in his past, which one has influenced him the most?

“Oh, my goodness, that’s a tough question,” Lewis said. “Bill Cowher was the one that I was with the longest, so I probably pattern myself after him the most. I like coach Jackie Sherrill; he was my college coach. He is still a mentor to me today.”

Lewis and his wife, Shawn, have three children – a 12-year-old son, Bryce, and two daughters, 14-year-old Erin and 10-year-old Chelsea. His cousin is ESPN personality Louis Riddick, who followed him at the University of Pittsburgh. Rob Riddick, Louis’ brother, played professional football with the Buffalo Bills.

Lewis has a sister who lives in Atlanta and a brother, Will, who has one son playing with the Buffalo Bills and another at the University of Colorado prepping for the NFL Draft.

“We’ve come from a long line of football players,” the Birmingham coach said. “In fact, Alan Page is a distant cousin. He played for the Minnesota Vikings, of course, and was one of the Purple People Eaters.” Page began a legal career after his playing days and retired as a Minnesota Supreme Court justice.

Lewis will renew his acquaintance with his brother on Sunday, as Will Lewis is the general manager of the Memphis Express.

“He’s very talented at what he does and he’s been very close to the mountaintop, if you will,” the Iron coach said. “He’s done a fantastic job every place he’s been, and I’m very proud of him and happy to say he’s my brother. But I plan on beating him.”

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

2 years ago

UAB Medical West announces plans to build new facilities in McCalla

(Solomon Crenshaw Jr. /Alabama NewsCenter)

A press conference that would have protested the move of UAB Medical West to Hoover became a celebration as the hospital announced plans to build on property it owns in McCalla.

“UAB Medical West has been at its present site since 1964, 54 years,” Bessemer Mayor Kenneth Gulley said. “If this site is no longer a viable option for the hospital, I pledge to work with Jefferson County and UAB Medical West to build a new, state-of-the-art facility as long as we maintain the best quality healthcare for the western area and remain in the corporate city limits of Bessemer.”

527

Keith Pennington, CEO and president of Medical West, said the hospital bought land off Interstate 459 at Exit 1 in 2017. Shortly thereafter, Hoover approached the hospital about reconsidering its relocation.

“After a lengthy process of evaluating both sites, we feel that our original plans are the best plans for Medical West and our communities,” he said. “We have decided our location.”

While Pennington said there have been no discussions about Bessemer annexing the unincorporated site, Gulley said he feels that move is in the best interest of all concerned.

“Obviously for something of this magnitude, you’re going to need city services in order to make it work,” he said. “When you start talking about police and fire, when you start talking about insurance and things of that nature, a hospital has to be in a municipality.”

The 35- to 40-acre property is contiguous to Bessemer and lies on both sides of Bell Hill Road with its eastern border being near Pocahontas Road.

“We’re in the infancy stage right now,” Gulley said of talks with Medical West.

Pennington said the decision to build at Exit 1 considered several factors, including the locations of other UAB medical facilities, including those at Hueytown, Vance and Medical West Tannehill Health Center.

“Really when you look at the map,” the CEO said, “Exit 1 really puts you right in the center of our market.”

The Rev. Tommie L. Lewis, pastor of Bethel Baptist Church, Pratt City, spoke on behalf of clergy who were invited to the press conference. He said he’s long been an advocate for UAB as a result of his wife’s illness.

“I didn’t want to fall out of love with UAB,” he said. “If they were going to take our hospital and put it somewhere else, then we’d have to put our marching shoes on. I don’t have to tell you the strength that can be garnered from protests and marching.

“If the children of Israel could march through the wilderness to get to the promised land, Mister Mayor, we were ready to march to keep our hospital in our promised land.”

Midfield Mayor Gary Richardson said he strongly believes that if the hospital had gone through with its move to Hoover, it would have set relations between local governments back about 10 years or more.

“This is one of the serious issues of poaching,” he said. “We cannot continue this old thing of those who have get more and those who have less don’t get less.”

Contacted later, Jefferson County Commission President Jimmie Stephens said the county could provide help with the hospital’s move, provided the property is unincorporated.

“But if it is annexed into the city before that property is built upon, I think our hands would be tied in a very similar situation (by which) they were tied with the city of Hoover,” he said. “The entire purpose of incentives is for job creation. It would be very, very difficult to incentivize someone to move within the corporate city limits of any given municipality or move from one municipality to the other. In unincorporated Jefferson County, we’re the only resource that they have for that so it makes it entirely different.”

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

2 years ago

UAB football jerseys to honor Alabama children

(Contributed/Alabama NewsCenter)

Mary Laslie Pike doesn’t play football, but the 10-year-old from Homewood is among 100 youngsters whose names will be on the backs of UAB football players’ jerseys as they host the second installment of their Children’s Harbor Game.

The contest, which highlights children served by Children’s Harbor, will be the Blazers’ Oct. 20 game against North Texas at Legion Field. This year’s game coincides with homecoming on the Southside campus.

“I’ll be really excited and happy,” the Edgewood Elementary student said about the prospect of having her name on a player’s back. “I’ll be really excited.”

343

Coach Bill Clark said his team benefited from the 2017 game honoring patients at Children’s Harbor. The nonprofit organization serves seriously ill children and their families through unique, no-cost services at the Family Center in the Benjamin Russell Hospital for Children in Birmingham and at the Lake Martin retreat near Alexander City.

“This has really ended up better for our players and our coaches, maybe, than for you guys,” Clark said during his Monday news conference. “We talk a lot about playing for not the name on the back but the name on the front, which is UAB. It came to us that this would be a chance to play for the name on the back.”

The 2017 Harbor game was on homecoming, when UAB knocked off Louisiana Tech. In that game, nearly every player wore the name of a child. Quarterback A.J. Erdely was the exception; he wore the word Children.

That changes this year as he’ll wear Jack-Jack, the nickname of former patient Jackson Thomas. The gesture is in memoriam to the 5-year-old who died in 2013 from rhizomelic chondrodysplasia punctata, a form of dwarfism.

His mother, Tracey Thomas, said hearing Jack-Jack’s name and seeing it on Erdely’s jersey are gifts beyond measure.

“He was so limited in his physical abilities,” she said. “He couldn’t walk. He couldn’t talk. He sure couldn’t run down the football field. But these young men on the football team have eyes and they have hearts that they recognize these kids for the warriors that they are and the battles that they’re fighting, that they’re willing to take our kids’ names on the field with them.”

Learden Pike said her daughter Mary Laslie is approaching her second “diaversary,” their term for the anniversary of the fifth-grader’s diagnosis of Type 1 diabetes, formerly called juvenile diabetes.

“I feel very humble being here,” the mother said. “But I also see it as an opportunity to educate others about Type 1 diabetes and show how life can be for you and it’s not over when you get a disease like this.”

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

2 years ago

Alabama athlete Montaeus Bell seeks to inspire others after getting back on his feet from paralysis

(S. Crenshaw Jr./Alabama NewsCenter)

The fact Montaeus Bell was standing before the 2018 graduating class of Montgomery’s Park Crossing High School was remarkable.

“Me only being 20, two years removed from school, what do I really have to say?” Bell pondered. “Then, thinking of my story, I have a lot to say.”

Bell began by recounting the 2015 fatal car accident involving four Park Crossing baseball players. One of those players, Bell said, was paralyzed from the chest down.

981

“He was told he would never walk again,” the speaker said. “Seventeen years of age and a life ahead of him he can barely imagine in a wheelchair.

“Would you believe this same man stands before you today?”

Thus, Bell recounted a three-year life journey back from paralysis. It’s a journey he initially doubted he could complete. But because of the encouragement of his mother, physical and occupational therapists and his mentor Timothy Alexander, Bell is walking toward a bright future. And guiding others.

Just 24 months before talking to graduates at his high school alma mater, Bell was sitting where the graduates were.

A black cane was the only indication that Bell wasn’t still the Park Crossing Thunderbirds ballplayer who was at home at nearly every position on the diamond. But that fateful car ride from practice for the American Legion Post 133 team on May 11, 2015 changed his world.

Bell was behind the wheel. A scant two minutes from their exit, horseplay yielded a loss of control and Bell swerved into a tree.

His friend Trayvon Dixon was killed. Bell was alive but knew he had not escaped injury. It would be two months before he got the news he most dreaded.

The technical term was T4 ASIA A – no motor or sensory function from his chest down. He had fractured his spine at the thoracic level.

Suddenly aspirations of playing baseball in college – or beyond – faded away. He thought his girlfriend would leave and other friends would stop coming by.

“I would just sit back and watch (everyone else) go on with their lives, go to college, start families, get jobs, travel.”

Montaeus’ mother, Andrea Bell, cried when she heard the news about her son, feeling, she said, as though she had been stabbed in the heart. Five minutes after processing the diagnosis, she spoke to him.

“Montaeus, this wheelchair will not be you,” she began. “You will work and you will walk.”

Andrea Bell recalls always telling her son to listen to the doctors and nurses but have total faith in God.

“I had to let Montaeus know that anything was possible, that I believed in him and I believed in God,” she said. “If he would work hard, believe and not give up, anything was possible. I felt if he would not give up in his mind, he would be OK.”

A number of surgeries and medical procedures followed, including a stay at Birmingham’s Spain Rehabilitation Center. It was there that staffers told Bell about Timothy Alexander, the paraplegic athlete who had become the face of UAB football.

Initially, Bell wanted nothing to do with Alexander.

“I don’t want to meet him,” he said. “He’s in a wheelchair.”

Two weeks later, he asked for Alexander to visit him. By this time, Bell had regained some sensation in his legs.

“I went in there and said, ‘Man, what’s up? Get up!’” Alexander recalled, asking if Bell could feel and move his legs. “He said, ‘Yeah, I can.’ I said, ‘That means you’re about to be walking soon. Forget what the doctors told you. How bad do you want it?’”

Alexander said he knows exactly how Bell felt. He was given the same grim news after a car crash in October 2006.

“That’s why I do what I do,” the former Erwin High football standout said. “The doctor comes in the room and tells you, ‘You’ll never do this’ or ‘You’ll never do that.’ I know how it feels to be depressed and suicidal and down because they gave up on you just like that.

“I told myself once I got myself well and got myself free and got my life back to a place of happiness, I would remember those dark times and I would use those dark times to inspire the world.”

He certainly inspired Bell, now a UAB junior taking summer classes at Lawson State Community College. The former baseball player had planned to study physical therapy; now he has a major in communications and a minor in business.

The Park Crossing product decided to tell his story, and the 2018 Park Crossing graduation was where he would step out. He contacted the faculty for the opportunity to speak, and later invited his mother and grandfather to be there, but he didn’t tell them why.

“I cannot believe that Montaeus did that,” said Andrea Bell, who only realized her son’s role when he took a seat on the platform. Once he sat, he sent her a text: “Record this.”

“I was in tears,” she recalled. “I knew that he struggled within with some things but he didn’t want me to worry. Some of the stuff I knew, but he’s a closed book, kind of private.”

The wheelchair Bell feared might define the rest of his life has been donated to Children’s of Alabama hospital. That’s only one connection to Children’s, where he mentors patients who have injuries similar to his own.

Said Bell, “That’s what I see myself doing. Not to take the light away from the graduating class, but that was also my graduation, to go out and speak in front of all those people.”

Alexander couldn’t have been happier to see the man he mentors step across the stage to inspire the graduates.

“I feel great,” said Alexander, an inspirational speaker and the director of character and education for UAB Football. “I’m walking through people in this world who are using my words that I tell them. They’re taking action through the words that I gave them. That means the world to me.”

Alexander got married about a month ago to the former Kayla Marie Bryant. He didn’t walk down the aisle, but he did provide another inspiring moment.

“I was able to stand up for the first time ever (since his accident) for about 15 to 20 minutes,” he said. “I didn’t walk down the aisle, but I surprised my wife when I stood up for our ceremony.

“She cried,” Alexander recalled. “She was in shock.”

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

3 years ago

Alabama figure skater-turned-coach back home after Olympic, World Championships run

(S. Crenshaw Jr./Alabama NewsCenter)

John Zimmerman IV says he wears his emotions on his sleeve. They were never more apparent than they were recently as he spoke at the  Homewood Grown fundraiser for Homewood schools.

“There are certain trigger points that just overwhelm me,” the Homewood native said. “I hold dear to what people do, how they support you. I think about it as they do it and I appreciate it.

502

“Being in this environment, seeing all the great work teachers are doing, you are impacted by watching them touch lives.”

The figure skater-turned-coach was most moved as he talked about former Homewood High School Principal Jack Farr, who adjusted Zimmerman’s curriculum to allow him to pursue his dream. He followed that dream, with skating partner Kyoko Ina, to a fifth-place finish in the 2002 Olympics in pairs figure skating and a third-place showing that year in the World Championships.

“I found a few old stories but the main impact was the vision the principal, Jack Farr, had for me in the mid-‘80s,” he said. “It wasn’t the norm, especially in the pre-Internet age, to have that vision.”

These days, Zimmerman lives in Wesley Chapel, Florida, which is part of the Tampa Bay metro area. He and his wife, Italian-American skater Silvia Fontana, have two daughters, Sofia and Eva, and a son, John Luther, who’s known to most as Jack.

The couple teach and coach figure skating in Wesley Chapel but Zimmerman’s coaching has taken him to the same heights he reached as a skater.
He coached the French team of Morgan Ciprès and Vanessa James to a fifth-place showing in the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea.

Shortly thereafter, the coach and his skaters were getting set for the World Championships in Milan, Italy. Their preparation for that event was complicated by a commitment to skate in an exhibition in Grenoble, France, for the French Federation.

Their dream of earning a medal at the World Championships took a hit when Ciprès hurt his neck, which kept him from performing any of the lifts in their routine.

“(They did) just enough to get through the obligation they had to do in France,” Zimmerman said. “When they got back, there were 2½ weeks before we had to leave (for the World Championships). He couldn’t move at all. My sister’s a massage therapist and we had the Tampa Bay Lightning chiropractor working on him for about a week. They finally got enough movement going so he could do a few lifts right before we left.”

The pair wound up placing third at the World Championships, coincidentally matching what Zimmerman and Ina had done in their competitive days.

“Now they plan to stay for another year or two, as opposed to retiring as they thought they were going to do,” Zimmerman said. “They are finally feeling their groove and they’re going to stick with it for a while. Maybe we can get the world title.”

The coach is pleased to continue his work in Wesley Chapel. But there was talk of him coming home to Homewood.

“The to-be-continued thing would be if we could get an ice rink built in Homewood,” he said. “We joke about it in conversations on nights like this, but I think that would be interesting to talk about in the future.

“They joke about trying to get me back,” he continued. “They need to build an ice rink to get me back. I’d help them plan that out.”

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

3 years ago

In its 15th year, Barber Motorsports Park runs laps around other venues

(Barber Motorsports Park and Museum)

When it comes to the Barber Motorsports Park and Museum, Birmingham has few rivals.

“We can do this or that and we’ll have to compete with Atlanta or Nashville or Memphis because they have the same sort of thing,” Don Erwin said, recalling the words of founder George Barber. “’I want to do something for Birmingham where Birmingham won’t have to compete with those other cities.’ He built something that’s a little bit unique.”

Erwin and others opened the gates of the motorsports park to media for a look inside one of the most popular attractions in Alabama. Like most days of the year, there was other activity, including testing by IndyCar drivers preparing for one of the venue’s signature events in a few weeks.

493

Barber Motorsports Park and Museum turn 15 years old this year. The park opened in January 2003 and the museum opened in October of that year. The U.S. product debut of the Porsche Cayenne sport utility vehicle was the first event on the campus.

“This facility is set to operate forever,” said Erwin, vice president of corporate development for Barber Companies. “It’s not something that’ll go away when George goes away. It’s a permanent sort of thing. That’s George’s intention.”

George Barber is the visionary who dreamed up the park and museum that sit on the eastern edge of Birmingham, adjacent to Leeds. Erwin recalls Barber telling him the aim was to “create something for which there would be no rival.”

The facility employs about 95 people at the Barber Museum, Barber Motorsports Park, Porsche Sport Driving School, Mercedes-Benz Brand Immersion Experience, Five Star Catering, Event Operations Group, T.C. Maintenance and Zoom Motorsports, which manages events.

The museum and park generated 95,423 hotel room-nights of occupancy in 2017. From 2003 to 2016, the facility had a $1.6 billion tourism impact with more than 2.75 million visitors.

It also generated $149 million in state tax revenue and $41 million in local tax revenue.

“When you have a unique attraction that’s very high quality, it gives you more leverage in terms of attracting things,” Erwin said. “If you go to TripAdvisor.com, as long as I’ve been looking at the website, they’ve had the Barber Museum ranked as the top tourist attraction in Birmingham.”

In January, USA Today ranked the Barber Museum as the top Alabama attraction in its poll of readers. Google Trips, which last fall didn’t have the Barber venue ranked in its top 10 attractions, recently had it ranked No. 2 behind the Birmingham Zoo.

Guinness World Records recognized the Barber Museum as being the largest motorcycle museum in the world. The Porsche Driving School is the largest such school in the world, 30 percent larger than Germany’s.

And the venue boasts the largest collection of Lotus racecars.

The park and museum’s popularity comes despite being not well known to many in metro Birmingham. People know of events, like the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama that annually draws about 80,000 spectators in early April, but they often don’t know the rest of the story.

“Most people don’t realize things are happening on the track 270 days a year,” Erwin said. “And things are happening in the museum virtually every day of the year, sometimes multiple events.”

He said many people come to Alabama for the 150 to 160 days a year that Porsche is having its driving school.

“People are flying in from California, New York, Texas and all over the place to take a driving school in Birmingham, Alabama,” he said. “Probably the ultimate is the Barber Vintage Festival in the fall, where we have 75,000 people over three days and 85 percent of them are from out of state.”

The best views of the track are available from the two new bridges to the museum. Other additions are a waterfall, proving ground, and obstacle and off-road courses.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)