To The “Old Gray Lady”: An Ode to Historic Legion Field
I still remember the first time I ever saw Legion Field.
About 15 years ago, my dad took me to the PapaJohns.com Bowl – a matchup between South Florida and East Carolina. Even before that game, my mother, who was an Alabama alumna, told me stories of her friends road-tripping to the “Old Gray Lady” to see Alabama play Tennessee.
Frankly, it’s hard to ignore the history that covers the stadium located on Graymont Avenue in Birmingham. Between the massive parking lots, the intimidating lion statues at the front of the entrance and the massive spirals leading to the upper decks, the aura of the venue oozes football history.
Since Legion Field was erected in 1927, it has stood tall in the Steel City as a landmark for Alabama sports. The Crimson Tide played a majority, if not all of their home games at the stadium through most of the 20th century.
From 1948 until 1988, the stadium hosted every single Iron Bowl game. The SEC even held their first conference championship in 1992 – an Alabama victory over Florida that many claim “saved college football.”
The legacy of Legion Field grew so big, in fact, that it garnered the nickname the “Football Capital of the South.”
As the years passed, Legion Field even started to host other sports, including college football bowl games, various Alabama professional football teams and high school football games from schools around downtown. The 1996 Olympics, based in Atlanta, even chose the Old Gray Lady as a location for the qualifiers of the soccer tournament.
Unfortunately for fans of the venue, the stadium eventually grew into disrepair. Alabama slowly stopped hosting home games at Legion Field, before holding their last game in Birmingham in 2003.
The UAB Blazers football team was the primary tenant of the stadium from 1991 until 2020. Then, after UAB lost their program in 2014, the Blazers returned to national prominence in 2017-20 with four straight winning seasons, including two Conference-USA championships.
This national prominence was good for the struggling UAB program but ultimately meant death for the Old Gray Lady.
In 2019, the Birmingham-Jefferson Center Authority broke ground on Protective Stadium in the Uptown district of Birmingham. Protective Stadium is expected to be ready for the 2021 football season, which leaves Legion Field with no primary resident. With no real reason to maintain upkeep on the stadium, Alabamians are witnessing the stadium’s slow demise.
This past weekend featured UAB’s spring game – their final appearance at Legion Field.
While there may be no permanent tenants at Legion Field going forward, there is one event on the calendar scheduled for the Old Gray Lady. The Magic City Classic between Alabama A&M and Alabama State has long been played at the stadium – and the contract with the venue lasts until 2022 – but this might not be for long.
In AL.com’s article covering the altered spring edition of the game this weekend, reporter Roy Johnson notes that Southwestern Athletic Conference commissioner Charles McClelland is neutral, but skeptical, on the decision of the venue.
“Other than ASU and A&M being in the SWAC and the game has to be played, that is where our jurisdiction stops," McClelland said. “It’s a game with 70,000 attendees with another 30,000 outside. How will Protective Life handle that?”
The massive Legion Field, which can seat just under 72,000 fans, also has space for activities and tailgating outside of the stadium. The new Protective Stadium only holds around 41,000 fans.
McClelland also noted that he has been in talks about bringing other schools in the conference to the venue.
“We do have plans of bringing some football games [to Legion Field]," he said. "We’re not there yet but with the addition of [Florida A&M] and Bethune Cookman, we will have some games. We are working with the city to keep Legion Field in the mix.”
Still, the Magic City Classic is just one game. No teams – high school and college football, or even other sports – are expected to play any more games at Legion Field.
The future is here, and it is named Protective Stadium. When the World Games come to Birmingham in 2022, the new stadium will be the main venue. In addition, the AHSAA has now added Protective Stadium into a three-year loop for the Super 7 football championships.
Even still, we choose to never forget Legion Field. It has long been a historic monument for sports in the state of Alabama, and the Crimson Tide has many memories to associate with the Old Gray Lady.
Although it’s sad to say it, so long Legion Field. It’s been a wonderful ride, and we’ll never forget you.