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UAB fans get first glimpse of revived program at Blazers' open practice

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- Fifteen months removed from its last football game, UAB opened its first spring practice since university officials decided to resuscitate the program last June.

Although the Blazers will not play again for 18 months -- 544 days to be exact, when Alabama A&M visits Legion Field next Sept. 2 -- coach Bill Clark and his staff are gradually piecing together their program once again. They gave the public its first glance at their revived program on Saturday by holding an open practice in place of a spring game.

“It’s like another box we need to check,” Clark said. “Like I told guys, it’s just a regular practice for us because we only have 67 guys. ... It’s physical, but we don’t take [ball carriers] to the ground. We just don’t have that kind of depth. I don’t do a lot of that anyway because you protect them as much as you can. But people can see how we practice and all that stuff and hopefully be excited by it.”

Judging by the estimated crowd of 2,500 fans who showed up, joined by the band, cheerleaders and dance team, optimism abounds among those wearing green and gold.

Some hung around to tailgate in the parking lot after the practice, flying “Free UAB” flags and watching on TV as the men’s basketball team notched its school-record 26th win of the season by beating Florida Atlantic.

Some fans instead watched the “Sons of UAB” flag football game, featuring former lettermen like NFL players Roddy White and Joe Webb.

All of them were glad to see another Blazers team wearing helmets and shoulder pads -- a sight that many of them never expected to see again once UAB president Ray Watts announced at the end of the 2014 season that the school would disband its football, bowling and rifle teams.

“It’s awesome to see that they’re just as excited as we are to play next season,” defensive lineman Shaq Jones said.

That seems to be a common sentiment among Blazers players, who regularly get pats on the back from fans around Birmingham who see them wearing UAB football gear. A bitter battle followed Watts’ initial announcement that UAB football was not financially viable and that the school would become the first FBS-level program to disband since 1995. The school reversed course a few months later following further study, creating the feel-good vibe that currently surrounds the program.

“There’s not a place in Birmingham I can go wearing UAB attire -- anything that says UAB football or anything like that associated with football -- and fans [aren't] like, ‘We’re excited’ and ‘We’re happy,’” Jones said.

And this time, UAB intends to do it right. The city’s business leaders and program’s boosters have pledged financial support that the program never enjoyed before. The school is halfway through the process of raising funds to build a $15.3 million facility to house the football building, replacing the Blazers’ battered old fieldhouse.

The new building is tentatively slated to open in the summer of 2017, just before Clark’s team opens preseason camp.

The team has a dreary slate of practices ahead without any games to look forward to for the next year. However, once the roster expands further with 30 more scholarship players this summer, Clark plans to simulate game situations as best he can with scrimmages for the team and fans this fall.

“We’re going to play a scrimmage game at the end of August, we’re going to play one in October and we’re going to play one at the end [of the fall],” Clark said. “They’re going to be as game-like as we can make it: the band, cheerleaders, the fans, fireworks after. ... We want to practice, we want to have scrimmages and then hopefully we look up and it’s like December and January and we’re like everybody else.”

That’s the best way to approach the situation the Blazers find themselves in, said offensive lineman Lee Dufour.

He could be preparing for the upcoming season, having transferred to South Alabama after UAB disbanded the program, but Dufour returned as soon as he learned Blazers football was coming back. Waiting another 18 months to play another game is a small price to pay when he will get to do so for a program he has grown to love.

“You almost can’t think of it like 500-and-something days,” Dufour said. “You think of it as, ‘All right, we’ve got one more spring training, two more fall camps and then we’re playing a game.’”