I’m delving into the “rewrite and polish” stage of my book, which is under the working title Cheers Through The Years: My Hot (And Sometimes Cold) Bromance With Birmingham Pro Football.
My tribute to the Magic City’s outdoor pay-for-play gridiron teams primarily deals with the World Football League (Americans and Vulcans), United States Football League (Stallions), World League of American Football (Fire), Canadian Football League (Barracudas), XFL (Bolts) and Alliance of American Football (Iron).
(The Birmingham Kings of the Freedom Football League likely won’t make it into the book since I hope to have it published by next June and they plan to start in May, 2020).
Anyway, part of the rewrite process has involved revisiting each team, and I’ve come to the conclusion that the one-and-done season of the Barracudas might be the one that blindsided me the most.
And looking back on it, maybe it was ultimately the most heartbreaking for me.
Before I get to that, it should be noted that I’ll always pine for the Americans, Vulcans and Stallions; the WFL gave my hometown its own “real” pro football team for the first time, and the USFL franchise was as close to an NFL-caliber club that we’ve ever had.
I have half a room’s worth of memorabilia devoted to them, and will gladly talk about both leagues and all three teams for hours.
My feelings aren’t as strong for three of the other franchises that came and went.
The Fire just never captured my imagination because, frankly, their games were boring and I wasn’t yet ready to buy into “developmental league” football.
I thought the XFL was sleazy and it didn’t help that Birmingham was the worst team in the league.
I was basically over the XFL’s first iteration a week into its 2001 season.
And while I got into the AAF this past spring and enjoyed keeping up with and writing about the Iron, nearly two months after their demise I’ve mostly forgotten about them.
They weren’t around long enough for me to develop any kind of attachment.
The Barracudas, though, were different from them all – or at least I thought they would be.
Unlike all the other leagues that were upstarts, in 1995 Birmingham had finally joined up with a circuit that was established. Seriously, it made me as happy as I would’ve been had the NFL set up shop at Legion Field.
Yeah, the “American experiment” was still new, but the CFL was founded in 1958, combining the Interprovincial Rugby Football Union and Western Interprovential Football Union into one professional league.
The first CFL season was comprised of the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, Montreal Alouettes, Ottawa Rough Riders and Toronto Argonauts in one division and British Columbia Lions, Calgary Stampeders, Edmonton Eskimos, Saskatchewan Roughriders and Winnipeg Blue Bombers in the other.
All but Ottawa were still around when Birmingham joined Baltimore, Memphis, San Antonio and Shreveport as the CFL’s U.S.-based squads, and I firmly believed Birmingham had found a pro football home it could buy instead of rent short-term.
Baltimore had proven to be a success on the field and at the box office, and I was confident the Magic City would and could duplicate it. “We” had plenty of great offensive weapons like quarterback Matt Dunigan, wideout Marcus Grant and slotback Jason Phillips, so I felt like the Barracudas would outscore most teams in the league.
Throw in my town’s passion for the game and the CFL’s staying power, and this was a perfect union.
Except, of course, it wasn’t.
I used my excitement as an excuse to ignore the fact that the CFL in America just wasn’t working out, financially or otherwise. And I’m embarrassed because I had been working at a daily newspaper for eight years by the time the CFL came to town. As a reporter I should’ve been paying more (and better) attention.
Truth is, except for Baltimore, none of the United States teams maintained workable fan support. By the time the college and NFL seasons began, they were largely ignored.
Birmingham’s final home game at Legion Field was played on Thursday, October 19, against Edmonton.
The hosts won, 45-18, with only 8,910 fans watching.
Two weeks earlier in a 38-28 victory over San Antonio, 6,859 fans came to watch and on Oct. 1 the Cudas beat Shreveport, 34-20, with a mere 7,404 in the stadium.
It was the first time Birmingham sports fans had basically bailed on one of their pro football teams. It was also jarring that “our” franchise folded (finishing 10-9 with a first round playoff loss) while the league played on. That was a first, and didn’t fit into the tried and true narrative of, “The league failed us … we didn’t fail the league.”
I was bummed when the Barracudas (and the rest of the American CFL teams) went belly-up. I fell in love with Canadian football 20 years earlier and was ecstatic that Birmingham had become a part of it.
Then, just like that, it was over.
Oh, I still love the CFL – now more than ever – and I’ll make an effort to support any pro football team that decides to call my home its home.
But barring some bizarre and unforeseen development, Birmingham will never be part of the Canadian Football League again.
That makes me kinda sad.