As I get older, I find myself trying to carefully negotiate the bridge that connects my past with my present. The fun part, of course, is looking back and realizing sometimes I can still see where my journey started – and where it’s headed.
I’m a sports fan so teams, leagues, times and dates serve as logical links, and every once in a while I can impress myself by recalling a score from a football game I saw 50 years ago.
But I’ve also always been fascinated by venues, and one of the first things I did when I moved back to Birmingham was revisit my old haunts. I drove by an empty Legion Field, where I saw my first college football game, and later visited Rickwood Field – the nation’s oldest pro baseball ballpark but a place I remember best as being the site of the first youth football game I ever participated in. I can still almost taste the infield dirt I swallowed when I helped churn it up while blocking (or at least trying to block) on a kickoff return.
Then there’s the building formerly known as the Birmingham-Jefferson Civic Center Coliseum, now called Legacy Arena and currently being renovated as one of the jewels of the Uptown entertainment district. It’s where I watched my first college basketball game as well as my first professional hockey game (and saw my first concert – Boston with Sammy Hagar opening).
But during my two months back in the Magic City one stop had been absent from my nostalgia tour – Lawson Field.
In truth the city-owned facility, designed primarily for high school football, hadn’t crossed my mind much in the last, oh, 40-something years. I did a little research and discovered that before last Saturday I hadn’t been there since November 9, 1979. That was the night I watched my alma mater, the Huffman Vikings, edge the Hueytown Golden Gophers, 14-13. Back then Lawson Field was the home stadium for a handful of Birmingham high schools and a great cheap date locale because tickets to a prep game were a dollar. So for the low, low price of $2 you could take your sweetie to the ballgame and kill two and half hours on a Friday night before going “parking.”
Alas, once my high school days were done, there was no compelling reason to go back to the stadium. Once I entered college my Fridays were otherwise occupied, and as the years passed Lawson Field simply became a thing of my past.
It briefly returned to my radar thanks to a Dixie Football League game between the Birmingham Suns and Panama City Pirates played there in October, 1982. I had no interest in the semi-pro league – didn’t even know it existed, to be honest – but read about a Birmingham player accidentally shooting his coach in the leg when he pulled a pistol and fired it toward the ground in an effort to break up a postgame fight at Lawson Field.
I really don’t know why a player was packing heat on the sidelines, but often wonder if it inspired that ridiculous opening scene in “The Last Boy Scout” when a running back shoots three players trying to tackle him.
At any rate, I moved on with my life and Lawson Field moved on with its nightlife, continuing to host high school football, the Birmingham Steel Magnolias of the Women’s Football Association, the Alabama Warriors of the Premier South Football League, and serving as the practice facility for the Birmingham Steeldogs of AF2. The memories made over those years at the 7,500-seat stadium were not memories made by me, and I never felt like I was missing out on anything.
But jump to September 11, 2021, and the stadium (built in 1968) gave me something to remember 42 years since I last visited it: I watched FC Birmingham top Legacy Heroes FC, 1-0, in a Pioneer Premier League soccer match.
It was the first live sporting event I’d been to since coming home and I enjoyed it, but I was also surprised at how familiar Lawson Field seemed to me.
The gravel parking lot – complete with a ditch you have to carefully drive over to get to your makeshift spot – appeared largely unchanged from 1979. So did the concession building, press box and stands on both the home and visitors’ side.
Obviously the aluminum bleachers have been replaced, but technology hasn’t changed aluminum bleachers much over the decades, so the experience was the same.
The large grass hills on either side of the home stands were still unspoiled by construction. During a packed high school game they served as playgrounds and nature slides for kids who were more interested in playing than watching older kids play ball.
I spent the first half sitting on the home side and the second from the vantage point of the visitors, and both were a comfortable fit. I fought the urge to slide down the hill because at my age that would’ve been ridiculous and possibly deadly.
The biggest changes were the playing surface itself, which is now artificial turf, and the nice, rubberized track circling around it. I did notice that one of the goalposts had wonky uprights, so that might be something for maintenance to look into going forward.
The bottom line is that if FC Birmingham didn’t call Lawson Field home, my 42-year streak of staying away would still be intact. But since they do, the time between my last visit and next won’t be nearly as long. Turns out the journey I started on this particular bridge isn’t over just yet.