With no live sports taking place due to the pandemic, all we can do is eye a future when they return and relive great moments from their past.
ESPN has reminded us how cathartic looking back can be thanks to its “The Last Dance” mini-series documentary. And aside from that, I haven’t been shy about jumping on YouTube and finding old clashes from the North American Soccer League and United States Football League.
Sometimes when you watch these events, you realize just how many details you’ve forgotten over time.
Anyway, all this has prompted me to do a lot of thinking (and a little research) and recall the first times I saw sporting events live. Turns out it was a fun mental exercise, and I highly recommend it.
Obviously there are some that I can’t pinpoint; the first times I saw college baseball and college soccer were when I was a student at UAB, but I don’t remember specific dates. However, there are other firsts that really stand out.
So even though I don’t expect you to care about my fan milestones, maybe this will at least inspire you to take a stroll down your own lane of memories.
Here are mine – presented in chronological order:
Virginia Tech vs. Alabama (September 19, 1970, at Legion Field).
When I woke up that morning I thought my dad was taking me to see Jacksonville State vs. Samford at Seibert Stadium, which was very exciting for me since I’d never been to a college football game. In fact, the only live football games I’d seen were the ones I played in as a member of the L.M. Smith elementary school YMCA league team.
You can imagine my disappointment when he came to my room about an hour before we were supposed to leave and told me we weren’t going.
Ah, but it was a trick play.
Before I could reach the eye watering, lip trembling stage, he produced tickets to the Alabama-Virginia Tech game, set for that night at Legion Field.
Alabama won, 51-18, but I don’t remember details – just feelings. And sitting in a football cathedral with my dad made me feel like I was the luckiest kid who ever lived.
Southern California Sun at Birmingham Americans (July 10, 1974, at Legion Field).
I was a big pro football fan and the New York Jets were my favorite team. That all changed on a hot night in Birmingham when the World Football League debuted.
Sitting between my dad and brother, I watched the Americans take an 11-7 victory over the visitors and could finally brag that I had seen a professional football game live and in person.
It also led to an obsession with the WFL that remains today.
Oakland A’s at Birmingham A’s (March 15, 1975, at Rickwood Field).
OK, I’m cheating a bit here. The American League team and defending World champions were slated to play their Southern League farm club on this night, which was to be the first time I had ever watched a live game involving a major or minor league team. But lightning knocked out a bank of lights at the stadium, and inclement weather prevented the game from being played.
But, I got second baseman Phil Garner’s autograph, watched Reggie Jackson and Billy Williams take BP, and saw Vida Blue throw some pitches, so I’m counting it.
*Technically the first pro baseball game I saw was on April 14, 1981, when the Birmingham Barons defeated the Jacksonville Suns, 6-5, at Rickwood Field.
Atlanta Flames at Birmingham Bulls (September 21, 1976, at the Birmingham-Jefferson Civic Center Coliseum).
Once I found out the World Hockey Association’s Toronto franchise was relocating to Birmingham, I read anything and everything I could about ice hockey. And my, oh, my, did this game get me hooked.
Taking on the National Hockey League Flames at the brand new Civic Center, the Bulls’ Mark Napier (already a star at age 19) scored a hat trick – his last goal coming with 46 seconds left in sudden death – to give Birmingham a 7-6 victory.
It was just an exhibition game but it made me realize what a glorious sport this was.
Western Michigan vs. Alabama (December 28, 1976, at the Birmingham-Jefferson Civic Center Coliseum).
I first got interested in college hoops when Pete Maravich played at LSU, but my exposure to the game was confined to watching it on TV.
But my brother gave me an early birthday present and took me to see undefeated and No. 4-ranked Alabama play Western Michigan in the first basketball game ever staged at the Civic Center.
I was part of a sellout crowd that watched the Crimson Tide take an 83-74 victory.
Stroh’s Roundball Classic (July 9, 1983, at the Birmingham-Jefferson Civic Center Coliseum).
Here’s another case where I’m blurring the lines. The Stroh’s Roundball Classic was basically just a summer tour of NBA players who played defense-free exhibition games across the country. The stop they made in Birmingham featured stars like Magic Johnson, Isiah Thomas and Dominique Wilkins.
The cool part for me is that I was covering the game for my college newspaper (the Kaleidoscope) and got to interview Johnson.
I can’t recall who won (not that it mattered), but the winning team scored 182 points and Wilkins had at least 20 thunderous dunks.
New Orleans Riverboat Gamblers at Birmingham Grasshoppers SC (June 6, 1993, at Birmingham-Southern College).
Birmingham fielded a team in the United States Interregional Soccer League (which evolved into what is now known as the United Soccer League) in the early 1990s, and that gave me a chance to support my hometown club.
It was composed mostly of Birmingham-Southern players and it really wasn’t professional, but since it grew into a league that is, I decided to grandfather it in and define it as “pro” soccer. In an effort to spark my nephew’s interest in the Beautiful Game, I took him to see the Gamblers and Grasshoppers mix it up on a brutally hot Sunday afternoon.
New Orleans scored a 2-1 victory.
Welp, that’s all I got. Now it’s your turn …