Florence, Alabama. Corner of Stadium and Royal. December 11, 1993. The most cherished memory of my childhood. The greatest football game I ever saw.
Sixteen years ago. My dad trying to find a place to park that old Datsun pickup. Walking to the stadium with him through the old Coffee High School campus. Cold day. Seeing that white and blue structure on the horizon. Block letters on the facade: Braly Municipal Stadium. For decades, the home field of the North Alabama Lions. Since 1986, the host site of the NCAA Division II National Championship game. A game that UNA was playing in for the very first time.
15,631. That’s how many fans crammed into that stadium on that day — 2,631 over capacity. The city was shut down. Nervous. Anticipating. Hoping. For the next three hours, we all held our breath.
I spent the whole of last Saturday on the road, trying to piece together these memories from my childhood. I was on my way, for the first time since that cold December day 16 years ago, to take in a football game at Braly Municipal Stadium. UNA and West Georgia.
The circumstances were different, to be sure. A frigid December morning was now a muggy September evening. There was no trophy on the line, no playoff atmosphere in the stands. It was just UNA versus a crummy team in a meaningless mid-season game. Bobby Wallace wasn’t roaming the sidelines for the Lions anymore, Terry Bowden was. The town wasn’t giddy with anticipation, no pins and needles. The parking lot at Regency Square Mall was full an hour and a half before kickoff. The local Best Buy was overrun. People going about their business. After all, West Georgia had lost 17 straight games and UNA was the No. 3 ranked team in Division II football. A win for the Lions was a foregone conclusion.
But I didn’t go up to Florence to see UNA play West Georgia, specifically. I went to see Florence. I went to relive an epic childhood memory. I went to see where my career in sports began. I went to see Braly Municipal Stadium.
My dad had taken me there back in 1989 to see my first live football game. I was five years old. His alma mater — one of his alma maters, rather — was playing for the Division II title. We were there to pull for Mississippi College. It had snowed a couple of inches the day before, keeping temperatures in the low 30s on game day. I don’t remember much of what happened (MC won 3-0 over Jacksonville State) outside of being cold. My dad loves to tell the story of me crawling into the space between his chest and his parka and cocooning myself there, away from the icy wind, for most of the afternoon.
North on I-65, northwest on 157, north on 72. Cross the O’Neil Bridge. Court Street. Hicks Boulevard. Royal Avenue. Braly Stadium. Just like old times. A few more seats, a few new coats of paint. Some upgrades to the press box. New scoreboard. But, much like the rest of Florence, it still looks a lot like the town my family left for good back in 1994. I cried the day we left. After all, this was my hometown; not by definition, mind you, but by choice. Still is. A place where the fondest memories of my childhood are suspended in ionic liquid.
That day in 1993, ample sunshine made the cold somewhat tolerable. Still, the chill was harsh enough that fans shared blankets with each other in the stands. Across the way in the visitors’ stands were the fans of Indiana University of Pennsylvania or IUP. Silver and red. Hated those colors that day. Our town was purple and gold and white, UNA’s colors. Those were the colors hanging from the lamp posts, emblazoned on car bumpers, painted on the faces of fans. I wore it. My dad wore it. Purple and gold and white.
UNA and IUP had little in common going into that championship game, aside from both being 13-0. Each team relied primarily on the run, but the Indians were far more two-dimensional than the Lions. UNA employed a triple-option offense, relying on the fleet feet of running backs Tyrone Rush and Brian Satterfield and the intelligence of quarterback Cody Gross. The Lions’ game plan in short: Jump ahead early, control the clock, punish with defense and play everything close to the vest. No mistakes. Be disciplined. More often than not, the plan worked to perfection, as UNA usually had control of their opponents by the end of the third quarter. In fact, through 13 games that season, UNA had trailed only once in the fourth quarter.
The problem with keeping the ball on the ground and chewing up clock, of course, is that it’s awfully hard to play your way back into a game when it starts to get away from you. And as the third quarter came to a close in Florence on that December afternoon, the game was beginning to get away from UNA.
The Lions trailed 24-14 in the fourth quarter. The anticipation we had felt when we entered and the exuberance we experienced when UNA took an early 14-3 lead, was giving way to desperation and edging into disappointment. IUP took their first lead of the game, 17-14, early in the third quarter, capping off an 11-play, 84-yard drive with a two yard touchdown pass. For only the fourth time that season, the Lions were playing from behind in the second half. But, instead of methodically running their patented option offense, UNA panicked and started throwing. Over the next three drives, Gross connected on one of three pass attempts for minus one yard. His late third quarter fumble set up an easy touchdown drive for the Indians, putting them ahead by 10.
After another three-and-out to begin the fourth quarter, IUP took over with good field position and a 10-point lead. But UNA held and forced a three-and-out of their own. It was on the ensuing punt attempt when Israel Raybon delivered “The Block.” The Lions’ other star defensive player (playing alongside future NFL great Ronald McKinnon) shot through the line and blocked John McGhee’s punt, setting UNA up at the IUP 28. As Raybon carried the ball gleefully back to the sidelines and Gross led the offense back on the field, the momentum swung hard back to the home stands. All at once the players, the fans and the city shook off that desperation and disappointment. We knew then, without any shred of doubt, that UNA would win. They would find a way.
Three plays later, Gross connected on a 24-yard touchdown pass to Demetrea Shelton to pull the Lions within four points. Then the defense came through with another stop. Gross then completed a 41-yard pass to Michael Edwards, setting up Satterfield’s seven-yard scoring run on the following play. UNA was back on top, 27-24, with just over eight minutes to go. IUP’s next drive netted 15 yards on five plays; another punt. UNA then drove 78 yards on seven straight rushes, capping off the series with a Satterfield touchdown run from 20 yards out. In just over 10 minutes, UNA had outscored IUP 20-0. The fans wearing purple and gold and white were in a frenzy.
But IUP was a scrappy bunch. Over the next two and a half minutes, the Indians would cap a 70-yard, nine-play drive with a touchdown, recover an on-side kick attempt, and tie the game on a 34-yard field goal with just under a minute remaining. Overtime looked like a foregone conclusion.
But UNA, a team with an offense more conservative than Michele Bachmann, somehow found a way to drive 68 yards in five plays down to the IUP one-yard line. With 10 seconds remaining, Gross dove into a writhing pile of purple and gold and white, silver and red, and edged the ball across the stripe. Final score: UNA 41, IUP 34. We exhaled. We celebrated. The greatest game I ever saw. Likely the greatest I’ll ever see.
Last Saturday night. Some differences. Sitting amidst the purple and gold and white for the first time in 16 years. Passed by my old seat. Section F, Row 25, Seat 31. I still have that ticket. Tonight, UNA is winning and winning big. West Georgia never once threatens the Lions. Another blocked punt by UNA! Just like old times. Final score: 55-7, Lions. Terry Bowden’s got something here. His team looks destined to make a playoff run. The championship game this year, as it has every year since 1986, will be played in Florence. The fans aren’t quite as euphoric as they were 16 years ago. The stadium is a little bigger. The Lions’ uniforms are different. No gold. Just purple and white. They’ve got a kid at quarterback, Harrison Beck. He throws a lot. The triple-option? That’s a relic now.
But the view from Royal and Stadium is just the way I remember it from all those years ago. Block letters on the facade: Braly Municipal Stadium. The Texaco station at the bottom of the hill, still there. The houses you can see through the trees that line Piedmont Street, unchanged. Smells the same. The metal bleachers feel the same. After 16 years, same UNA team, still very good. Just the way I left it.
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