TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- It's early Saturday morning, a quarter till 7, and a pair of twin brothers in a black sedan with Georgia plates weave through traffic heading west along the perimeter of Birmingham toward Tuscaloosa. A crimson Alabama flag whistles in the wind outside both the driver- and passenger-side windows.
Approaching the University of Alabama campus, congestion on the interstate builds. This won't be a sleepy college town rustling itself awake from a long night of partying today. The tents and tailgates are already set up. It's April and there's a football game to be played. Sort of.
The lobby of a downtown hotel buzzes as breakfast is served. A little boy sits impatiently at a nearby table, picking at his food, bouncing in his matching Alabama cap and shirt as his parents sip their coffee. Another boy comes out of the elevator dressed in football pants and a No. 12 Alabama helmet that looks as if it has seen game action.
A woman paces anxiously, but she's the rare patron not wearing crimson or houndstooth. She pulls her hair back from her light blue button-up shirt to reveal "Mother of the Bride" stitched on her left breast pocket. It's a sin to plan a wedding on a football weekend in this state, but her daughter, a medical student, had this date on the books for 18 months. The husband-to-be says they wanted to get married on Earth Day, and then A-Day was announced in January and the planet was tilted off its axis.
Fans from far and wide will come to Tuscaloosa to see the Crimson Tide compete in a three-hour scrimmage that afternoon. The score will be largely irrelevant (Crimson 27, White 24, if you're really interested) but the game's attendance will be a matter of great debate. A few months after Nick Saban was named head football coach back in 2007, a previously unthinkable crowd of 92,138 fans packed Bryant-Denny Stadium to see the man they hoped would be the next Paul "Bear" Bryant. Ten seasons and four national titles later, Saban credits the support shown that day for helping build the program into what it is today. "Now, that's become the benchmark for everyone," he says.
The attendance this year was a robust 74,326, which is more than the average attendance of 108 FBS schools this past season.
But, as it turns out, Alabama wasn't the only program in the state creating a buzz that month. A pair of Group of 5 schools found a way to make spring football a spectacle worth watching, too.
After nearly 30 months without a football game, UAB coach Bill Clark couldn't afford to lose a single day of practice. So rather than scrap the straight-forward scrimmage to knock off some more rust, a sense of history would have to compel people through the turnstiles. The narrative even had its own social media hashtag: #TheReturn.
On a picturesque Saturday in early April, the once defunct program would take one of its final steps back toward competition. The city rallied around Clark and the team, and now all that hard work is about to pay off.
Three hours before game time, hundreds of fans line the street approaching the west side of Legion Field. One woman wears a familiar "Free UAB" shirt. A car in a nearby parking lot still has a faded "Fire Ray Watts" bumper sticker on it, holding on to all that rage that bubbled up throughout Birmingham when the school president became the face of the program's shutdown following the 2014 season.
But the fans here aren't dwelling on what once was when the brass section of the band reaches its full-throated glory. People instinctively whip out their camera phones when the team busses arrive, beaming the festivities to Instagram, Twitter and Snapchat.
A white-haired man with a Superman shirt grins for the cameras as he holds up a poster board that stretches out as far as his arms can reach. "To the 2017 Football Blazers," it reads. "Weeeeeeeeeee're Back!! With a Force!! Look out Conference USA!!"
Clark tears up behind his sunglasses. This was the reception he hoped would come but feared might never happen. He's from nearby Anniston, spent nine seasons as a high school coach in the state and was head coach at his alma mater Jacksonville State for one season, and he has never seen anything like this.
The 7,822 fans in attendance would break a school record. It was more than many Power 5 programs generate, and more than Cal and Stanford combined.
— UAB Football (@UAB_FB) April 1, 2017
"I saw somebody say, 'An April day, who's going to show up?'" Clark says. "And I think you saw how they showed up today. For any spring game anywhere, that was a big deal for me."
The game was superfluous. Both quarterbacks, AJ Erdley and Tyler Johnston, played well, and converted running back Donnie Lee scored a touchdown. But surrounding his team after the game, Clark tells players that if the scene that day didn't make them emotional, they needed to check their pulse.
There were hundreds of autographs signed and a "Sons of UAB" flag football game afterward. Two hours after the final whistle, someone had to hop on the public address system to tell the fans remaining that they needed to pack up and head home.
In a few months, UAB will complete its return with its season-opening game at home against Alabama A&M. But for one day during the spring, the Blazers were back.
Troy coach Neal Brown gathered his team in the corner of the end zone for final instructions before kickoff.
If the fans, recruits and referees milling about on the sideline had been paying attention, they would have been taken aback. Because what Brown was saying sounded nothing like a football game.
"Steaks for the winning team, hot dogs for the losers!" Brown shouted. "That's what I'm talking about!"
And then, just as the team broke the huddle, the on-field announcer signaled the start of something different: "Coach Neal Brown is going to get this started with some competition."
There would be no kickoff. Players and fans instead lined the hashmarks on both sides of the field as the team started the "game" with a good old-fashioned rep of the Oklahoma Drill. Everything was about beating the man in front of you, including a one-on-one passing competition in the red zone. The winner's team got one point, and Red led Gray 3-2 when the typical 11-on-11 action finally got underway.
But even that was unusual. The tempo the offense ran was lightning-quick to start. Three, four and five receivers littered the field. And behind the starting quarterback was another quarterback in full pads, holding a purple and green Nerf football.
Brandon Silvers, the veteran QB who threw for more than 3,000 yards last season, injured his hand and wanted the mental reps. So rather than pace the sidelines in street clothes, he wore his helmet and dropped back as the other quarterbacks dropped back and surveyed the field as they surveyed the field. When the other quarterbacks ran the triple-option, Silvers ran it and even faked the pitch.
When fourth down came, only the punter and the long-snapper took the field. There was no coverage team, only the return man.
A few drives later, everyone took a quick break for trivia. But instead of fans answering questions, it was actual players.
"Who is Troy's all-time leader in rushing yards?" the announcer asked.
There was a long pause.
"You want a hint?" he asked.
Then the announcer basically gave away the answer, making it multiple choice with an unmistakable emphasis on the correct choice: DeWhitt Betterson, who rushed for 3,441 yards from 2001-04. The players went three-for-three and a fan was awarded a signed jersey.
It went on like that for a while. The offense worked quickly, there was a running clock and the first half was over in a brisk 35 minutes. Only the teams didn't leave the field during intermission. Instead, there was a field goal competition between the team's two kickers. Footballs were placed on both hashes at the 15-, 20- and 25-yard line, and there was a 45-second timer. The first kicker made four out of six, booming the last through the uprights from a flat-footed position because he didn't have time to do a full drop back.
The second half featured the same running clock and at one point campus police pulled their golf cart under the bleachers across the field to get some shade and watch the rest of the game.
T-Day was the length of your favorite rom-com: a tight hour-and-a-half, followed by some interesting fun after the credits.
With a little massaging, the game had ended in an unacceptable 19-19 tie. So Brown took the microphone and announced that the winner would be decided by a best-of-three competition, beginning with a one-on-one passing battle inside the 5-yard line.
"Playing wideout. No. 66. Ethan Calhoun," Brown said in his most dramatic pro wrestling announcer voice.
Calhoun, you see, is a 6-foot-1, 291-pound offensive lineman. And his competition was a defensive lineman with remarkably quick feet.
The next battle was a one-on-one pass protection with 5-foot-7 running back Keith Johnson playing the role of offensive tackle and 5-foot-10 cornerback Montreal Tonney doing his best impersonation of a defensive end.
But the best was saved for last when the coaches, again insisting that it was a tie game, called for a goal-line tackling drill: running back versus linebacker.
Big 6-foot-5, 305-pound lineman Zach Branner lined up to carry the football. Opposite him was 6-foot, 293-pound defensive tackle Jarvis Bryant. The entire team formed a U-shape around the two.
Branner then snatched the ball off the turf, darted to his left and was stood up by Bryant. But just as the Gray team braced to celebrate, Branner spun out of the tackle, dove and stuck the football out just over the goal line.
It was a thing of beauty.
— Troy Football ⚔x10 (@TroyTrojansFB) April 15, 2017
Branner said he took a teammates' advice to "lower your shoulder and pray."
There were cries of foul play from the Gray team as Branner was mobbed and one teammate shouted, "Steaks!"
Branner didn't spike the ball, choosing instead to live by the mantra, "Act like you've been there before."
"But have you?" a reporter asked.
"No," he said, "but they don't know that."
Afterward, Brown was all smiles, working the crowd and chatting with recruits.
Troy made one of the biggest turnarounds in college football last season, improving from 4-8 to 10-3. After being ranked in the top 25 for the first time in school history, this season holds similar promise with everyone who touched the ball on offense back with the exception of a walk-on receiver.
Someone on staff points out the obscure possibility that Troy might be the first FBS team in history to play two games on the road on non-green fields at Boise State and Coastal Carolina. It feels fitting given the off-beat nature of the "scrimmage" that day.
"The goal today was to have the most fun spring game in the country," Brown said. "Hopefully we accomplished that."
They did, indeed.
T-Day's attendance didn't compare to Alabama's or Auburn's, but it didn't have to. On a busy Easter weekend, a school official estimated that it was the largest crowd in program history.
It may be uninspiring spring practice to the rest of the country, but in the state of Alabama it's something different. If there's a football and a functional scoreboard, they will come to Alabama, UAB, Troy and anything in between.