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History fades away at Legion Field

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- Up the rickety, pulsating elevator, down the wet cement concourse, behind an anonymous orange door, sits a story.

It's the story of a stadium. Its birth. Its life. And pretty soon, its death. This is the seldom-used upstairs office of Walter Garrett, the 35-year stadium manager at 77-year-old Legion Field.

The room overflows with programs, jerseys, helmets, hats, ticket stubs, posters, pennants, pins -- every imaginable memento from a place with a glorious football past. There's the architect's original drawings of the 83,000-seat stadium. The 1975 purple TCU helmet worn by Kent Waldrep the night he was paralyzed. And a blue-and-white 20-year-old jersey from quarterback George Mira of the World Football League's Birmingham Americans.

Garrett has been here for all of it, from eight different pro football franchises starting and failing to the countless Iron Bowl battles between Auburn and Alabama. He was here in 1996, when 86,000 fans filled the place to watch an opening-round soccer match in the Olympics, and was here Wednesday night, when 9,200 people showed in a driving rainstorm to watch UAB turn a 10-point third-quarter lead into a 25-point fourth-quarter loss.

"It's different," Garrett said. "You'd obviously rather have it rocking and rolling. But that means more headaches, too. A night like tonight, you can pretty much open the gates and take a nap."

It wasn't always that way. Originally constructed as an intimate, 21,000-seat venue in 1926, at a cost of $439,000, Legion Field quickly soared in capacity and fame. It hosted every Iron Bowl from 1948 to 1988, and then ever other year until 1999. It hosted the first nationally televised night game. It's the place where Bear Bryant passed Amos Alonzo Stagg as college football's all-time winningest coach.

Johnny Unitas played here. So, too, did Doak Walker, Bobby Layne, Dick Butkus and Sammy Baugh. Tom Landry has roamed its sidelines, as has Bobby Bowden, Tom Osborne, Bobby Dodd, and of course, the Bear.

Across the stadium from Garrett's office, on the façade of the recently condemned west-side upper deck, a set of fainted, chipped and barely legible white letters spell out Legion Field's one-time importance. It reads:

BIRMINGHAM -- FOOTBALL CAPITAL of the SOUTH.

On this night, both end zones of the football capital are covered with massive green UAB tarps. Where seats are available, the silver color of open benches dwarfs the speckles of people sitting in them. Outside the stadium, a scalper sells three tickets for $10. And 2 hours per kickoff, there are 17 total tailgaters around the entire stadium.

"In some ways, it's disappointing and sad," said UAB assistant coach Pat Sullivan, who grew up in Birmingham and played in Legion Field as a Heisman-winning quarterback at Auburn. "But nobody can take away the traditions and the memories. And in that respect, there aren't many places like this one."

The same place where fans came to see Joe Namath pick apart Auburn or Bo Jackson vault over Alabama has become the greatest example for why the city needs a new downtown dome. The argument is that Legion Field's façade is crumbling. And its surrounding neighborhood is unsafe.

Auburn stopped playing home games here in 1988. Alabama had two more games scheduled through 2007 but backed out this fall, when preseason inspections revealed the stadium's west-side upper deck was unsafe for fans. Now there's talk of excavating a Bryant memorial in front of the stadium and moving that, too, to Tuscaloosa.

The stadium's only regular tenant these days? UAB, which averages roughly 20,000 fans a game, struggling mightily to fill even the bottom bowl of the massive facility. Instead of hosting Alabama-Notre Dame, Legion Field has become the nation's largest football stadium for a non-BCS school.

It makes rummaging through Garrett's upstairs office -- one of two he has in the building -- all the more fascinating. Yet as he walked in the office and flipped on the light he said, "it's just a bunch of junk."

Some junk. There are ticket stubs for everything from a CFL game to a George Strait concert. There's a piece of the Astroturf from Bryant's 315th career victory. There's a game-worn coaching sweater from Birmingham American's coach Jack Gotta. And a can of Rolling Tide Red, " 'Bama's own soft drink."

"I don't know if I ever even tried this stuff," Garrett said. "Feel the can - I think it's starting to evaporate."

On another shelf sit three footballs -- one from the World League, one from the Canadian Football League and one from the XFL. Fittingly, they're all flat.

And then, in a 5-foot tall file cabinet, are the programs. One from every event ever held under his watch, ordered by event. Pro football. College football. Miscellaneous.

"When I get out of here, I'm going to have a big sale on eBay," he said. "Maybe make a house payment or two out of it."

With the upper deck scheduled to come down and plans in the works for a downtown dome, one that could potentially bring a Final Four to Birmingham, Legion Field is without question in its final years. Thus it's fitting, in a way, that Garrett plans on retiring sometime in the next year.

As a kid, he grew up just a couple of miles from the stadium, climbing 100 feet up the light towers to jump 6 feet into the stadium. When he started with the Birmingham Parks and Recreation Department in 1968, it was nothing more than a summer job. Thirty-five years later he hasn't left.

Wednesday night, after showing off his suite-level shrine to Legion Field, an office he says he visits but once a month, Garrett stepped out, closed the door and tried to lock it behind him. But the lock jammed and the door refused to close.

Finally, after several seconds of jiggling the lock and teasing it with a fingernail, the door cooperated and shut. Garrett smiled and shook his head.

"See," he said. "The place is getting up there. Sometimes even the locks even act funny.

"But you know what? Even when this place is gone, its legacy will live on. It's like Wrigley Field. Fenway Park. Lambeau. You just say the name and everybody can picture it."

Wayne Drehs is a staff writer at ESPN.com.