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'We Don't Want to Leave': UAB's Displaced Football Players Speak Out

After losing their football team for reasons that remain under dispute, UAB players are starting to speak out against the school administration.
December 16, 2014, 12:40pm
Photo by R.J. Rico

Before taking his communications final exam on the morning of December 2, University of Alabama-Birmingham junior offensive lineman Cameron Blankenship received an ESPN alert on his cell phone. The school's football team had been disbanded. Blankenship was no longer a UAB athlete.

"I was shocked—I really was," Blankenship said. "Suddenly my mind was going in 9,000 different directions."

Read More: UAB Can Afford Football, So Why Is It Choosing Otherwise?

Four hours later, his exam completed and in a state of disbelief, Blankenship sat with his 104 teammates inside the UAB locker room, awaiting an explanation from school president Ray Watts. For two days, the players had read reports that the program might be in trouble. No one understood just how much. Running 30 minutes late, Watts entered the room and began to read from a prepared speech, explaining that the university's decision to end football was based "upon numbers." (Numbers that, upon further examination, don't seem to add up.)

According to five UAB players who spoke to VICE Sports, this was the first time the team had seen Watts during his two years as school president.

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"The one thing that got to everybody was when he told us that he cared more about UAB than we did," Blankenship said. "That's what sparked everything. I just kept thinking to myself, 'Am I really here right now?'"

Video of what happened next went viral. Senior Tristan Henderson eviscerated Watts for his perceived callousness, yelling at the president and asking how he was supposed to explain all of this to his son. Just as striking was the background noise: dozens of young men, sobbing. It's the sound of a group of teammates—"brothers" they all call each other—realizing that this could be the last time they would be together.

"I've never seen so many grown men cry in my life, and I was right there with them, bawling my eyes out too," said Blankenship, whose nickname, "Big Red," alludes to his 305-pound frame and red hair. "We never got a true reason why. He just kept saying numbers. We wanted to know what the numbers were, but we were never given the answer. If there's going to be a downfall of UAB, this is going to be it."

Ten days later, Blankenship is, for all intents and purposes, no longer a UAB student. Neither are three of the other four juniors interviewed for this article: defensive tackle Jontavius Morris, and defensive ends Shaquille Roberson and Chris Rabb.

Despite the fact that UAB would have honored their scholarships through graduation, all four, like dozens of their teammates, have taken their exams, packed up, and left UAB for good. Each is now visiting schools this week and will be enrolling somewhere else by the end of December, frantically learning a new team's system this spring in the hopes of earning significant playing time during their senior years.

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"Football is my life, and it's been my life for a very, very long time," said Blankenship, who hails from Alexander City, Alabama and whose father received two degrees from UAB. "I owe UAB everything for making me the man and the player I am today, but I couldn't live with myself if I didn't play my senior year somewhere."

A 2008 game at the University of Alabama-Birmingham's Legion Field. Photo by Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

The opportunities are there. The day after the news broke, assistant coaches from across the nation began arriving in Birmingham, lurking outside the players' gym to talk to would-be recruits. Star junior running back Jordan Howard has reportedly toured Notre Dame and Indiana. Blankenship is visiting South Alabama and Western Kentucky. Morris is planning to look at Western Kentucky, Middle Tennessee, Georgia State, and UNC-Charlotte.

"We made a joke the other day that UAB is the biggest JuCo in the world right now," said Morris, referring to the fact that schools often recruit junior college players after their sophomore year.

Of course, none of the four wanted to transfer from UAB. Some of them redshirts, they had stuck through tough times—3-9 seasons in 2011 and 2012 and a 2-10 campaign in 2013—and were finally starting to see the rewards.

Their new head coach, Bill Clark, was well-liked, players said, and had changed the program by treating the team with respect. UAB began the season by defeating in-state rival Troy for the first time in four years, and was competitive in a game against top 10-ranked Mississippi State.

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UAB went on to have an up-and-down year and entered its final regular season game against Southern Mississippi with a 5-6 record. The Blazers defeated their Conference-USA rivals to finish with a .500 record and become bowl-eligible for only the second time in the program's 24-year history.

Three days later, they met with Watts.

Immediately after the Southern Mississippi win, UAB's players knew that getting a bowl bid would be a toss-up, as their sixth-place finish in C-USA wasn't enough to guarantee a postseason appearance. Still, by disbanding the team so quickly, Watts all but ensured that UAB wouldn't play a final postseason game, according to an ESPN report that cited bowl committees' desires to avoid controversy.

Nevertheless, many players spent Sunday afternoon watching TV and monitoring social media, hoping they would get one more chance to play together. That chance never came: UAB was one of the four eligible teams not to be given one of the 76 bowl slots.

"We just waited, waited, waited for the news," junior special teams player Shalin Waterford said. "Think about the exposure our bowl game would have gotten. It would have been crazy."

Waterford is coming to terms with the fact that the Southern Miss game was likely his last game of college football. A walk-on, Waterford has been talking with some coaches from NAIA schools, but thinks it is unlikely that he'll transfer because none of them seem to offer his specialized major, nuclear medicine.

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"I've worked so hard to get into the program at my school," Waterford said. "They only accepted 19 people and I'm the only student-athlete in the program. If I get an offer, I'm probably going to say no. It's the toughest decision I've ever had to make."

While the players seem to have accepted their team's fate, others have continued to take up their cause, protesting both the decision and its lack of transparency. Watts made the decision to end football without consulting school faculty or the team's boosters and coaches. One assistant football coach's repeated efforts to speak to Watts in the preceding weeks were ignored.

In the week immediately following the announcement, supporters of the UAB football team—and the also-eliminated bowling and women's rifle teams —held numerous rallies and protests. A billboard in downtown Birmingham featured the UAB flag at half-staff. "Fire Ray Watts #FreeUAB" bumper stickers were plastered on light poles throughout campus. Donors raised more than $1,100 within a few hours to have an airplane fly a banner above the campus with the same message. (Due to airspace regulations, the plane was not in fact visible from campus, an alumnus who organized the venture said.)

Most notably, the UAB Faculty Senate voted last week to write a proposal of no confidence in Watts, who has had armed guards escort him at subsequent public appearances. The Senate will reconvene in January to vote on the proposal.

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Watts has since acknowledged that "mistakes were made," but he has not backed down from his decision. On Saturday, during the school's graduation ceremony, Watts neither shook graduates' hands nor spoke at the ceremony.

More than anything else, the players said, they wish they had been given more notice. Some kind of warning so that they wouldn't be stuck with off-campus apartment leases. Some sort of hint so that their boosters could have tried to drum up the financial support necessary to keep the Blazers alive.

"I just hope people know we're ready to come back," Morris said. "We don't want to leave. If football comes back, we're here. We'll do it."

Unless the improbable happens and football is revived, Blankenship said that he probably has left UAB for good.

"UAB will always be my home—it was the one place that gave me a chance to play [Division 1 FBS] college football," Blankenship said. "But if they don't bring football back, I can't see myself coming back here. I don't think I could forgive the administration. [Watts] is a coward and I'm not afraid to say it to his face. He's ruined so many lives. Why? I hope he can live with his decision. I know if I had to do that, I couldn't."