Tim Alexander keeps his promise to UAB football, and to himself

UAB's fight back to the field (4:09)

Marty Smith talks to those who inspired the University of Alabama at Birmingham's return to the field, including former prospect Tim Alexander and the one who created a family out of the UAB football program, head coach Bill Clark. (4:09)

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- Finally, Legion Field fell quiet.

The sun had long since set on the Old Gray Lady in West Birmingham and an emotional, exhausting day was coming to a close. So much time and effort had led to this: UAB football, after being shut down in December 2014, completed its long-awaited return on Saturday by beating Alabama A&M 38-7 in front of a record-setting crowd of 45,212.

A few hours had passed since the final whistle and lights illuminated an empty stadium when Timothy Alexander rolled his wheelchair onto the turf. He'd shaken every hand offered to him and hugged more people than he could count, and now, finally, he was able to find a moment of silence to reflect on how far he and the football program he'd grown to represent had come.

"I just took it in," Alexander said. "All that came because of hard work and dedication. And I'm not talking about hard work on Monday, hard work on Friday. I'm talking every day, every hour, fighting for UAB and this city. All day, every day."

Speaking from inside the UAB football offices more than 24 hours later, he still couldn't believe any of it happened.

It wasn't just that UAB played its first game in more than 1,000 days. It was how it all began: with Alexander, 11 years after a car wreck left him paralyzed from the neck down, accepting the game ball from a contingent of players from that dispatched 2014 team, rising from his wheelchair with the aid of three rehab specialists and walking it 10 yards to the referee.

"All that came because of hard work and dedication. And I'm not talking about hard work on Monday, hard work on Friday. I'm talking every day, every hour, fighting for UAB and this city. All day, every day."
Timothy Alexander

Only a few people knew it was going to happen. A communications director for the football team had to sprint onto the field and yell "Back up! Back up! Back up!" at the TV cameras crowding Alexander. But all he was worried about was focusing on his breathing to prevent muscle spasms. It was painful to take those steps, he said, but worth it. He kissed the ball, handed it off and tapped his chest at midfield.

"It meant so much to me," Alexander said. "When the program ended two years ago, I said when we came back I was going to walk the team out of the tunnel. I had no idea how that was going to happen. I wasn't even in therapy at the time.

"We walked for a legacy that day."

And to think, it happened thanks in no small part to Alexander, who was never technically a UAB football player to begin with.

He was part of the team, mind you, but the car accident that put him in the wheelchair occurred way back on Oct. 28, 2006, when he was a senior in high school. That afternoon, he and a friend were driving to an Alabama State football game in Birmingham and Alexander, then a local tight end prospect at Erwin High, was looking forward to a playoff game against Fort Payne High when his friend fell asleep at the wheel. At the hospital, doctors initially told him he would be paralyzed from the neck down. He couldn't read, couldn't write, couldn't even speak.

"They thought I'd be a vegetable," he said.

Alexander was hospitalized for five months and then endured three months of bed rest. He fell into a deep depression and was suicidal, he said, but he got connected to a program that facilitates independent living and began going to a junior college to get his associates degree. It was at that time that he realized he needed to go back to school and be part of a team again, so he applied to UAB in 2011. When he was accepted, he wrote a letter to then-head football coach Neil Callaway, but soon after Callaway resigned.

So Alexander took a job in the ticketing office to be close to athletics. He seized his opportunity to get acquainted with Callaway's replacement, Garrick McGee, when the two were at a Christmas dinner party in 2011. The two ducked away to meet in McGee's office, and Alexander was told not to be late for 5 a.m. workouts. The very next day, he showed up at the track before dawn, and when players were told to get on the line to run sprints, Alexander rolled his wheelchair into position and made the loop at full speed right there with them.

By the time Bill Clark took over as head coach in early 2014, Alexander was ingrained in the program, training with injured reserve players while receiving treatment to help his condition. The day football was shut down following the 2014 season, for what the school described as financial reasons, it was Alexander who sat in Clark's office and promised he was going to do everything in his power to bring it back. He'd already seen his own dream of playing college football dashed, and he wasn't about to give up on UAB's players.

"Coach, just don't leave," Alexander told Clark.

He didn't.

Big-money donors may have raised the bulk of the $44 million necessary to bring back the program, but it was Alexander who became the voice of the movement. He helped get two busloads of supporters to the state capitol in Montgomery to lobby politicians, and he staked out street corners, telling students to vote on a bill that would raise their tuition $25 to support the team.

On June 2, 2015, the day the school announced football was coming back, Alexander took to Twitter and called on all players to meet at the facility the next morning to get back to work. Clark immediately called and told him to take it down. Now that the program is back, Clark explained, NCAA rules were in effect.

"I'm sorry, Coach," Alexander said. "I had no idea."

"I need to meet with you," Clark said matter-of-factly, "because I need to find you a job."

When the two met, Clark asked Alexander what he'd like to do.

"Because of my car wreck, Coach, I'm not an 'X and O' coach," he said. "I can't really look at a defense and offense and tell you this and that because I lost a lot of memory. But I can coach effort. I can coach resilience. I can give a word every day. That's what I want to do."

Alexander's title today: Character Education Coach.

When he's not on the road as a motivational speaker, he's in the office or at practice working with players. He graduated from UAB in 2015, and looking back now, it's hard to imagine how the team would have held together for so long without him around.

Coaches and players did not witness Alexander standing and delivering the game ball on Saturday. They were busy in the locker room preparing. It's probably a good thing, too. One defensive lineman was already reduced to tears at his locker prior to kickoff and Clark worried that his team would be overtaken by the swell of emotions. Seeing Alexander might have pushed everyone over the edge.

"For him to really have been my player, my guy, works for me, to not see it was tough for me," Clark said. "But I knew it was going to be great."

It didn't disappoint when Clark saw clips the following day.

"It couldn't be any better than that," Clark said. "To genuinely see a guy that every day works and believes -- I don't know if it could have been any more fitting."

As of Monday morning, things were starting to finally feel like normal inside the team's new football facility. Tape of the next week's opponent, Ball State, was on a TV in Clark's office, and one assistant coach admitted that he was relieved to get over the hump and finally focus on football and football alone.

How UAB's season goes from here on out is anyone's guess. After so much time off, there are still so many unknowns. But the fact that there is a team at all is a win for the school and the city.

Alexander's presence serves as a constant reminder that coming back from obscurity is possible.

As for what's next for Alexander, that might be best of all.

Next year, he'll marry his fiancee, Kayla Bryant. His goal, he said, is to walk his wife out of the venue himself.

Given what happened on Saturday, it's safe to say that he's off to a good start.