Bill Clark works to keep the UAB Children's Harbor game going
Bill Clark said it in June, and he meant it. He may have retired as UAB's head football coach for health reasons, but he has not walked away. Not from Birmingham, not from UAB and not from two causes close to his heart.
In his position as vice president of the CoachSafely Foundation, which trains youth coaches to keep young athletes safe so more kids will play, he played a key role in promoting the organization's first fundraiser in August. That "Preserving the Future of Football" event sold out, attracting more than 300 people to the Vestavia Country Club.
His next mission: Spearhead his first Children's Harbor Golf Tournament, which will raise money to support a pillar of Clark's legacy as the UAB coach - the Champions for Our Children Homecoming Game.
"This is something we have to keep going," Clark said. "It's too special. I didn't want to put it on anybody else. I said this is something I want to do."
The golf tournament will take place next Friday Oct. 7th at Bent Brook Golf Course, the day before UAB takes on Middle Tennessee in the 6th edition of what has become known as the Children's Harbor game. Lunch will be served starting at 10:30 a.m. with a shotgun start at noon. There are still playing spots and sponsorships available and volunteers needed. To learn more and sign up, go to BillClarkFoundation.org.
Since its inception in 2017, this unique game has celebrated more than 500 children with serious illnesses and their families who've been comforted by Children's Harbor. With two locations, one in Birmingham and the other at Lake Martin, Children's Harbor provides a place to have fun and relax while receiving no-cost services that make life a bit easier during a difficult time.
"It is truly a harbor for these patients and their families," Clark said.
The concept for the game was born from the friendship between Clark and his wife, Jennifer, and Jack and LeAnn Crowe. Jack Crowe is the longtime college football coach who founded CoachSafely. LeAnn is the chief development officer for Children's Harbor. Between the reinstatement of UAB football in June of 2015 and its return for the 2017 season, Clark searched for ways to remind his players that they were playing for more than themselves.
"Like a lot of coaches, we wanted to do something to give back to the community," Clark said. "We did a lot of different things, like working with Habitat for Humanity. One of the biggest things for us was getting to go over and visit Children's Hospital. That was so important to us. Our players loved it. We would bring the kids to practice."
A conversation between Clark and former UAB assistant coach John Neal about Children's Harbor hit on the details that led to perhaps the most meaningful young tradition in all of college football.
The Blazers wear alternate gray and lime green uniforms with white helmets for the occasion. The back of each jersey contains the name of a current or former patient with a serious illness. The players get to meet those children and their families, and after the game, present those jerseys to them.
The proceeds from Friday's golf tournament will help cover the cost of those memorable uniforms and hopefully provide an additional contribution to Children's Harbor.
Clark still gets emotional when he thinks about the first game in this special series in 2017. UAB never trailed against Louisiana Tech, a program the Blazers had never beaten, but the Bulldogs put together a late drive to set up a short field goal to win on the final play. In an ending straight out of Hollywood, UAB blocked the kick to preserve the victory, setting off a celebration worthy of a championship.
"That was so emotional," Clark said. "It's hard to put it into words. It was storybook. Somebody will post a video of it from their view in the stands, and I still get chills. Still get chills. It's one of the greatest moments in UAB history. It just took off from there."
The UAB players embraced the opportunity, really getting to know the children and their families. The passion Clark saw from his players carried over to the field, convincing him to schedule a challenging opponent in that spot each year.
"It's been like we're going to play even harder in this game than we normally play, which I always thought was pretty hard," he said. "It just makes the game mean more."
There has been something special in the air when the Blazers play for those children. In 2018, they stormed from 11 points behind at halftime to take down North Texas en route to UAB's first Conference USA championship. They dominated Old Dominion in 2019 and outlasted UTSA in 2020 on the way to another C-USA title.
Rice snapped the unbeaten streak in this game last year, but even in victory, the final score pales next to seeing those children and their families smile, making them feel like champions.
"So many people have made it go," Clark said. "It has turned out better than I even hoped. We're just a small part of it. It's special to recognize those children and shine a spotlight on a great organization like Children's Harbor. When you're helping kids, it doesn't get any better than that."