Everywhere you looked Saturday, from Parker High School past the Smithfield Library to Legion Field, you saw them. They were men hard at work on a hot July morning. Painting at the school. Picking up trash on Graymont Avenue. Mowing and weed-eating along Rev. Abraham Woods Jr. Boulevard.
They were UAB football players, coaches and staffers of the 2018 Conference USA champions, about 100 of them, trading their green jerseys and polos for red T-shirts, volunteering in the larger Serve Day project, the annual outreach event sponsored by the Church of the Highlands.
One word on those bright red shirts stood out: SERVE. Offensive lineman Jakoby Jones, carrying a large Hefty bag, paused to put all this labor into perspective.
"It shows the community that we are here with them, just showing love," Jones said. "They show us love, and we want to show them love."
There's a unique bond between the UAB football team and communities all across Birmingham. It's not lost on any of the Blazers, starting with head coach Bill Clark, that they wouldn't be here if not for the efforts of so many people in this city. After the 2014 shutdown of the program, Birmingham banded together to make The Return possible and successful.
"People used to ask me: 'Why'd you stay?' " Clark said. "On those tough days for me, people from the community would pick me up. Every day I still hear from folks who are appreciative and proud. It makes us want to be part of it and do things to help. We feel like it truly is a family."
This part of the community holds a special place in UAB's heart. It's the Blazers' backyard. This is the route they take to get to Legion Field on game days, for scrimmages, on those early mornings when they run the stadium steps. These are the people they see on the way, center Andrew Smith said, "sitting on their front porch, standing outside, waving at us and wishing us luck. It means a lot to us to come down here and help them out."
The Serve Day idea came to life after conversations between Clark, a Church of the Highlands member whose daughter works for Highlands College, and Mayo Sowell, the pastor of Highlands West, which holds its services at Parker High School. Sowell, a former Auburn football player, hit it off with Clark "because I know his heart. He likes to give back to the community."
Sowell, who felt like part of the family when Clark enforced a team rule and asked him to take off his ballcap in the building, understands the dynamic between UAB and its home town.
"They represent the community," Sowell said. "They're not just a team that plays here. They are in the fabric of Birmingham. Those are our Blazers. We are their community. It's home."
Twice a week, UAB football holds sessions on character and leadership. During one of those sessions a few weeks ago, Sowell spoke to the team and offered everyone the opportunity to go hands-on in the community on Serve Day. And there they were Saturday, virtually everyone connected with UAB football who didn't have a prior commitment, fanning out in small groups to perform small tasks that meant so much.
There was Clark himself, waiting on a lawn mower to cut a gentleman's backyard on Graymont.
"This is not about us," Clark said. "This is about our community. This is one of those things that we're better for. Anytime you give back to others, it's better for you. That's how I feel we were created."
Back at Parker High School, after the work was done, an after party for the community was under way. Kids were throwing footballs, bouncing in bounce houses and slurping snow cones. Sowell was getting ready to start a friendly water balloon war.
The pastor got serious, though, as he discussed what it meant to the UAB players to make the effort they did Saturday.
"It means everything because it establishes worth," Sowell said. "We are worth something to our community besides Saturday afternoons when we're catching a football or making a tackle. We are worth something. They're needed by their community, and they're known by their community, outside of Saturdays. For me, as a student-athlete, it means the world to be needed and to be known by my community outside of a helmet or a jersey number."
Sowell suggested Saturday's experience will become an annual community tradition.
"We'll debrief with Coach Clark and his coaches to see how we can make it better," Sowell said. "It's always about watching film. How can you get better? And we'll make it better. Hopefully, we'll do the same thing next year and make it even bigger."