If you don’t know who Bobby Humphrey is, take a quick search of Wikipedia and you’ll find the Birmingham native is an Alabama Crimson Tide football legend. An amazing running back in the mid-1980s he went on to be drafted into the NFL by the Denver Broncos in 1989. During his career, he played not only for them but the Miami Dolphins and finally the Buffalo Bills. Even a Pro Bowl appearance in 1990. Bobby was even inducted into the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame in 2005.
In the early 2000s, Bobby had moved to the sideline and was now the head coach of the Arena Football League team known as the Birmingham Steeldogs. I also had moved to Birmingham and was serving as the producer of a local talk show with, at the time, Birmingham News political cartoonist Scott Stantis. This is where Bobby Humphrey’s and my paths crossed.
It was 2001 and the beginning of the second season for the Birmingham Steeldogs was on the horizon. Coach Humphrey was hitting the trails to raise awareness about the upcoming tryouts so he was booked as a guest on the show.
During the time he was on the show his past accomplishments were discussed. I was young, and naive some may say. Bobby was about 10 years my senior but still in pretty good shape. I was in a shape, good might be stretching it. I was still playing church league softball, in the outfield mind you, left center generally, so I wasn’t the slowest person or the least athletic on the team. All this to say I may have ribbed Bobby that I was probably faster than him at this point due to his age.
Bobby didn’t flinch and called my bluff.
By the end of the interview, I was not only making arrangements for Bobby to come to our studio to race me in the parking lot but also for me to try out for the Birmingham Steeldogs as his personal guest. 5’9”, 200lb me.
The Day of the Race
It was a Friday afternoon near the beginning of our afternoon show. Bobby showed up at the studio on time. Orange cones had been laid out in the parking lot at a slight downhill slant to mark the starting and ending point. The studio was located in the Homewood area of Birmingham. There’s no such thing as flat there, just hilly or really hilly.
Cell phones were still in their infancy but I called into the show from the parking lot and held a pre-race interview. Bobby was about to trounce all over my pride, and he knew it.
We crouched at the starting line and our program director yelled go. I jumped off the line pumping my little legs as fast as I could. In a flash, Bobby passed me. My mouth dropped open as I sucked wind watching a professional athlete destroy me. Then it happened. His left leg lifted up and his right leg planted into the ground. Bobby pulled his hammy. He finished the race limping across – still beating me.
I felt terrible. Not only had Bobby just beaten me, but he injured himself doing it, and he still beat me nonetheless.
Tryout for the Steeldogs
The next morning I held my end of the bargain and showed up at a local high school. I was surrounded by college football players looking for an opportunity to continue the sport they loved so much and get paid for. Then there was me.
What position do you play I was asked? Offensive line of course.
I had already decided to show up and make sure it was known that I knew I didn’t have a chance. I wore my PJs. Nice green and black pants with a t-shirt. I also carried a microphone and headset, and while participating, I recorded interviews and just had fun. It made for a great segment in Monday’s broadcast about how many people tried out and the real challenges they faced to be part of the team.
The best part – I got a t-shirt for free. Not just a t-shirt you could buy at the arena, but one that made it look like I could be part of the team. I wore it with pride all season long.
We Regret to Inform You
Sadly a few days later I opened my mailbox to find an official letter from the Birmingham Steeldogs. Inside the envelope was a message from Bobby Humphrey where he regretted to inform me that I had in fact not made the team. I wasn’t shocked, but still honored he took the time to at least pretend I had a chance.
It was an amazing and unique opportunity nonetheless and one I’ll never forget. I could have been a Steeldog. So close.
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