Joseph Goodman: When a football game is about the bravery of others

The girl with the big smile was not herself.

This was no ordinary illness, and her mother knew it instinctively. RaShaun’s daughter Larry was running away. Precious D’Ariya needed help.

This was in the spring, and it was bad. Very bad. Trouble came quickly for the Larry family, and then healing took time.

The people at Children’s Hospital of Alabama saved D’Ariya Larry’s life earlier this year, and then Children’s Harbor, which supports seriously ill children, provided care and services to help the Larrys get through their nightmare. On Saturday, the name of D’Ariya Larry, and everything he now stands for, will fly across the Protective Stadium pitch on the back of UAB footballer Devodric Bynum.

UAB plays Middle Tennessee State at 2:30 p.m. This is homecoming week for UAB, the university with the football team that cheated death, and that means it’s time to break out those awesome Children’s Harbor uniforms that mean much more than football for Birmingham.

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Isn’t it amazing what happens when people come together to help each other? That is what UAB football represents for me and for so many people in the city. Homecoming is the time to celebrate and remember that helping others is what Birmingham and the UAB do best.

Birmingham is College Football, USA. There’s no other city in the country quite like it when it comes to the intersection of culture and sport. Everyone has a favorite team in this town, and we all get together and watch on the weekends, but it’s the local team that has come to represent something else.

It’s hard to find a person in Birmingham these days who doesn’t identify as a UAB fanatic. This is why. The Blazers hold on to their hearts for what they have come to represent: pride, togetherness and resilience. All of those things are remembered when UAB dons its specialized jerseys back home.

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Everyone knows when it’s time to go back to the UAB. That’s when the Blazers wear some of the hottest jerseys in the country. UAB lime green and grays strike differently every year.

Former UAB coach Bill Clark unexpectedly retired this summer, and Bryant Vincent is the team’s interim head coach. Clark saved UAB football and then put it on the path to sustained success. He brought the city together. He raised money. UAB built a new football building and practice facility and then the city and county, buoyed by that momentum, eventually built a downtown stadium for the Blazers.

All of those things are captured in the UAB welcome tradition that represents the names of children in need. It gives a greater purpose to why it all matters. It’s Clark’s biggest legacy, aside from the team itself, and I was impressed to see him support the tradition this year even though he’s still recovering from back surgery. That lets you know how much it means to him.

UAB has won several conference championships since its return and they have bowled every year. Basketball coach Andy Kennedy had his own homecoming at UAB in 2020 and has the Blazers poised for big success this season. All of these things together led to UAB being invited to join the American Athletic Conference.

These are proud times for the UAB, and the future is bright for the university and its city. The Southside Dragons are what I like to call the Blazers. They are the Birmingham team and their motto is “win as one”. For a city divided for so long and still fragmented in so many ways, those are not cheap words.

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Celebrate them. Let us unite for hope and champions.

For the return home, all the UAB footballers bear the name of a brave boy who fought to live and inspired those around him with his spirit. Players and their families attend the game and visit the team. Bonds are formed. Lives are enriched for both children and gamers.

“When you can play for something bigger than yourself, it’s special,” said Bynum, the defensive back representing D’Ariya Larry for the homecoming.

There is no better tradition in sport than that of UAB football with the return home of families who have gone through so much pain and suffering. It is about serving others and returning their smile.

D’Ariya Larry needed emergency brain surgery and then weeks of therapy. He had to learn to walk again. And eat. And speak. But he also smiles.

“Sometimes I just didn’t want to get up,” Larry said.

But she was tough. D’Ariya was brave.

One day, D’Ariya and her big smile were thriving, and the next she had a fever that registered over 103 degrees. D’Ariya then had trouble speaking. His condition worsened even more, and he suddenly didn’t know who he was at all.

She forgot everything. D’Ariya was dying and everything came quickly. RaShaun’s daughter was determined to have a sinus infection that had spread to her brain. Frightening. She caused a condition called intracranial subdural empyema. Bad things. She was in the hospital for 33 days.

Birmingham was there to help, and now the Birmingham team will celebrate his life.

Joseph Goodman is a columnist for the Alabama Media Group, and author of “We Love Bama: A Season of Hope and the Making of Nick Saban’s ‘Ultimate Team’”. You can find him on Twitter @JoeGoodmanJr.

welcome to the UAB

From left to right, D’Ariya Larry, Devodric Bynum, and RaShaun Larry.Joseph Goodman

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