In 2014, the idea of Birmingham, Alabama having a professional soccer team was merely a pipedream. In fact, when Forrest Collins (then a freshman at UAB and a newcomer to the Magic City) first had the idea to form the Brigade, there wasn't a team at all.
"The goal was creating a strong following for the new team, the Birmingham Hammers," Collins explains. "I was brand new to the area, and I had the desire to be involved with a local team that I could call MY team." Indeed, the Brigade story begins with that of the Birmingham Hammers. The team was the brainchild of John Killian and now-Director of Business Operations for Legion FC, Morgan Copes. Inspired by a few beers and a gap in the sporting landscape of Birmingham, the duo set about working towards one stated goal - bringing professional soccer to Birmingham.
But, without millionaire investors, the dream had necessarily small beginnings. As did the Brigade. In fact, the team hadn't even kicked a ball yet when the core group that made up the MCB first met. The early meetings, coming up with simple chants and painting crude TIFOs, only amounted to four people - including Forrest himself and current Brigade Treasurer (and drummer-in-chief), Mack McDaniel.
The first Brigade "outing," as Collins describes it, was the exhibition match pitting UAB Men's side against the Eric Wynalda-coached Atlanta Silverbacks, a game sponsored by the Hammers to promote their grassroots effort to form a team. The early days of the Brigade also saw us attend other soccer events in the city, including cheering on a youth team coached by Morgan Copes himself.
The following year, it was finally showtime for the Birmingham Hammers, playing an exhibition season in the humble surroundings of the Sicard Hollow Athletic Complex. In 2016 the Hammers joined the National Premier Soccer League, playing in the Southeast Conference with the lower-league royalty that is Chattanooga FC, as well as the sides that would go on to become Nashville SC and Memphis 901 FC. The Brigade proved to be a consistent presence, growing in both number and noise. At that time, we could be found tailgating in the far parking lot and setting up camp at the near-end of the bleachers during games... or the opposite end of the bleachers if it meant moving to torment opposition goalkeepers. Just ask "Chad" of the New Orleans Jesters. He was Jordan Bell before we even knew who Jordan Bell was. (Editor's note: Jordan Bell is the goalkeeper for Mississippi Brilla who, during the 2018 PDL season, became a cult frenemy of the Brigade).
Things were not always easy, and the results on the pitch were not always that great, but momentum was growing for a team in the city - with the Brigade there every step of the way. Despite having a losing record in both of our seasons in the NPSL, there were some highlights - including winning the I-65 Cup against Nashville in 2016 and going undefeated against the Atlanta Silverbacks in 2017, including a 2-1 win away following a David Valverde free kick at the death.
By the time the 2017 season drew to a close, however, the USL loomed large in the minds of those in Birmingham's growing soccer community. With the USL's expansion gaining pace, USL President Jake Edwards let the cat out of the bag that Birmingham was in the running for a franchise. However, throughout the 2017 NPSL season, there had been no indications either way as to whether the Hammers would be involved.
The idea of the USL coming to town caused an admittedly mixed reaction within the Brigade. Some were uncomfortable with the idea of a USL team. Discomfort continued for most until we discovered that Morgan, the co-founder of the Hammers, was directly involved. It began to become clearer that the Hammers' goal of bringing professional soccer to our city had been accomplished.
On August 9, 2017, the USL officially awarded Birmingham a franchise, with the Birmingham Hammers ownership group having been bought out by the investors behind the new USL franchise. Since then, the legacy of the Hammers has been honored well by Birmingham Legion FC - the Hammers and the Brigade referenced in the initial franchise announcement, and a Hammers flag featuring in the brand reveal video for the Legion crest.
But the greatest homage of all was one final season under the Hammers name, this time as a part of the Professional Development League (PDL), now known as USL League Two following the league's rebranding this past Fall. Matthew Thorne, then Head Coach of the Men's team at the University of West Alabama, took the reins for the Hammers' final season. And what a season it was. The Hammers not only finished with their best-ever record, but also notched a win over PDL powerhouse Mississippi Brilla, one of only two teams to do so. The Hammers' final home game, at Samford University, fittingly came against Memphis City - our old NPSL rivals who, as Memphis 901 FC, are following Legion FC into the USL Championship. It proved to be a magical night - with the Hammers thrashing the enemy 4-1 in a "black out" night marking the transition from the red and yellow of the Hammers to the black and gold of the Legion.
As we toasted the history of the Hammers with champagne in the parking lot after the game, we could not help but feel that it was the end of an era. We, too, have evolved - from a group four-men and one-drum strong - to a 501 (c) 7 non-profit club in our own right. Our colors are no longer red, yellow and black; they are now black, gold and red, complete with a new logo featuring references to Legion (the sparks), the Hammers (the red crossed hammers) and the city we call home (the Magic City sign). As the team has prepared to go pro, we have upped our game to match.
"To see how we have grown - how much the Brigade has grown - has been an amazing sight," said Collins. "The fact that people are coming together at games, creating friendships and memories, is extraordinary. My favorite part of creating the Brigade was individually meeting people and seeing them come back every week. Seeing the energy that a group, no matter the size, can create and how it changes the whole mood still amazes me."
And, having already smashed last year's number of official members, it is already clearly apparent that there will be many new friendships and memories to be forged in 2019. We are excited to reconnect with old friends from Hammers seasons past, and to welcome newcomers into the fold. We ask simply that you turn up and turn out at games - cheering and chanting our boys on... and that you have a ton of fun in the process. Hammer Down!