The last time Birmingham saw professional spring football at Legion Field, the XFL’s Bolts were shut out 22-0 by the NY/NJ Hitmen.
Sunday afternoon was a refreshing change for a city that’s seen its share of change since that April day in 2001 as the Iron defeated the Memphis Express 26-0 behind four Nick Novak field goals, two Trent Richardson touchdowns, and a defense that pitched the only shutout in the AAF’s debut weekend despite being blind to what they’d see from the Express offense.
“You know we didn’t know if they were going to be an empty, wildcat or throw the ball all night or run it all night, just had no idea,” said Iron head coach Tim Lewis after the game. “I thought (defensive coordinator Rick Menter) did a fantastic job of putting together a defensive package that kept it all in front and inside and tackled the catch, and that’s what we did and we got the players to understand it and they bought into it and they executed it.”
While a rowdy crowd of fans clad in black and silver witnessed history, Lewis said he was oblivious to his team recording the AAF’s first shutout.
“I hadn’t watched any of the other games yet.”
On offense, quarterback Luis Perez got his pro career off on the right foot. After being questioned as to who he was and why he should start over former Alabama signal caller Blake Sims or why he was chosen in the first round of the AAF QB draft over Trevor Knight, the former Division II QB made his presence known with poise and multiple completed passes into tough spots. He finished 19-of-33 for 252 yards with no touchdowns but no interceptions.
“I thought Luis did a great job,” said Lewis. “He was on point. He threw the ball very well. He hit the guys that were open, he picked the right people. When we did have him calling the game on his own, he did a fantastic job of directing the team.”
Perez was quick to point out that while he’s the man under center, there’s room to grow and prove himself.
“(The fans) do know I’m the starter because I was the one out there, but again we’re just here to get better. I don’t think I showed anything. I gotta improve with what I did,” said Perez in the press conference. “There’s a few throws I wish I could have back. A few decision making decisions, and stuff like that.”
Perez didn’t hide an innocent smile when he added, “But again, I am the starting quarterback.”
Former Alabama and NFL running back Trent Richardson capped off a joyous day for the Magic City with the first touchdowns in Iron history with two fourth quarter scores. Richardson finished with just 58 yards on 23 carries but seemed to get better as the game went on. He did cough up one fumble to start the second half, but the Iron defense held Memphis on a 4th and 1 at the six yard line.
In the end, the day belonged to NFL journeyman kicker Nick Novak and punter Colton Schmidt. The 37-year old former NFL and UFL kicker last played a game in November 2017 when he suffered a back injury against the Dallas Cowboys. It was tough to tell after he knocked through field goals from 29, 28, 47, and 31 yards including the only nine points of the first half. Schmidt only had to punt the ball three times on the day, but two of them were downed inside the Memphis 10 as he averaged 44 yards a kick and controlled the field position.
The weekend was a win for the league in general as enthusiastic fans also packed stadiums in Orlando, San Antonio, and Tempe, Arizona. While the announced crowd of 17,039 at Legion Field wasn’t the number many in the city likely hoped for, Lewis thought they played a big factor in the win.
“It was fantastic,” said Lewis. “I have one of those headsets that has the earpiece on one side, and I actually asked if I could get one on the other side. And I don’t know how many people were here, but it sounded like there were a lot more. So, I was really encouraged by that, and I’d encourage everyone to come out and take a look at what we’ve got to offer. We got a nice product, and the players are going to play hard for them.”