Donald Calvin remembers his trainer Willie Parker predicting it would happen one day. A state-of-the-art stadium with all the trappings of a big programme.
On November 22, 2012, the prediction came true. ASU Stadium opened its doors, giving Alabama State football a home on campus for the first time in its history.
On Thursday, the Hornets will host Arkansas-Pine Bluff at the Turkey Day Classic, concluding their 10th season at the $62 million, 26,500-seat venue off Interstate 85.
Calvin, a Montgomery native, starred in the state of Alabama in the 1970s. He has remained a fan ever since, attending games for more than 40 years, from the time the Hornets played at the Cramton Bowl to when they moved into their new stadium. He will also be present on Thursday, but his presence goes much deeper.
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Walk to the southwest side of the stadium, near the Sting Shop clothing store and the Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail Interpretive Center, across from the Deeming Street parking lot. Donald Calvin grew up there.
From Bel Air to Cramton Bowl
Today it is ASU Stadium. Sixty years ago it was a neighborhood called Bel Air.
The streets that defined Bel Air’s boundaries—Carter Hill Road to the south, Pineleaf Street to the east, and Hall Street (now Harris Way) to the west—still exist. The streets in between, including Calvin’s, don’t. Instead of houses, you’ll find the Wheeler-Watkins Baseball Complex, Barbara Williams Softball Complex, and Ralph David Abernathy Hall here.
The Alabama State campus has been expanded to include the historic district. When Calvin was growing up, it stood across the street. Calvin and his family lived at 1606 Franklin Street, near a sandwich shop and basketball court. ASU students would walk right by his home to have lunch or shoot baskets. A “little” Calvin would sometimes join them in the square.
While all of that may be gone, Calvin has no bitterness.
“Every time I come to this campus, I can show exactly where I lived as a little boy,” he said. “I can stand right on this floor. … It’s a great, great feeling. A lot of people don’t have that kind of experience with the state of Alabama.”
Cramton Bowl was a little over a mile’s walk from Calvin’s house, due north on Hall Street. Calvin picked pecans and sold them so he could buy tickets at 75 cents and cheer for the Hornets. Through old-fashioned hard work and perseverance, he blazed a trail that culminated in playing for her.
Calvin played for Booker T. Washington and helped the Yellow Jackets win 9-1 in 1969, his junior season. This year was the last of school. Integration had been in motion for some years, and after Booker T. Washington closed, its students dispersed: some to GW Carver, Jeff Davis, some to Robert E. Lee. Calvin ended up with Sidney Lanier in his senior season, where he played traffic jam and gained more notoriety.
“It was very, very, very challenging growing up in this area up until my junior year,” Calvin said. “But it has paid off for me.”
Few in Calvin’s family went to college, let alone played collegiate sports. Calvin enrolled at Alabama State and joined the football team knowing “God blessed me with some talent.” After the Hornets’ spring game in 1973, then-coach Henry Holbert called Calvin into his office and awarded him a scholarship.
Calvin played four years for ASU under Holbert and Parker. As a senior in 1976, he ran for 924 yards, which the Advertiser said was the Hornets’ “modern” season record at the time.
At Alabama State, Calvin majored in business administration, the first step toward a career with the Tennessee Valley Authority. In the state of Alabama, Calvin met his wife, who helped him become a Christian. His son, who coaches high school baseball, also attended ASU for a time.
“It’s a lot of stuff to call home,” Calvin said. “…Football isn’t everything, but it got me a foot in the door.”
“You feel really, really good”
Calvin, who now resides in Decatur, is an ASU season ticket holder. He estimates he has only missed the Magic City Classic in Birmingham once since the 1980s. He also attended the first game at ASU Stadium.
That game, the 2012 Turkey Day Classic, did not end well for the Hornets, who lost 27-25 to Tuskegee. But Calvin was blown away.
“It was the largest crowd I’ve ever seen in the state of Alabama,” Calvin said. “The whole stadium was filled to the last seat. The whole floor was covered with people. … It feels really, really good that the state of Alabama has something like that.”
Eddie Robinson Jr., the Alabama State first-year coach, played for the Hornets from 1988-1991. He believes if he had seen the Hornets’ current facilities he would have been “blown away”. He and teammates like Brad Baxter, Reggie Barlow and Reggie Brown have always hoped to one day have a stadium on campus.
“It’s just great for the student-athletes,” Robinson said. “They hope that in the next 10-20 years[current players]will come back and be like, ‘Man, we had one stadium, but now we’ve got more.’ You hope that you can just make it better and better for each generation. This way, HBCUs can just keep growing. I think the community we serve really deserves it.
Adjacent to ASU Stadium is the 30,000-square-foot Houston Markham Complex, built in 2011, which overlooks the Hornets’ practice field and features a weight room, players’ lounge, coaching conference rooms and study area. Nothing like that happened during Calvin’s career. In his opinion, ASU’s conditioning program, feeding program, and recruiting efforts have all become more advanced.
“They have so much more to offer than they did in the ’70s,” he said.
As ASU Stadium enters its second decade, Calvin will be the last to forget how it all began.
Jacob Shames can be reached by email at [email protected], by phone at 334-201-9117, and on Twitter at @Jacob_Shames.