Back in the spring of 2016, Tevin Crews stepped onto UAB's practice field for the first time in over a year.
"There were like 30-something people out there," Crews told Sports on Earth this week. "I was like, 'Man, we've got a long way to go."
The official count, coach Bill Clark says, was actually about 57. But UAB did not look like a college football team. Much less a good one.
"It was survival. It was, 'What in the world are we going to do?" Clark said. "We can't practice like we normally do or we'll kill these guys."
Less than two years later, UAB is very much a real team again.
When the 2017 season kicked off, UAB was an easy pick at No. 130 of 130 FBS teams in nearly every preseason ranking. When your team disappears for two seasons, those things are a given. But at 7-4 and 5-2 in league play, the Blazers are tied for second in the Conference USA West and have already tied their highest win total since moving up to the FBS in 1996. They're not just a real team. The Blazers are a good team. They're a bowl-bound team, for the second time ever.
On Saturday, Alabama and Auburn will face off in the Iron Bowl in a de facto SEC West title game, with playoff hopes on the line. The best story in college football this year is a little more than 100 miles away in Birmingham, right in the SEC's backyard.
The death and revival of UAB football has been well-chronicled, but even the most ardent Blazers supporter couldn't have foreseen the team thriving immediately like it has since returning.
Clark kept his optimism in the spring to himself. He had a patchwork roster. It included holdovers like Crews, the team's leading tackler, who gave up football when the team folded and spent his time outside the classroom interning for Northwest Mutual and working as a valet at a local hotel.
"I was trying to figure out how I was going to survive the real world. I never really accepted it," Crews said. "I'd sit and watch on Saturdays and be like, 'Man, I miss it. I miss it.'"
Defensive lineman Shaq Jones did the same, turning down an offer to transfer to Western Kentucky. Instead, he stayed at UAB, working as a mover and at Abercrombie and Fitch to help earn money for his son.
The roster includes players like receiver Collin Lisa, who left the team for Buffalo when it folded and returned when the team returned. Junior college signees like defensive back Broderick Thomas and starting quarterback A.J. Erdely have been major contributors, and so have FBS transfers like Duke Culver, who arrived at UAB from Louisville.
The Blazers are close to the scholarship limit with "83 or 84" players, according to Clark, but that includes handing out scholarships to deserving walk-ons who might not have that opportunity elsewhere. And when UAB kicked off to start the season, Clark estimated that 90 percent of his roster had never played in a Division I college game before. He has a giant junior class -- around 50 players -- but expects around 5-10 will graduate and leave early. To take jobs, that is.
"We went out and spent some time to find these guys," Clark said. "Why is he coming here? Will he do the work? Will he fit in. We tried to spend that extra time."
Along the way, he leaned on the 13 remaining players from the 2014 team that won six games and qualified for a bowl game but didn't get to play in after the team was shut down.
"They're telling guys, 'This is how we practice. This is how we got bowl eligible in 14,'" Clark said. "You need somebody else preaching it."
Clark has worked wonders, already clinching a record better than the 6-6 mark the Blazers had before the two-year hiatus. Six of their 11 games have been decided by a single possession. The Blazers have won four, including a win over Louisiana Tech on Oct. 7 that came on a blocked field goal as time expired.
Beating a team like that -- especially in that manner -- told Clark all he needed to know about his team.
"I felt like magic happened that night," Crews said.
It confirmed Clark's quiet suspicions from the spring. He had a heck of a football team. And a community behind them. It was homecoming, and UAB also happened to be wearing uniforms honoring patients at the Children's Harbor hospital.
"People were accusing us of piping in crowd noise after it was so loud," Clark said. "That would have been crazy way to win at any game. But beating a team like that in that way -- they didn't miss. We rose up and blocked it."
Clark's team is 5-2 since then, including road wins at UTSA and Southern Miss. On Saturday, the Blazers close their season against winless UTEP.
"There's not a lot that separates any of us," Clark said. "It's finding a play. Making a way."
When Crews was 12 years old, he sat down and wrote a list of life goals. It included a lot, from the lofty goal of playing professional football and starting his own non-profit to help kids from his hometown to simpler goals, like becoming the first person in his family to graduate high school and college.
He wanted to play Division I football, but below that lied a deeper goal.
"I wanted to be remembered for more than just football," Crews said.
In his final game at Legion Field, he'll cross a lot of those off. At least 30 family members will be there to see it.
"They'll get to see their son achieve goals he set when he was 12 years old," Crews said.
Especially that last one. Crews, like several members of this UAB team, will be remembered for more than just football, whether The Crews Foundation becomes a reality (don't bet against that, by the way) or not.
"I've learned that I can always find a way to make things work and how to find a way to keep pushing forward when all the odds are stacked against me," Crews said. "I can succeed in any circumstance."