By Chanda Temple
After a 36-year absence, varsity football returned to Birmingham’s Ramsay High School in 2012.
But the stats looked bleak. Ramsay won only one game that year. One.
Coach Rueben Nelson Jr. never let the losses discourage him, though. He knew greater things were coming.
“It was rough, but we kept going,” Nelson said. “I would always tell them (the team) to keep working, keep working, keep working.”
And work, they did.
In fall 2013, they won two games.
In fall 2014, they won 10 games.
In fall 2015, they won seven games.
In fall 2016, they won 13 games, lost two and went on to become the state 6A champs.
Nelson credits his coaches and his team for the 21-16 victory against Opelika on Friday, Dec. 2, 2016 at Jordan-Hare Stadium at Auburn University in Auburn, Ala. Fans and students exploded in excitement as the team won the Alabama High School Athletic Association Class 6A title. It was the first AHSAA football championship win for Ramsay High in Birmingham, Ala. The last time a Birmingham school won a state football championship was in 1972 and 1973 when the now-closed Banks High School won back-to-back championship games.
“Winning is an awesome feeling,” said Nelson, 40. “It’s one of the top feelings of your life.” (Go here to see the championship press conference with Nelson and some of the players.)
The last time Ramsay had a football team was in 1976, the same year that Nelson was born. That fact is not lost on Nelson, a married minister with two children. Some people look at it as if he was born to lead the school to victory.
“I know God does things in appointed places and appointed times,’’ Nelson said. “And I’m just glad He used me over here at Ramsay.’’
“I always thought we could win a state championship,” Nelson said. “These kids had a strong mindset and a world-class work ethic. They had faith.”
Unlike other high schools, Ramsay doesn’t have a practice field or even a stadium. To practice for games, Ramsay football players have to wait on school buses to pick them up in the afternoon and take them to Lawson Field. When practice ended, the students had to board the bus again to return to Ramsay and then go home. This, they did, every week. But it made them stronger, stronger as students and as a team.
They had one goal and it was to the be the best they could be, no matter the obstacle.
The students didn’t want to let themselves down, nor all of their supporters. One big supporter was Wendy Horn, a band mother interested in seeing football return to Ramsay. She joined forces with others to return football to Ramsay. Junior varsity football was restored in 2011 and varsity football was restored in 2012.
Ramsay’s football program started in 1930. In 1934, they had an undefeated season. Ramsay High alum 1954 Gloria Randolph was at the school when the school won The Birmingham News 3A award in 1953.
“In the 1940s and 1950s, Ramsay was a football powerhouse,” Randolph said.
And just like how Randolph cheered on her classmates in the 1950s, she cheers on the students today. At the start of every season, she treats the team and coaches to a meal at Dreamland. Now that they’ve won, she said she will invite them to return to Dreamland for a celebratory meal.
“Being with them keeps me young,” Randolph said. “When I walk into that building, … there is vitality. There is youth.”
Like everyone else, Ramsay High School Principal Cassandra Fells is also proud of the team.
“It’s great to be an athlete, but you also have to be a scholar. And that means that you have to successfully pass all of your classes,” Ramsay Principal Cassandra Fells said. “We have some really good students here at Ramsay High School. I’m just fortunate to be part of this institution.”
Over the last four years, Nelson has built a team that is making people take notice. Fans fill the stands for games. Student pride is high. And so far, eight players have been offered football scholarships. More scholarships are expected.
“Ramsay is a school where we believe in excellence, and that excellence carries over onto the competition field,” Nelson said. “We have some amazing kids, dedicated to giving their all.”
When Nelson wasn’t coaching his team or teaching World History at Ramsay, he was pursuing a master’s degree from the Alabama A&M University. He graduated on Saturday, Dec. 10, 2016 – one week after winning the championship game.
“I’ve been working on it for the last three years. I was taking a majority of the classes in the off season, over the summer,’’ he said. “I can’t coach football forever. There will be a time where I will need to spend more time with my wife and my children. I want to be prepared for the future.’’