Sculptor T.J. Neil works on a three-ton the fire-breathing concrete Blaze statue that is scheduled to be delivered in April and installed on the concourse of Bartow Arena. 

A three-ton, fire-breathing concrete Blaze statue is scheduled to be delivered in April and installed on the concourse of Bartow Arena. A three-ton concrete, “smoke-breathing” Blaze statue is being sculpted and should be installed on the concourse in front of Bartow Arena before graduation in May.

UAB’s National Alumni Society commissioned the 10-foot tall, 12-foot long statue and will pay $30,000 for it, says Rebecca Watson, associate vice president of Alumni Affairs & Annual Giving. The university has agreed to underwrite the cost of installation.

The Blaze sculpture will sit on a pedestal that is 14 feet long, seven feet wide and 18 inches off the ground. The hope is that graduates will want to have their photo taken with the statue as part of commencement tradition.

“The administration and alumni are very supportive of this project,” Watson says. “We’re trying to establish traditions that the students find symbolic, and the timing for this is right.”

Nate Wade, an academic advisor in biology, and Abbie Sumners, assistant director of financial aid, formed a 16-person Committee on UAB Traditions this past year to research and study traditions that could be adopted by the university community. (The group was responsible for painting the dragon claw prints on University Boulevard this past fall.) The committee conceived the idea of the statue, and the NAS then commissioned T.J. Neil of Homosassa, Fla., to construct the 6,000-pound sculpture.

“Everyone loved the idea,” says Wade. “We want everyone on campus and especially students to have school spirit and pride. If you have those things you’re more likely to invest in your school, graduate and stay connected.

“We want students at UAB to have the entire collegiate experience, and traditions are a big part of accomplishing that.”

Creating Blaze

The committee knew they wanted a Blaze concrete statue, but didn’t know if they could find someone who could create a dragon almost identical to Blaze. An Internet search led them to Neil, who has been sculpting concrete statues for 35 years – and who specializes in dragons and gargoyles. Neil jumped at the opportunity.

“I’ve been waiting for 35 years to do a project like this,” says Neil, a 68-year-old former U.S. Marine. “This is the first university I’ve done a project like this for, so that’s exciting. And I can tell you this: UAB is getting a piece that never will be recreated.

“This thing is going to be absolutely phenomenal. I’ve done dragons, but I’ve never been as excited as I am about this one.”
Neil and his son are sculpting the statue, which includes a fog machine inside the dragon’s belly to produce the smoke-breathing effect.
Neil, who has written two books on concrete sculpting, doesn’t use molds to create his sculptures. He builds them from scratch using concrete rebar and lathe wire. Neil’s previous work can be viewed on his Web site at and through two videos located at and .

Wade says he’s grateful for the support the Committee on UAB Traditions has received on this project.

“We couldn’t have done this without the help of the administration and the National Alumni Society,” Wade says. “This idea went from staff and students up to President Carol Garrison, and every single person we met along the way gave us input, ideas and support.

“We can’t wait to get Mr. Neil’s finished product.”

Tale of the tape
Here’s a look at how the Blaze concrete statue measures up:
• Height: 10 feet
• Length: 12 feet
• Length from nose to tip of tail: 30 feet
• Weight: 6,000 pounds
• Colors: Two shades of green and yellow
• Cost: $30,000
• He said it: “I’ve been waiting 35 years to do a project like this.” — T.J. Neil, sculptor
• See Neil’s work: Watch some of Neil’s previous work as it’s constructed: