Early last Saturday morning I went to Raymond James Stadium to see what all the excitement was about at the facility where the Pioneers play football.
On the short drive over I recalled some of the great times I had in that stadium back in the mid 1970s. There were the football games, of course, with the marching band hammering out the fight song. There were the pep rallies where a group of rouge seniors would take over the cheering from those cheerleaders, paragons of Southern beauty and spirit.
There was the recollection of the forced running of the bleachers (Alpines they were called) that Bob McElroy insisted on for conditioning of the basketball team. The names of some of my teammates who have passed away came to mind. My sister’s crush on Coach James himself.
Nostalgia. Pure and unadulterated nostalgia is what that was.
I was jerked back to reality when a police officer walked me up to the tape blocking access to the stands. It didn’t take long to see for myself that this is not the same Shanks Field/Raymond James Stadium of my youth. No, this place is literally falling apart at the seams.
The whole east side of the bleachers are separating from the middle, as a crack _ maybe fissure is a better term _ extends from top to bottom. The cop stuck his entire foot down in a hole near steps about two-thirds of the way up just under an aluminum row seat. Steel plates were everywhere. I was told they were stop-gap measures to plug holes.
What happened? That has been the cry. Who would have thought that the City of East Ridge condemning a football stadium would elicit such a visceral reaction from the Pioneer Community?
The finger pointing has started. It’s the Hamilton County School Board’s fault. I was told by our School Board representative, David Testerman, that it has long been the policy of the county schools not to allocate money for maintenance on sports stadiums.
The School Board operates from the money appropriated by the Hamilton County Commission. So, it’s the Commission’s fault, right? The Commission believes $400 million to operate the system is enough. I guess that includes sports.
Why hasn’t the City of East Ridge done something? Do you write checks from your account to help your neighbor pay for their mortgage? I didn’t think so. If City Fathers wrote a big check to East Ridge High School for improvements to a football stadium, you’d never hear the end of the bellyaching about how “it’s not our responsibility to keep up something that we don’t own.”
This is only the beginning, dear reader. A county engineer is going to inspect the stadium and report back to his Hamilton County masters on the structural integrity of the stadium. I’m not an engineer. I’ve got no idea what information that report might contain. It’s coming, though, and soon. County officials expect it back by Thursday, perhaps.
The news is not going to be good, in any way, shape or form.
Scenario One: The stadium is not in danger of falling down. It can be patched and the Pioneers resume their home games there. This is a real possibility. It’s not acceptable, though.
In a conversation with Testerman on Monday, he made the analogy that the stadium is a “can” in the childhood game of “kick the can.” Scenario One is just kicking that can down the street for somebody else to deal with it.
Scenario Two: The stadium is beyond repair. It has to come down. It could collapse under its own weight. Obviously no good. One estimate of replacing it is $500,000. Where’s the money to build a new one going to come from? The County School Board isn’t going to pay for it. Neither is the City of East Ridge.
No stadium, no football? Not so fast.
Camp Jordan plays host to the East Ridge Boys’ Soccer Team. The field they play on, “Weldon F. Osborne Stadium,” is beautiful and can accommodate football. It’s got a set of concrete bleachers (in good repair I might add) on the west side. They are 75 yards long and five rows high.
Yeah, but there isn’t stands on both sides. So! Did you see the Little League World Series on TV last weekend? A goodly number of the fans had a great view of the game on a hillside, and they looked quite comfortable in the collapsing seats they brought along.
The field is lighted with state-of-the-art candlepower, that I’m told ESPN could televise a contest there in the pitch dark if they were inclined to do so.
Goal posts? I’m told efforts are underway to locate some “removable” football goal posts. Don’t know how much that might cost but it couldn’t be no $500,000.
A field house? Nope. But, what about all that structural steel and material that the city paid to have dismantled and salvaged from the No. 2 Fire Hall back in April? Perhaps the material could be used to build a locker room for the players adjacent to the field.
I would wager that every Pioneer on the football team would feel right at home _ as in home field advantage _ playing their games at Camp Jordan. It’s home soil if there ever was such a thing.
I’m told that it’s being discussed, that in the event East Ridge is evicted from its stadium, that one or more home games could be played on the Weldon Osborne Field at Camp Jordan.
The way I see it, the issue of a crumbling Raymond James Stadium can do two things: It can wound us, drive a wedge between East Ridge and Hamilton County and leave a bitter taste in the mouths of everyone, especially the young “homeless” athletes who see how dysfunctional and irresponsible the pass-the-buck-and-kick-the-can real world can be.
Or, … and I know this may sound naive, it can unite us. Unite us around something that most of us have strong, emotional ties to; our youth, OUR school. The world of the Homecoming Queen and the Star Quarterback. I know it sounds corny in this day and age.
Nah, that will never work. We will all probably just shake our heads and moan and backbite and point fingers about what should have been done. The Pioneers, off to a 2-0 start on the young, promising season, will just be Road Warriors for the rest of the year.
Do this; break out your old “Musket” yearbook and flip through the pages. Reflect on the optimism that is held in all those young, teenage faces. Your face is in there.
Now go look in the mirror. “What’s it going to be?”