Early next week, the 12 best football teams in the state of Nebraska will play for one of six state championships as the state high school football playoffs climaxes with the championship round Monday and Tuesday in Memorial Stadium — the WORST place in the state to host games of this magnitude from a fan's perspective.
Wait . . . whaaaaaat???
With all due respect to the young men who grew up playing football in the backyard and fantasizing about scoring a touchdown in the south (or north) end zone of Nebraska’s football mecca (and I was one of them back in the day, even though I was too small — according to my parents — to play the game), winning a state championship is a special moment, but doing it in Memorial Stadium is nowhere near as exciting as doing it on your home (or the opposing team’s) field.
Back in 1995, I was sports editor for the Papillion Times and had the opportunity to cover one of the last championship games played at the site of one of the championship teams. Papillion-LaVista was playing Millard South for all the marbles in Class A, and the game was played at the old Monarch Stadium located just to the west of Halleck Park in Papillion. It has been 22 years since that game took place, and my ears STILL ring when I think of everything that happened that sunny November afternoon.
Back then, getting to the playoffs was TOUGH to do, especially in Class A. Only eight teams made it to the big dance in the big-school division (while 16 qualified in the other divisions), so there weren’t any teams below or just over the .500 mark even THINKING about the playoffs, let alone playing in them. One loss during the regular season put you on the bubble, and very few two-loss teams made it to the eight-team bracket.
Papillion-LaVista had become one of the dominant programs in Class A during that time, coached by Gene Suhr (who later was Dan McLaughlin’s offensive coordinator at Wayne State) and featuring a ton of top-level players who went on to have success in college and the pros. Players like Lance Brown and Reggie Baul came from there, and a kicker by the name of Carlos Martinez enjoyed a long career in the Arena Football League.
In the 1995 season, it came down to the Monarchs and Millard South (then known as the Indians before political correctness started rearing its ugly head in these parts). Both had won their way to the championship game and Monarch Stadium was the host site for the championship game.
The capacity for the stadium’s two sets of 60-yard-long bleachers on each side was about 4,000 — but school officials had a pretty good idea they’d be running out of seats long before kickoff.
And they were right.
The school brought in bleachers to put behind the end zones and rolled a snow fence around the inner part of the track to keep fans off the field. By an hour before the 2 p.m. kickoff, not a seat could be had in the original bleachers, and by kickoff it was difficult to hear yourself think over the crowd that had filled the auxiliary bleachers and lined 5-6 deep around the snow fence in the corners of the field.
The game matched the electricity of the fans on both sides of the field. It was a classic showdown of high-scoring offenses and stingy defenses and went down to the final minutes. Millard South scored to take a 28-24 lead with about two minutes left, and the Monarchs drove down the field for the potential game-tying score before throwing a late interception that allowed the Indians to hang on and claim the state title.
The roar of the crowd in those final minutes was deafening for everybody on the field. Fans were literally within arm’s reach of each team’s sideline. No matter where you stood taking photos, you were getting an earful of cheers from fans on both sides. It was as electric an atmosphere for any high school football game I’ve attended in almost 40 years of walking sidelines across the state. The only game I can recall coming close was the year before when I watched Norfolk beat Omaha Benson in the finals at Norfolk’s Memorial Field. It was the same kind of situation — standing-room only, bleachers in the end zones, loud as hell from kickoff to final play.
Now . . . take THAT atmosphere out of a 4,000-5,000 seat stadium and stick it in the middle of a behemoth like Memorial Stadium — the fans are still yelling, the players are still playing, but the atmosphere of that game gets lost in that cathedral of a stadium. You can’t replicate that kind of energy in a building that big.
Now I get the concept of Nebraska’s best high school football players playing for a state title in the stadium every kid grows up dreaming about playing in. Volleyball plays their championships in the home of the Husker volleyball team. Same goes for the basketball teams who reach the finals at Pinnacle Bank Arena. Both stadiums are easily the biggest any of those teams will play in during their season.
However — we’re comparing grapes to watermelons here.
Most high school gymnasiums will seat anywhere from 500 (in the really small schools) to a 2,000 or so in the bigger gyms. Rice Auditorium at Wayne State College seats about 2,100 on those rare occasions when it’s full. By comparison, the Devaney Center seats about 9,000 and the Pinnacle Bank Arena checks in at almost double that. Therefore, the kids play the state finals in facilities that are anywhere from 20-40 times as big as the ones they are used to playing in during the season.
Now compare that to high school football fields vs. Memorial Stadium. Most of the schools who reach the finals play on fields that have a seating capacity of 2,000 or fewer (with the exception of the Class A and bigger Class B schools). Take a standing-room-only crowd out of a game in one of those small-town fields and move them into Memorial Stadium, and it’s like serving a shot of tequila in a Big Gulp glass.
Consider Tuesday morning’s Class C-1 championship game between Norfolk Catholic and Boone Central/Newman Grove, a game that should be a non-stop thriller.
These two teams are literally an hour away from each other, but have to drive 2-3 hours to Lincoln to play this game. Could you imagine trying to get a parking spot 2-3 hours BEFORE kickoff at either team’s home stadium? Or having to get there that early just to get a seat? Would you be prepared to stand behind the fence in either end zone because all the bleachers on both sides of the field are filled to capacity? Do you think you’d be able to hear yourself think, or hear the PA announcer, when either team makes a big play?
Well don’t worry — you won’t have to deal with ANY of those “inconveniences” next week. You can find a parking spot close by without much trouble, even 15 minutes before game time. It’s a long walk to get to the stands, but PLENTY of seating will be available. And you’ll even be able to carry on a conversation with your buddies as you watch the game . . . unless, of course, you sit in or near the student section where most of the yelling will be taking place. Sit 20-30 rows up around the 25-yard line and you’re good to go.
Of course, the Nebraska School Activities Association says they do things “for the kids,” but if they REALLY wanted them to experience a championship-caliber atmosphere, they would move the games to Seacrest Field in Lincoln, or even Foster Field at the University of Nebraska at Kearney, whose capacities are much smaller and provide exciting atmospheres for games such as this at this level. Better yet — move the games back to home sites as it was in the past so they can experience a REAL once-in-a-lifetime buzz of playing a championship game with both teams’ fan bases so close to the action.
Six teams will celebrate their state titles next week on the 50-yard line at the place every kid grows up dreaming of playing in. It’s just too bad the energy of that championship experience won’t be near as electrifying with their fans so far away from the sidelines.