MUSKEGON, MI – A plot of grass that’s 120 yards long by about 60 yards wide sits amid Victorian homes in Muskegon’s Nelson Neighborhood.
But this is no park.
For Muskegon High School football coach Shane Fairfield and hundreds of Big Reds players over the years, it’s a sanctuary. A place where everyday worries are pushed away, if only for a few hours.
It’s authentic. It’s iconic. It’s Hackley Stadium, the century-old home of the Muskegon Big Reds, the winningest high school football program in Michigan.
“My first football game ever playing youth football was at Hackley Stadium. It was a great thing,” Fairfield said. “I remember walking down the tunnel and going out there and thinking that I was at Notre Dame or something – knowing that you were on a big-time campus and a big-time football field.”
It’s late Friday afternoon in the fall. A stream of vehicles, some with Big Reds stickers proudly affixed in rear windows, come from all directions and converge upon the site where Muskegon High School has been playing football since 1907.
Approach Hackley Stadium from Sanford Street and you’ll see the grayish-white concrete grandstand supported by columns, hanging over an exposed-brick façade with glass-block windows and wrought-iron gates.
The stadium features a classic look, one that screams tradition and big-time high school football.
Hackley is cut from the same cloth as Notre Dame Stadium, University of Michigan’s “Big House” football stadium and old Yankee Stadium, all of them designed by Osborn Engineering out of Cleveland.
The grandstand as it exists at Hackley was built in 1927. The stadium shows its age, but that’s part of the charm.
That charm, however, has come with a cost over the years.
The natural grass field gets chewed up over the course of a season, forcing Muskegon to sometimes seek alternative sites for games late in the year. The condition of the field at this time already has resulted in Muskegon moving its opening-round home playoff game Saturday to a neutral site 20 minutes away at Grand Haven High School.
Enter the stadium through the main gates and you’re funneled into the tunnel beneath the seating structure, where cardinal-clad Muskegon football players march from the locker room to the field. The Big Reds rhythmically slap their thigh pads, clap and chant. Anticipation and excitement for the upcoming battle are reaching a crescendo.
“Ooh, aah, yeah it’s on, baby!”
“You can hear the echo in the tunnel – that’s a great feeling,” Muskegon senior Jordan Porter said. “And then when you walk out the tunnel, you walk out into the stadium and stands are filled. You look around, it’s just lights are shining, everybody’s cheering – it’s really a great environment. The community really comes out and shows love.”
Seating is available only on the home side in the large grandstand whose capacity is 5,000. The space between the playing field and grandstand is so tight, you can practically feel fans breathing down your neck.
Fans of visiting teams, who are used to sitting across the way at other stadiums, find themselves packed next to the rabid Big Reds faithful or standing if they make the mistake of getting to the game before the hometown fans fill the seats.
For the biggest of games, such as when crosstown rival Mona Shores pays a visit, the crowd overflows. For a yesteryear rivalry game between Muskegon and Muskegon Heights in 1945, the stadium was busting at the seams with approximately 14,000 fans.
State historian and lifetime Muskegon resident Ron Pesch has visited dozens upon dozens of high school football stadiums across Michigan, seeking classic designs and lively environments. While a number of other stadiums do amazing things in their own world, he said, there’s nothing like Hackley. The historic stadium and setting, and a football team that’s succeeded for decades, make it unique.
“What’s amazing about watching a football game at Muskegon High School is watching those alums, those students, pour into the stadium, those football fans from the area. And it’s a mix of everybody in town. They know their football. They love watching football here and they’re not afraid to voice their opinions on what’s right and what’s wrong,” said Pesch, a 1979 Muskegon High alumnus, who has been attending Big Reds games since the early-1970s and who co-authored the book “100 Years of Muskegon Big Red Football.”
“It’s a great place to watch football from that standpoint alone, to be intermixed with everybody, high-fiving and fist-bumping each other for a big play. But they appreciate their football. They understand when a strong opponent comes to town and they turn out in droves to watch ’em, and it’s in a neighborhood that fits so nicely with that.”
If you’re a football player performing at Hackley Stadium, then you’re under the spotlight. Those bright lights, which pierce the night sky, shine upon you.
Youngsters dream of playing at Hackley. When they come of age, the realization hits that they’re playing for their community as well as for the players who’ve come before them.
“The lights – the lights, they will get you,” Big Reds senior Billie Roberts beamed. “This is my last season, so I try not to get emotional, but playing under the lights is like being in the spotlight with your brothers, people that have got your back, making sure you’re all right.”
Even when the games end, majority of them ending in Big Reds victory, the spectacle is far from over. Traditions continue.
The Muskegon Big Red Marching Band leaves the field via the tunnel, the drums’ cadence echoing off walls as onlooking fans clap and congratulate players filtering back to their locker room.
“To walk down beneath the stands, stand against that wall and watch that marching band come through (the tunnel) and the football players coming off the football field into the locker rooms and the applause that’s going on, the patting on shoulder pads, it’s phenomenal,” Pesch said.
The band exits the stadium and spills onto Sanford Street. The crowd clears out, as does the team.
When Hackley Stadium’s lights flip off, so caps another electric night of Big Reds football. At that moment, it’ll be another week or two until the venue comes to life again and the city has that glow.
“There’s nothing like Hackley Stadium,” Porter said.