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SWEET HOME: Central will play its first game on campus grounds in 100 years

Thursday, August 25, 2011

An aerial shot of the new Central High School stadium.
(Fred Lynch) [Order this photo]
Much has changed within the game of football over the past 100 years.

Helmets, strategy, rules, practices, size of staffs, size of players and even the ball.

Changes also have occurred at Central since the school first snapped a ball in 1912 against Normal Training High School.

In fact, Central wasn't even known as Central at the time. It went by Old Lorimier School in its infancy. The name was not changed to Central until 1920, and the Tigers nickname was adopted the following year.

Central High School has existed at three locations -- Pacific Street, Caruthers Avenue and Silver Springs Road.

Through it all, one constant has remained for the Central football program.

No Central varsity football team has played a game on school grounds.

That will change Sept. 2, 2011.

And while some Tigers will be playing away from home that night, it won't be the Tigers of Central.

The Tigers of Festus High School will be playing the role of visitor. The first true home game in Central history will kick off at 7 p.m.

Central High School stadium
(Fred Lynch)
Home away from home

Central has a firmly entrenched tradition of playing football off school grounds.

Fairground Park, now known as Capaha Park, provided the home field for Central football from 1912 to 1929. The Tigers said farewell to Fairground Park in 1929 with the first of only two unbeaten and unscored upon seasons in school history when Central went 8-0 under legendary coach Lou Muegge.

Southeast Missourian file Central coach Bob Goodwin and his players celebrate a 21-0 victory against Perryville that secured an unbeaten season in 1962.
Southeast Missouri State -- then known as Cape Girardeau Teachers College -- also used Fairground Park, which in past newspaper accounts was reported to be unsatisfactory in standard in the university's view. Southeast bought the site of a former rock quarry north of Broadway in 1925 and later began construction of Houck Stadium and dedicated the $150,000 facility Oct. 3, 1930.

The city's wavering commitment to a football field at Fairground Park apparently coincided with the opening of Houck. Changes planned for the park were not accommodating to football.

While the Southeast football team was in a former quarry, Central was in a quandary. It considered constructing a field on the Pacific Street campus but later reached an agreement with Southeast to play its games at Houck.

Southeast Missourian file Former Central football coach Robert Beard poses with one of his teams behind the old Central High School on Pacific Street around 1950.
The Tigers played their first home game of 1930 at Fairground Park after wrangling over the contract with Southeast, but Central began its stay at Houck on Oct. 23, 1930, with a 19-7 victory against De Soto.

The game was played on a Thursday, which would become a source of contention through the years, but an 80-year tradition was established.

Central agreed to pay Southeast 50 percent of all cash receipts and tickets sold, not totaling less than $50 and not more than $100 (with the exception of the Jackson game).

That sum would grow to $10,000 a year by the 2010 season.

The perfect place

In 1942, the Tigers posted arguably their greatest season at Houck, again not allowing a point in a perfect 8-0 season.

August Birk, an 85-year-old retiree in Cape Girardeau, was a senior reserve for Muegge on that unbeaten team.

Birk donned a leather helmet when he subbed in at center and linebacker. He wore no face guard.

"That was only for people that had broken noses or problems," said Birk, who once saw a teammate lose a mouth full of teeth, thanks to an ill-placed foot.

Birk's senior year was Central's 13th year at Houck.

"Almost everybody else had football fields there at their high schools," Birk said. "This was just commonplace for us. I had never known any other high school or what they had. This was just expected. We practiced at old Central High School, and when we played our games, we played at Houck Stadium."

Players also had an established tradition of traversing the few blocks from Central to Houck by bus.

Weldon Hager had a different tradition. He marched his way over as part of the Central band for three years.

Hager, who was inducted into the Central hall of fame in 2010 after a longtime tenure as a Tigers basketball coach, was a senior in 1942 and played trumpet.

Hager participated in the procession that marched from Pacific Street to Broadway, then up to Houck Place and into the stadium.

"They just let us march like they do for parades," Hager said. "They blocked it off and let us go."

The festive march lasted about 15 minutes and ended with a grand entry.

"At that time, there was an opening in the grandstand there at the 50-yard line," Hager said. "It wasn't closed like it is now. We'd hit that opening playing 'Tigers,' and march out onto the field and play 'The Star-Spangled Banner.'"

Hager also assisted with the manual scoreboard but never had to update the visitor's side during the 1942 season.

Central relocated to Caruthers Avenue in 1954 and the Houck tradition continued. It required a bus ride that was just a few minutes longer, but that didn't bother most.

"It was always a thrill to ride a bus up to Houck Stadium," said former Central quarterback Greg Brune, who graduated in 1964 and went on to play at Southeast. He was a junior on coach Bob Goodwin's team that went unbeaten in 1962.

Brune recalls getting dressed for games at adjacent Houck Field House. He said players got behind curtains and dressed on a tarp on the basketball court. The rather crude surroundings didn't bother him.

The alternative of getting ready at Central to play on Lou Muegge Field behind the high school was not appealing.

"Houck Stadium was much nicer than what [Muegge] would of been," Brune said.

Lou Muegge Field did not have lights or bleachers and only hosted JV and junior high games.

It was a far cry from Houck, which was one of the top venues for playing high school football.

There was no doubt about that in the mind of former Central all-state running back Paul Schermann, who went on to play at Missouri. Houck was more a joy than a problem for the elusive running back who played under former coach Gary Lynch and graduated in 1973.

"It was just a bigger atmosphere than what you normally got when you'd go to some of these other high school fields," Schermann said. "I mean it was just a step up."

Schermann ran wild on most fields, but he liked the good lighting at Houck, as well as the crowned surface, which gave him the feeling of running downhill when he came around the end.

"It really didn't bother me at all," Schermann said. "You just went out there and played. We considered that to be our home field. I guess we might have been stepchildren, but we played pretty well on the field."

The Tigers lost just one game in each of Schermann's three seasons, which included an undefeated regular season in 1972.

"There's a lot of memories of riding the bus over and singing songs afterward, especially when you won," Schermann said.

Central offensive coordinator Steve Williams, a 1980 graduate, was an all-state player for the Tigers, helping Central to a Class 4 runner-up finish in 1978.

He recalled a ploy by coach Tom Waller in the rivalry game with Jackson in 1979. The Tigers warmed up at the high school and didn't arrive at Houck until five minutes before the game.

"When we get there now, there's not a single person in the stadium," Williams said. "Well, arriving five minutes before the game starts, the stadium was full. It was kind of a neat feeling seeing all the people there."

The Tigers got off the bus and shellacked their rivals, posting a 55-16 victory.

Former Central linebacker Carl Gross was a senior in Schermann's sophomore season, when Central went 8-1. Gross prolonged his football career at Houck as a tight end for Southeast and later became a longtime coach at Jackson High School.

Gross, who graduated in 1971, said he liked playing at Houck, considering it a premier facility.

"Houck, especially in the '60s and '70s, dwarfed everything around here," Gross said.

As a coach, Gross said his Jackson players always looked forward to playing at Houck. He remembers players talking midsummer about finding shoes to wear on the artificial turf, which debuted at Houck in 2000.

"Never one time did it cross our minds that was Cape's home field," Gross said. "What crossed our mind is we got a chance to go over and play on that turf at SEMO."

Gross remembers fondly his teams' games at Houck.

"We played our best when we played at Houck Stadium," he said. "Then we played our next-best at home. And then we always played better at home than we did on the road, unless we played at Houck. There was just something about it that just energized us. Part of it was Central, and part of it was playing in that stadium."

It was quite a contrast from Jackson's home field, "The Pit," which is known as a difficult environment for opponents.

"The Pit" is on the Jackson school campus, right outside a locker room that lists the Indians' football accomplishments on the wall facing the field for all to see.

"The night before the first ballgame, we'd stand there and look at that," Gross said about the wall. "That's a history lesson. I can guarantee you, that's home field for Jackson."

It's something he never had at Central.

An inconvenient truth

While opponents were comfortable playing at Houck, the situation became less comfortable for the Tigers over the years.

On the downside of playing at Houck was a considerable number of Thursday night games. Such scheduling was necessary to avoid conflicts with Southeast events.

Those conflicts were not lost on Scott Horrell, who is part of a pipeline of offensive guards for the Tigers. Horrell's father, Fred, played that position for the Tigers in the 1950s, and his son Zach was a starting senior guard on Central's 10-2 team last season.

Scott Horrell, a 1983 graduate, said he didn't have a problem with playing at Houck when in high school.

"It was kind of neat because you were playing on a college field. It was always a nice surface, even back then when it was grass," he said.

He had played junior high football at Lou Muegge Field and knew Houck was a definite upgrade.

"The thing that started turning it for me was I didn't think we were getting the scheduling we needed at Houck Stadium," Horrell said. "We were playing a lot of Thursday night games, and that does not make a lot of sense for high school kids. First of all, the attendance would get diluted because you may also have a soccer game going on and people are at that. Then you have some kids may have tests the next morning. That knocked down the attendance also.

"When you got people out on the field and they see not many of their classmates showing up to watch them play, I think that has a psychological effect. And I think that was something that affected our team's records the last several years. Those Thursday night games were just kind of a bummer. When you've got more than a few of them, that's just not conducive to a good football atmosphere."

When other issues like rent, no concession revenue and a stadium void of school colors were taken into consideration, Horrell became active in the pursuit of a football facility after Central moved to its current location in 2003.

Original plans for the school included a football field, but it was put on hold when budget cuts pared several construction projects.

In 2007, Horrell became a member of a steering committee that formulated plans for a $4 million football facility that called for private funding.

"We just thought it was time for Central to start having its own home field," Horrell said. "They never had it. Basketball, they've enjoyed, I guess to this date, three nice new basketball gymnasiums. And the other sports seem to be pretty well facilitated like that.

"We just thought it was time for football to be able to enjoy that. And it's not just football that benefits from this."

Field of dreams

That dream became a reality in the last year, but not entirely along the path Horrell and the committee were headed. A $40 million bond was approved for the school district that provided public funding for the stadium.

Construction began this spring on a $2.9 million facility that follows the general plans drawn up by Horrell's committee, including synthetic turf at a cost of $770,278.

"It's pretty close to our original vision when we were looking at this thing," Horrell said.

The orange and black colors that were missing at Houck are unavoidable on the new field. "Central" and "Tigers" are emblazoned in the end zones, and a giant "CT" centerpieces the field.

Former Central athletic director Terry Kitchen, an all-state linebacker for the Tigers in the 1960s, is well known for his Tigers pride. As the Central AD, he had toyed with the idea of playing varsity football games at Lou Muegge but shelved those when Central moved to its current location. It's been his longtime goal to have football games on campus.

"I was on that football field the other day with Lance Tollison, the high school athletic director, and I'm going to tell you, when I walked on that field, I almost felt like I was on holy ground," Kitchen said.

Others are more subdued but just as impressed with the facility.

"I think it's great," Brune said. "They did it right. It's a lot nicer than what I thought they were going to have."

The field is situated inside a track, and bleachers on the east and west sides will seat 5,000. The facility will be multipurpose, also being used by the soccer teams, track and field teams and band.

"We did just about what we wanted," Tollison said. "We'll be able to host track events out here, we'll put soccer on it and football, and that was the dream."

Gross recently drove past the facility and was floored by what he saw.

"I know if I was coach [Nathan] Norman, I'd be doing backflips every time I drove by and saw that," Gross said.

Norman, one of Gross' former star players, is in his first year as coach at Central.

"As a visitor, I think most people enjoyed [Houck], to be honest with you," Norman said. "Because it was always a nice field and well maintained. It was a nice place to play.

"But I don't think anybody will be disappointed with what we're trading into here. It's really going to be a first-class facility, and I don't know if there's a better one between St. Louis and Memphis. I don't know one in St. Louis that is nicer than what they're building for us. It's fantastic."

While Central will be playing just a few miles away from Houck, it finally will be in its own football world -- a world called home.

"I have real fond memories of playing up there [at Houck]," Williams said. "And I won't lose those, but it will be exciting to make some new ones here with our players."

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I am an 80's graduate from central and loved playing on the much superior field at Houck. But I am happy for the new field also so I am torn. The draw back of this new field is parking. But if I am honest in comparison, when I played at Houck parking was worst than it will be at Central. From what I understand , parking will be in students lot and you will be able to walk through the school to get to the stadium. That may actually help a bit in foul weather.

-- Posted by Solelicious on Thu, Aug 25, 2011, at 9:45 AM


-- Posted by CapeTiger20 on Thu, Aug 25, 2011, at 10:19 AM

Lovely Stadium. There is only one problem. When there is a track between the field and the bleachers it makes it seem like you are so far away from the action. I love stadiums were you are right up on the field and seems like you are sitting on top of the players.

-- Posted by Jax12 on Thu, Aug 25, 2011, at 1:41 PM

An excellent addition. One of the best things and now they can have friday night home games and that will be a treat and a relief to the parents faculty and staff

-- Posted by peter_grant on Thu, Aug 25, 2011, at 3:57 PM

Very nice stadium! The only thing I don't like is I agree with jaxindians2010 that I wish the track wasn't around it so you could be right up on the game! I noticed this field runs north and south... It's gonna be cold with that wind blowing out of the north in those late October games. But overall fantastic stadium!

-- Posted by footballfan29 on Thu, Aug 25, 2011, at 4:39 PM

This should have been done years ago. Now, I wish the University would look at building a new facility and get out of the Old Houck which is out dated no matter how much paint you can brush on it she has seen it's days. May be some day we will have a new stadium on the campus of SEMO.

-- Posted by swampeastmissouri on Thu, Aug 25, 2011, at 5:53 PM

I thought this day would never come! It will be so exciting to watch the Tigers play in such a great facility!

-- Posted by sayswho? on Thu, Aug 25, 2011, at 7:02 PM

Proud Central have thier own stadium however I love Houck and hope the University keep it.

-- Posted by SEMO#1 on Thu, Aug 25, 2011, at 7:02 PM

Sad. I hope SEMO never gets rid of Houck. I remember the Indian mascot. We used to pack Houck at the Jackson games. It was always a neat tradition to play in a college facility.

-- Posted by Beaker on Thu, Aug 25, 2011, at 8:02 PM

Great looking stadium, drove by tonight and they had the lights on. Looked awesome.

-- Posted by dextermoms on Thu, Aug 25, 2011, at 11:02 PM

Houck is a completely new stadium, just the same historic foundation and bleachers. This is a great field at Central and I think you guys will feel a lot closer than you think. There isn't a bad seat in the place even on the very ends on the bleachers.

-- Posted by BB-BORE on Thu, Aug 25, 2011, at 11:03 PM

Its a multi-purpose field, not just football. Maybe jackson should think about doing the same

-- Posted by CapeTiger20 on Thu, Aug 25, 2011, at 11:30 PM

The only thing I see that is need is MORE SEATING!!!!

-- Posted by tigergrad89 on Fri, Aug 26, 2011, at 3:46 PM

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