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Historic Hackley Stadium home of the Big Reds

Hackley_StadiumOne of the nation’s most storied stadiums has been home to the highly successful Muskegon (Michigan) High School football program for more than a century.

Since 1907, the Big Reds have played their home games at “Historic Hackley Stadium.” With a current seating capacity of 6,000, it ranks among the largest stadiums in the Wolverine State.

Muskegon enters the 2011 season with a 753-264-43 win-loss record, which ranks 11th all-time in the nation according to the NFHS’ National High School Sports Record Book. That victory total also ranks No. 1 in the state of Michigan, and altogether the Big Reds have won 17 state titles.

But the “specialness” of Hackley Stadium goes way beyond mere seating capacity, victory totals and state titles.

According to Ron Pesch, who is both the historian for the Michigan High School Athletic Association and a 1979 Muskegon High School graduate who has witnessed more than 100 games there, the stadium has a tremendous tradition, outstanding fan support and an atmosphere that could accurately be described as “electric.”

“West Michigan loves its high school football, and Friday night football at Hackley Stadium really has a college-like feel to it,” Pesch said. “The field is located in the middle of town and the stadium sits on the high school campus ‑ we even have a statue on the grounds.

“Alumni and students pack the stands. The oldest season-ticket holder ‑ Anne Potter Moore ‑ passed away this year. She liked to say she held her season tickets since 1927 when her father moved to Muskegon to accept a job as an assistant football coach. She was a year old at the time. It's not unusual to find folks in the stands who have held their tickets for 40 or 50 years.”

The development of Hackley Stadium over the years has been an intriguing story in and of itself.

In 1914, wooden bleachers that accommodated 4,000 fans were built.

In the seven years between 1920 and 1926, Muskegon won or shared the mythical state title four times. That success, in concert with increased ticket demand and 13 years’ wear and tear on the stadium, caused administration to consider replacing the facility.

As means of funding a new stadium, the high school principal asked the players to sell bonds to the public. That effort proved successful.

At its inaugural contest against Muskegon Heights on September 17, 1927, more than 2,000 students paraded on the field and 3,000 fans were in the stands as both bands performed the National Anthem. In that game, the Big Reds easily defeated Heights, 89-0.

In the late 1930s, Muskegon administrators decided that they needed to install lights for night games at Hackley Stadium.

To help pay for lights, school officials sought out individuals to become “Patrons of the Big Reds” who would buy season tickets in advance at the reduced cost of $2.50 for the five home games.

Then in 1996, Hackley Stadium underwent massive renovations, and today it looks as great as ever.

Like most stadiums, much of Hackley Stadium’s mystique manifests itself in the legendary games that have been played there. Pesch can recount three such contests.

“The 1945 game against Muskegon Heights was a season-ending battle for the mythical state championship between two undefeated teams,” Pesch noted. “It was won by the Heights, 7-6, on a goal-line stand. Dick Kishpaugh (the state's longtime high school historian) called it the greatest high school game in state history. A crowd of 13,500 was on hand.

“The second was the 1971 midseason battle between Muskegon and Traverse City. Both teams were undefeated and TC was ranked No. 1 in the UPI and AP polls, while Muskegon was No. 1 in the Detroit Free Press. More than 10,000 fans packed Hackley Stadium for that one ‑ won by Muskegon. The Big Reds ended the year as mythical state champs ‑ their first since winning it in 1951.

“The third was another battle with Traverse City, this time in 1985. The Trojans won that one on a hook-and-ladder in the final seconds of the game after Muskegon had taken the lead about 30 seconds earlier on a long pass interception returned for a touchdown. TC and its head coach Jim Ooley were Muskegon's biggest rivals at the time.”

So, what are the secrets to Muskegon’s success?

“Tradition and a strong work ethic,” Pesch said. “I'm sure no one wants to be the guy who caused it all to come crashing down. Fortunately, the district has been blessed with people who care about and believe in the kids, and can inspire them to succeed. And people ‑ kids and adults ‑ still want to be part of a winner. So, all those things play a factor, in my opinion.”


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