Saturday Morning Quarterback

The Wrigley Field of football stadiums
Oct 4, 2013

 

When Randy Sallis was serving as the public address announcer at Nokes-Lasater Field during the latter years of Bobby Brown’s tenure as Lebanon High football coach, he began referring to the field as “historic”.

If one gets a chance to walk into the lower corridors of Middle Tennessee State’s Murphy Center, there are mural photos on the wall of the Blue Raider basketball teams that have played in the facility, which is termed on the wall as “historic”.

I know I’m getting old. But both facilities are younger than I. Nokes-Lasater opened in 1965 and Murphy in ’72. I know that is historic to younger generations, but I still think of them as somewhat new, or entering their prime.

Watertown football fans will say “goodbye” to a field that’s truly historic next Friday night – Robinson Stadium.

I was once told the current concrete bleachers were built in the late 1960s. But the Purple Tigers have been playing on that plot of ground in front of the New Deal-era Billy Luck Gymnasium since the 1920s.

There may not be a person living today who remembers anything but a football field at that spot on West Main Street.

According to the school’s website, the Purple Tigers demolished Gordonsville 74-0 in 1940, the same year they beat a much more populous Lebanon team and Mt. Juliet, then a small school like WHS.

That was during the era of the famed Burkett brothers.

Later, coach Brownie Robinson ushered in an era of dominance for the Tigers which saw them qualify for the third TSSAA playoff, in 1971, the first Wilson County team to do so. Only four teams reached the postseason then.

But an annual event was the Lions Bowl. Clifton Tribble brought his first Lebanon team to play in the game in 1960. Brentwood Academy’s first postseason game came in that game in the early ‘70s before the Eagles won 10 state championships.

When Brownie Robinson became ill in the winter of 1974, his son Bill, who played linebacker on his dad’s earliest Purple Tiger teams a decade earlier, left the old Lebanon Junior High and took over at his alma mater. Bill Robinson’s teams continued their run of excellence through the mid-‘80s.

But the stadium itself is the Wrigley Field of high school football.

The Georgia Bulldogs play between the hedges at Sanford Stadium. The Purple Tigers played behind the hedges on West Main Street for years. Before the stadium was formally dedicated to the Robinson family in the mid-2000s, I referred to the field as the Hedges.

If I recall the story correctly, the hedges were planted in the 1950s, I’m guessing to keep pedestrians from getting a free look at the game.

Because the field had to fit the configurations of the surrounding street and buildings, much like Wrigley, Fenway Park and many other early baseball stadiums, the south end zone wasn’t the regulation 10 yards deep.

Sometime around the turn of the 21st century, the hedges were removed and the fence taken down. The barrier was moved back a couple of yards to the middle of the sidewalk. Shrubs now stand just beyond the back line of the end zone, but inside the fence.

The field slopes downward toward the south. The northeast corner of the end zone has a steep incline.

Going there to interview coach Gavin Webster this week, kicker Chandler Powell was practicing kicking field goals into the south goal post. One ball went through the uprights, hit a power line which runs above the sidewalk behind it and landed inside the fence.

One of my favorite views of the stadium is from the back parking lot behind the school which sits on a hill overlooking the field. When you gain sight of the stadium, you get a panoramic view of the players on the field, fans in the visiting bleachers, houses beyond the bleachers and the beautiful hills in the background that are outside of town.

Norman Rockwell would have had a field day drawing a Saturday Evening Post cover of that scene.

Townspeople have long loved their Purple Tigers. Back when Bill Robinson was conducting preseason practices at night, going to the stadium was the thing to do. They didn’t wait until the first Friday home game of the season. When Monterey came calling for a scrimmage this past August, the home stands were almost packed.

Not watching from the bleachers were the parents of Mayor Mike Jennings, who live diagonally across the street from the field. They took staying at home to watch the game to a different level. Instead of TV, Jean Jennings, a former longtime school board member and chairwoman, watched from a chair on her front porch while her husband walked to the corner of the fence to look in.

And admittance was free that evening.

No doubt Purple Tiger Nation will follow their heroes to the new stadium on the under-construction Sparta Pike campus next season while the junior-high Tigers take over Robinson Stadium. There may be new scenery to admire. The playing dimensions may be more perfect with a crowned field. The team will actually have a separate regulation-sized practice field. Power lines will be kept away from the field of play [probably a good thing].

But charm can’t be built into a brand-new stadium. That takes a lifetime. 

 

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