Joe Sullivan attended his first football game in the late 1950s at Rawson Field in Kalispell. It’s where he played his first game as a member of the Flathead High School football team and his final games in his senior season, when the Braves won the state championship. It’s where he coached track for three decades and officiated football games.
It’s fair to say Sullivan is intimately familiar with Legends Stadium and its centerpiece surface, formerly Rawson Field. And as much as he cherishes the site, he has to admit, “As far back as I can remember, the field has been unsuitable for play,” he wrote in a recent letter to the school district.
Historical accounts frequently report swampy conditions miring the field. Drainage problems have plagued generations of groundskeepers.
“During my four years in high school, the field never lasted through the season. Sand, sawdust, dirt, and other materials were brought in each year to try to get the field in playing condition for the final weeks of the year,” Sullivan recalled.
Over the years, renovations improved the surface conditions and underground sprinklers were installed. Yet an infamous crown that developed across mid-field and the consistent battering of seasonal weather only exacerbated the age-old problems.
Now a solution is in sight. The Kalispell Public Schools Board of Trustees approved a plan to replace the grass field with synthetic turf, along with other renovations inside the stadium, which houses athletic events for Flathead and Glacier high schools, as well as Highlander Track and other youth programs.
The school board unanimously approved the installation of synthetic turf at its Feb. 14 meeting. Along with Sullivan’s letter of support, the school district received 24 other public comments backing the proposal. Two others stated their public opposition.
The new turf, which is scheduled to be installed this summer, will be part of the $958,000 Legends Stadium renovation project that was part of the school district’s bond request, which voters approved last October.
Supporters of the new turf say it will allow the district to host more events and sports at the stadium while addressing safety concerns.
“It is evident it may prevent injuries and does not increase them,” Chris Parson, who officiates high school football games, said in a letter of support. “It will also nearly eliminate playing on a chewed up field during adverse weather conditions that persist in our fall climate in (Northwest Montana).”
He added, “In my experience, the current field by mid season is in the worse shape of any field in our region.”
The pole vault runway and pad would need to be moved to the south end of the complex. The cost would be neutral for the district, according to the committee. Maintenance costs would go down significantly, but the new surface would need to be replaced every 10-12 years at a rough cost estimate of $550,000, according to administrators.
Other towns that have schools with artificial turf include Billings, Butte, Missoula and soon to be Great Falls.
Dan Johns, president and founder of Kidsports Complex, lamented the loss of natural grass at the stadium.
“A number of alternates to grass have appeared the past 50 years; none have endured and each has been succeeded by something ‘better.’ While alternates appear and reappear, grass is still an installation often selected,” he wrote to the school board.
He continued, “I encourage the district to use a tried and true field surface: grass. Borrowing the words of a former Major League Baseball outfielder: ‘If my horse cannot eat it, I don’t want to play on it.”
Others, like Sullivan, look forward to a new chapter for the old field.
“By stepping into the 21st century and adding the new artificial turf along with the additional seating and other changes, (Legends Stadium) will be the top spot in the state,” Sullivan said.