Don’t scoff at Soldier Field

September 13, 2013 

An 89-year-old treasure trove of sports history, Chicago’s Soldier Field might be the least hallowed significant stadium in America.

Critics of Soldier Field, where the Washington Huskies will put their No. 19 national ranking on the line Saturday against Illinois, have dubbed it a fiasco, the Mistake on the Lake, the Eyesore on the Lake Shore or Monstrosity on the Midway.

These reviews were submitted after a $600 million renovation. The new and improved stadium, unveiled in 2003, found a federal advisory board of architects so aghast at the radical face lift that Soldier Field’s status as a “National Historic Landmark” was stripped.

“If we had let this stand,” a spokesperson for the National Park Service explained, “I believe it would have lowered the standard of National Historic Landmarks throughout the country.”

Beloved, it ain’t.

Soldier Field offers both a peek of a spectacular skyline and a panoramic view of Lake Michigan. On a pleasant day – there are two or three them a year in Chicago – the confluence of sparkling skyscrapers and blue water dotted with sailboats is majestic.

But Soldier Field never has inspired visitors to gape in wonderment, the way they do when they enter, say, Lambeau Field in Green Bay. Built in 1924, Soldier Field spent most of its first five decades as a white elephant, used mostly for pro-football exhibitions, high school events and the occasional religious function. Despite its enormous capacity – 100,000 at one time – Chicago’s Bears preferred the intimacy of Wrigley Field. When the NFL mandated that its stadiums seat at least 50,000, in 1971, the Bears grudgingly became Soldier Field’s first full-time tenant.

The sight lines were awful – fewer seats between the 20-yard lines than in the corners and the end zone – and amenities were primitive. A succession of Band-Aid renovations preceded the 2003 remodeling, an ambitious attempt to fit a thoroughly modern football stadium inside a structure noted for its Greco-Roman exterior.

The result produced something commonly seen as a spaceship within a Greek temple, an amalgamation that has robbed Soldier Field of whatever charm it once had.

Still, the story of the stadium reads like a condensed version of the story of American sports. In 1927, when boxing matches were front-page events and fighters were household names, Soldier Field was the stage for Jack Dempsey’s rematch with defending heavyweight champion Gene Tunney.

Dempsey threw an apparent knockout punch in the fourth round, but referee Dave Barry couldn’t begin the count until the challenger went to a neutral corner. Dempsey’s indecision bought Tunney precious seconds to regroup, and he ended up winning a unanimous decision in 10 rounds.

Dempsey-Tunney II drew a crowd of 104,943 (including ringside spectator Al Capone), worth a box-office gate of $2.7 million. It was the first $2 million gate in entertainment history.

Two months later, the second game in Notre Dame’s rivalry series with USC was seen by an estimated 120,000 fans at Soldier Field. That remains among the largest crowds to watch a college football game, but a case could be made that the largest crowd for any football game was set at Soldier Field for the 1937 Chicago prep title between Leo and Austin.

Leo, represented the Catholic League and, more broadly, the largely Irish South Side. Austin, from the public league, was from a more diversified neighborhood on the far West Side. That about 120,000 fans would jam Soldier Field for a high-school game seems inconceivable today, but what was especially remarkable about the turnout is that a few weeks later, only 15,870 showed up at Wrigley Field for the 1937 NFL title game against the Washington Redskins.

Between 1934 and 1976, Soldier Field’s signature event was a preseason exhibition that paired college All-Stars eligible to play pro football against the defending NFL champions. It’s a goofy notion in 2013 – prized draft prospects reporting to a neutral training camp, to prepare themselves for a beat down: Really? – and in the early 1970s, the idea started sounding goofy to NFL executives, too.

But the ludicrous premise behind the College All-Star Game doesn’t mask the fact that virtually every Hall-of-Fame player over the age of 65 appeared in one of those exhibitions.

A decade after it reopened to the thumbs-down reviews of architecture critics, Soldier Field isn’t what it was. Gone is the track that separated fans from the action – Huskies fans can relate – a track expansive enough for NASCAR to stage a 1966 Grand National race in the stadium.

Also gone, though, is any vestige of the building where Walter Payton broke Jim Brown’s career rushing record; where Dick Butkus crouched behind the defensive line, fingers taped, stalking the opposition like a caged, uh, Bear; where Mike Ditka’s 1985 team stormed to the Super Bowl with a havoc-wreaking defense choreographed by Buddy Ryan.

Gone, too, is Soldier Field’s status as National Historic Landmark.

But this can’t be denied: When the Huskies take the field Saturday, they’ll be on the same sacred and haunted ground where Jack Dempsey was too slow to move to a neutral corner in 1927.

Dempsey’s infamous brain-lock is something Washington head coach Steve Sarkisian might want to broach during his pregame talk, when he reminds his hurry-up Huskies of the benefits of competing at an accelerated pace.

Sarkisian also could point out that there’s no need to be nervous. Even if there’s a sellout crowd Saturday, the Huskies will play before 60,000 fewer Soldier Field fans than watched a high school game in 1937.

john.mcgrath@ thenewstribune.com

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