New Football Stadium Was An Oasis In A Desert Of Troubles


(OPINION) The city was Lexington, Kentucky. The date was Sept. 15, 1973. The crowd was 48,000, according to a contemporary news story.

I don’t remember the weather. I don’t remember the construction that apparently was underway even as cars were pulling into the parking lot of the University of Kentucky’s Commonwealth Stadium, now called Kroger Field. I don’t remember where our seats were.

UK took on Virginia Tech, which was not then the football juggernaut it later became. Virginia Tech was, I think, cast as more-or-less a gimme win, the team you invite when you need a reliable W for the inaugural game of your new football home.

That football home recently marked its 50th anniversary.

I was there for that first game.

I don’t recall one play of it. But it must not have been as easy a contest as I would have expected. Final score: Kentucky 31, Virginia Tech 26.

I was with my dad, then a Southern Baptist pastor. Where he got our tickets I can’t say, and he’s no longer here to ask. Maybe a church member held season tickets but was going to be away on business. It was the only UK football game he and I ever attended together.

Here’s what I remember in detail.

We were having a very rough patch, he and I, and my mom, too.

I was 17, a senior in high school. From my teenage viewpoint, just about everything that could go wrong had.

We’d lived in Campbellsville, down in South-Central Kentucky, since I was in fourth grade. Then, that summer, between my junior and senior years of high school, Dad accepted the call to a church in Mt. Sterling, northeast of Lexington in the foothills of Appalachia. He uprooted us, taking us 100 miles away.

I loved Campbellsville. It was home. I’d built a web of friends. I was a football player and thought — I doubt anyone else thought this — I had a shot at making all-state, or at least all-conference, my final year. I had a steady girlfriend I was crazy about.

The thought of leaving devastated me. I refused to move. I announced I was staying where I was, no matter what I had to do.

Dad and I had a horrendous fight, one of the few arguments I ever won. Afterward, he and Mom arranged for me to board with another family and complete my senior year in Campbellsville.

By that Saturday in September, though, misery was full upon me. The family I was rooming with was very kind, but they weren’t my family. I felt lonely and abandoned. My high school football team had a new set of coaches who, for reasons I couldn’t navigate, had benched me for possessing a “bad attitude.” (I probably did have a bad attitude.)

Not wanting to lose me altogether, my parents decreed I had to drive to Mt. Sterling every weekend, and Dad arranged a weekend job for me at a pharmacy there.

Instead of hanging out with my buddies and girlfriend on the weekends, I was making a 200-mile roundtrip commute to a place I detested.

Dad and Mom were struggling financially, and paying for me to board in Campbellsville was an added hardship for them. Plus, Mom was as angry with Dad for uprooting us as I was, so they were having troubles between the two of them.

All three of us were reeling. Only my little sister was thriving, oblivious to the tensions.

So. Back to UK ballgame.

What I’ve retained about Sept. 15, 1973, is more a feeling than details of a game. It’s an impression.

It’s an aura of happiness and relief. In Commonwealth Stadium, amid all the opening day hubbub, Dad and I seemed almost magically removed from our outside lives. In a desert of private unhappiness, we’d stumbled on an oasis: a place where a band played, people laughed and the hot dogs were tasty. Our tension eased.

As we watched the contest on the field and the crowd in the stands, for a while I wasn’t resentful about the fun I was missing with my pals back home, the long drive facing me the next night or my own piddling football fortunes.

Looking back, I mainly just feel warmth: Dad and I were friends again. For an afternoon we were — pardon me — on the same team. We talked football tactics. We shouted at the referees.

Maybe that’s the greatest thing sports do. They give us an escape.

We lose our troubles for a bit. We deliver ourselves up to team colors and rousing cheers and peppy fight songs and stadium comradery. We yell and stomp our feet and high-five strangers. We have something to think about besides resentments, debts or loneliness.

We take a joy ride to a dreamland where all that matters is whether our team pushes an oblong leather ball across a white chalk line. We forget who we are and where we live now.

We can remain grateful a half-century or more for a moments such as those.

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