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From rocks to turf: “'Did you ever see a field grow rocks?'
By Richard Linde, 2 November 2001

I grew up in Seattle at a time when playing sandlot football meant playing on a field of rocks and mud. And I've got the battered knees to prove it. No, this isn't a shaggy dawg's” story, one that's about ripped cords and sprained knees. Actually, this article is about those football fields and stadiums where the University of Washington has played football, starting way back in 1889.

Currently seating 72,500 howling fans, with 50,000 of them located between the goal lines, Husky stadium ranks as the nation's 15th largest on-campus facility. 

(Note: Since this article was written, Husky Stadium has undergone a massive facelift. Reference this link: "New, improved Husky Stadium ready to shine."

For visitors who come to watch their favorite team play, it can be a near-death experience--or perhaps for some, a kind of Darwinian evolvement, of which only the fittest survive. A Husky fan accompanying a visitor may feel a twinge of schadenfreude.  

As a friend of mine said after watching his Trojans play the dawgs, It was a disaster, but the trip over to Husky stadium was cool. We went by boat. Can you can imagine that? The noise level in the stadium was incredible--ear splitting; I can still hear the ringing in my ears when I think about it.” Led by quarterback Todd Marinovich, USC was buried by the Huskies, 31-0, in a game that was played on a warm summer's day in 1990. 

Born in 1920, overlooking Lake Washington, the serene-looking stadium is an octogenarian that can be quite the contrarian when it comes to welcoming visiting firemen; it can easily forgo all rules of hospitality. The red-carpet treatment? Not. 

Speaking of carpets, the stadium has had a variety of outdoor "carpets" laid on its surface over the years, ranging from dirt to mud to grass, and recently from Astroturf to Field Turf. 

The weather has been as varied over the years, the Northwest climate being unpredictable for the most part. Like Forrest Gump's box of chocolates, an opposing coach never knows what'll he find at Husky stadium on game day. It might be sunny and clear when his team takes to the field, and then all of a sudden the wind will shift to the southwest and the clouds will roll in.  

One thing he can be sure of though: There will be plenty of noise. No noise makers necessary, thank you. Autzen Stadium, take notice. 

As of this date, while playing at Husky stadium, the Dawgs are 72-20-2 against Pac-10 teams; they have won 60 out of their last 69 games (with one tie). Overall, they are 325-133-21 at Husky stadium. The longest win streak is seventeen games. If he were alive today, I doubt if Gil Dobie would be impressed with these numbers. He never lost a game as Washington's head coach, from 1908-1916, going 58-0-3, and he won many of those at Denny Field. 

Where did the stadium's evolutionary process begin? Perhaps, on a field located at 14th and Jefferson, in Seattle, where Washington played its first rugby-football game on November 28, 1889, losing 20-0 to an alumni team made up of players from Ivy league schools.  Or that game could have been played on a field located at 12th and Jefferson, the site of an old baseball park. Or maybe it was played at the Jackson Street Park (18th and Jackson). It all depends  on the source.

We can be sure, however, that the first game was played on a field made up of dirt and small rocks, the bigger rocks having been raked off the field to avoid serious injuries. Four hundred spectators viewed the game, one that had been panned by the Seattle Post Intelligencer. The University did not sanction the game because it viewed rugby-football as little more than some sort of agreed-upon mayhem. 

In 1895, football games were moved to Denny Field, which was located on the northeast corner of the campus near 45th street. As one fan wrote recently on a husky web site, “You can still see what's left of Denny Field on campus. It is located behind Hutchinson Hall and Hansee Hall. I would say in the vicinity of NE 45th St. and 20th Ave NE. I have a UW map from 1987 where it is still shown as Denny Field. I would estimate about 50-70 yards are left of the field. The ends have been filled in by tennis courts and hoop courts. It is still an open field, and many times I have seen touch football or soccer games going on there. I sometimes wonder if the students realize they are treading on ground that the Dawgs once played on.

Although the vestiges of Denny Field are hallowed grounds to some of us Husky fans, it was a rocky, miserable field, according to one former player.

In his book, “Bow Down to Washington,” Dick Rockne quotes Wee Coyle (a quarterback under Gil Dobie) as saying, “'It was a terrible field. Did your ever see a field grow rocks?'” They’d rake the surface to level the field, removing most of the rocks, and after the next rain, “'you’d see thousands of little rocks come up out of the dirt.'” 

(By the way, who scored the first touchdown in UW history? Answer later on).

On November 5, 1920, the Sun Dodgers, as they were called then, played their final game at Denny Field, losing to Stanford, 3-0. 

Husky stadium replaced Denny Field as the Dawgs' home field on November 27, 1920. It is the fifth oldest Division 1A stadium in America, having seen such players as "Hurrying" Hugh McElhenny, Don Heinrich, Sonny Sixkiller, Warren Moon, and Marques Tuiasosopo grace its field--all of them wearing purple and gold. Currently, Cody Pickett--the Caldwell Cowboy from Chicken Dinner Road--quarterbacks the Huskies and he's as tough and colorful as any of his predecessors. 

The stadium has had numerous facelifts since the inaugural game played against Dartmouth, in which the Hanover Horde defeated the Sun Dodgers, 28-7. The stadium, seating approximately 30,000 fans, was built at a cost of $600 thousand, and was initially financed by a student fund drive, which helped get the project started. 

As a youngster, I attended my first Husky game in 1940. It was a cold day at Husky stadium and the field was muddy--a treacherous field to play on for both teams. It was a horseshoe-shaped stadium, but without the upper decks then.

Most of the fans seemed apathetic, as I remember. The field had a high crown (about 18 inches high) to help with drainage--a crown that lent real meaning to the phrase, “running up and down the field.” The men smoked cigars, drank from their flasks, and occasionally yelled, “Go Huskies.”  I came to watch a cousin of mine play for the Dawgs. During the game, my mother spent most of the time talking to my cousin's finance. Too young to realize that men are Martians and women are Venetians,  I was confused--for watching the Huskies play was a big thrill for me. I've been a devoted, Husky fan ever since. 

But that's ancient history; since it was first built, many changes have been made to the venerable old stadium, transforming it into what it is today, the best and most scenic football stadium in the Pac-10. 

The first increase in seating took place in 1936, when 10,000 seats were added, bringing total capacity to 40,000. In 1950, an upper deck, with a cantilevered steel roof, was added the stadium on the south side, bringing the seating capacity to 55,000. As part of the project, a two-level press box was constructed that is 165 feet above the field. Washington beat Kansas, 33-7, in the inaugural game; however, only 30,245 spectators were present. Many of them stayed away, not wanting to sit in the new upper deck because they feared that it might collapse. 

Until the upper deck was built on the south side, all of the seats in Husky stadium were uncovered. To dampen his enthusiasm, people told Harvey Cassill (Washington’s AD, 1947-1956) that he would never fill “Cassill’s castle” with fans. He told them he’d build another deck on the North side some day. That happened almost 37 years later, but without Cassill.

In 1968, 3000 seats were added to the north rim of the stadium and  portable bleachers were added in the north end zone. Astroturf replaced the old grass field at that time. The Astroturf field was replaced in 1972, 1977, 1987, and 1995. Field Turf was added before the start of last season.

In 1987, another upper deck with a cantilever steel roof was added to the north end of the stadium, bringing the seating capacity to 72,500. At that time, the Don James Center (a glass enclosed reception area, which offers an excellent view of the field) was constructed.

Due to a construction error, the first partially completed section of the upper deck to the north collapsed on  February 25, 1987. Several critical cables which kept the structure from twisting were removed in error. However the new upper deck was finished in time for the opening game of the season, when Washington beat Stanford 31-21 (on September 5, 1987) before a crowd of 73,676 spectators. 

In 1989, the west stands were replaced, offering fans better seating, more concession stands and restrooms. In 1990 aluminum seats replaced the wooden bleachers in the upper deck to the north, and in 1992, the same was done to the upper deck to the south.  

Before the start of the 2000 season, Paul Allen and the Seattle Seahawks resurfaced the playing field with a synthetic grass called Field Turf, which consists of artificial grass blades, each blade of which is supported by an infill made up of graded silica sand and ground rubber. The field has excellent drainage properties and provides a surface that is safer for the players. 

Field Turf has been added to the practice field, which was reconfigured and expanded. The practice field is located behind the scoreboard at the east end of the stadium. To prepare for games away from home that will be played on a grass surface, the Huskies can practice on the soccer field. The cost of the installation of both turf fields was $1.075 million. 


A gigantic seaplane with drawn-up, purple wings. Aerial photo by Mary Levin
The stadium's setting is the most unusual of any in America. Lake Washington is viewable from any seat in the house. Against Michigan this season, my breath was taken away as I walked into this panoramic setting from the west side of the stadium—it was surreal.

In my peripheral view, thousands of purple-clad fans float high in the air, hovering near the sidelines. Looking straight down the field, I can see a variety of boats docked for the game, about 5000 fans having come by water. 

I envy the fans sitting in the north upper deck who have views of Mt. Rainier, the Olympic Mountain Range and the Seattle skyline.

I remember an aerial photo I had seen of it. From high above, the stadium looks like a gigantic seaplane with drawn-up purple wings—in my mind as I stand  in the tunnel, the ever-present noise from the 75,000 passengers are its engines revving for launch.

Then Michigan lines up for a field goal, ready to take a 9-point lead. Seconds later the unexpected happens.  Omare Lowe blocks the kick, and Roc Alexander scoops up the ball and races 77 yards for a touchdown.

The seaplane’s afterburners kick in, emitting a thunderous roar that reverberates off its four wings. The deafening noise swallows the players and then the fans, immersing us as one in the game. Television cameras mounted near the stands shake in tune to stomping feet. The loud wailing siren is heard for miles around.  On campus, a few students—as I had in years long past—leave the Suzzallo library and rush to the stadium below. The crowd is in the game—a twelfth man on the field—and I know the dawgs will win. 

An intercepted pass run back for a touchdown seals the win a few plays later, and in my mind, as I bask in the thrill of victory, the elegant seaplane takes off and soars majestically above the surroundings for all to see. As it circles back, darkness replaces light in a tunnel of time, molding the past into the present. At the tunnel's end, the lushness of the University Golf Course is dressed in vivid green. Spalding Dots "splat" to the tune of Persimmon woods—the creaking floors of "Denny" and the smell of old books, all embracing my senses. I look down at the playground where I'd played soccer and football as a youngster—and the mountain! We, the fans—its passengers—are flying with the old lady and immortality. 

Army defensive tackle Al Roberts remembers the stadium, "70,000 screaming, yelling and stomping—that crowd was probably the biggest difference. The acoustics here are amazing, a huge factor. I’ve been around C-130 transports a lot, and this almost felt like I was on a runway." 

At the start of this season, Washington dedicated its new indoor practice facility (Dempsey Indoor), which allows the Huskies to practice indoors when the weather is inclement.   

I’m sure that Washington’s crusty, outspoken coach, Gil Dobie, wouldn’t be happy with these “swank” facilities if he were alive today. Nor would he be happy with the nickname, Huskies. “Denny Field is where this new fangled team with its fancy uniforms should be playing and practicing,” he would say. “The Sun Dodgers were made up of men destined to play on a field of mud and rocks; they were real men, inspired by the conditions of their field and by the weather, men who could defeat anybody on any given day.” 

Gil Dobie had the record to prove it!

   

Photos by Kim Grinolds, dawgman.com (Scoreboard at east end of stadium and practice field behind scoreboard. Dempsey Indoor can be seen in the background.)

 

Afterward:

This story is dedicated to the memory of the following "real" men: Ralph Andrews, Frank Atkins, John Carter, Otto Cowlings, Ed Drew, Ellis Dority, D. E. Dowty, D.A. Ford, H. Fredenburg, W.A. Freeburger, Frank Griffths, Bert Maet, Will Morris, Ed Nichels, and John Weedin. 

All of them were members of the first Husky football team that played for Washington in its inaugural game in 1889. They made it all possible--playing on a field that grew rocks. 


Bits and Pieces:

According to the Official UW Web Site (see Husky Tradition), Washington played its games at the following sites before Husky stadium was built:

  • At 14th and Jefferson; 
  • At 18th and Jackson;
  • At the old downtown campus where the Metropolitan Theater used to be; 
  • Downtown on Howell Street where the Manhattan Apartments used to be; 
  • In West Seattle (1893);
  • In Madison Park at the end of the old Madison Street street-car line (1892).
  • At a YMCA Park that used to be on Jefferson Street; 
  • At a former recreation park in north Seattle; 
  • At Denny Field on the UW campus. When the campus was downtown, the team's practice field was where the Four Seasons Olympic Hotel now stands.

In 1922, Washington changed its nickname to "Huskies," to mollify the Seattle Chamber of Commerce I suspect. For a short period of time, Washington was nicknamed the Vikings, from December 1921 until February 1922, until students who had returned from the holidays put the kibosh on the name. Malamutes received strong consideration as a potential nickname along with "Huskies."

To placate the Malamute enthusiasts, an Alaskan Malamute named Frosty I was chosen as the first mascot. A spirited mascot, Frosty I tore off a milkman's trousers one day; rumor has it that he was an Oregon fan. 

The crown in the middle of the field was reduced in height when Field Turf was installed. 

“Sun Dodgers” was the nickname used for the team from 1919 to 1920. Dobie was fired in 1916. As far as I know, Dobie’s team didn’t have a nickname. For his teams, “Sun Dodgers” is as close as it gets, since it was the nickname of the teams that played at Denny Field, Dobie’s old haunt.

"Sun Dodgers” most likely would have been too sissified for Gil Dobie. He was nicknamed, “Gloomy Gil,” because he was always pessimistic. On second thought, "Gloomy Gil" might have liked the "Sun Dodgers" moniker.

Fred Atkins scored the first touchdown in UW history.


References:

Photo Credit:

The photo of Husky Stadium appeared in the Columns Magazine, the University of Washington Alumni Magazine. Aerial photo of Husky Stadium by Mary Levin.


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