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End of an era: "The field" retires

As a student at West Fargo High in the mid 1990s, there were few things I looked forward to more than Friday night home football games behind the old, cement Middle School.

I covered Packer sports for the high school newspaper and the Pioneer and refused to miss a home game. Then I moved away, joined the Marines and hardly followed West Fargo football at all.

I return to North Dakota a decade later and find that I didn't just miss out on watching four state championship teams, I missed out on something else that has been a big part of Packer football since 1960s - "the field." I call it that, because until a few years ago when it was dubbed "Lodoen Field," it didn't really have a name. When West Fargo played its last game there last week, it signaled the end of an era. The Packers have played on the field or in the vicinity of it since just after World War II. Prior to 1966, a nearby field running east-west in the area of the parking lot and child development center had been used beginning in 1946, according to 76-year-old Mike Nesemeier, a 1949 WFHS graduate.

Nesemeier should know, since he helped haul dirt for the new field back then. A lineman for the Packers when they played six-man football, Nesemeier said they wore the old leather helmets.

"Back then we didn't lose too many football games," he said. "We were pretty good."

Everyone has their memories of watching the Packers battle it out behind the community center that was once the high school and more recently the Middle School. Some have seen Packer football at its best when nothing could go wrong. Others remember winless seasons and that empty feeling that comes with them.

Steve Becher, the starting quarterback for the 1980 EDC champion Packers, remembers the closeness of the fans and a brotherhood of sorts between West Fargo football players new and old.

"I remember playing, and the stands were full. Many of the former players and alumni (were) always standing on the sidelines behind the ropes," said Becher. "It didn't matter if there were seats in the stands or not, they wanted to stand on the sidelines and be closer to the action. As we ran on or off the field before the game, at halftime, or after the game, they would always be yelling encouragement and high-fiving players. It really felt like small town football with the fans surrounding the field. The atmosphere was awesome."

Becher, class of '81, found it ironic that the Packers closed out the field against Fargo North last week. As a senior quarterback he remembers knocking off the Spartans, ranked No. 1 in the state, during 1980's homecoming game.

"The place was packed, and it was probably the loudest high school football game I was ever a part of," said Becher, who also recalls beating Valley City in the first round of the playoffs that year on the water-logged field.

"It had rained a lot over the week or so before the game, and the field was really chewed up," he said. "They had talked about moving the game, but we really didn't want to lose home field advantage, so they filled in all of the worn areas with sand."

Becher said there were so many worn-out areas, that it seemed the Packers were playing in a sandbox. For the record, West Fargo won that game and moved on to the state semifinals.

Al Rice, Packers' head football coach from 1962 to 1967, has his own memories of the field. When the field was switched to its present north-south location in 1966, Rice helped make it happen.

"I got the (physical education) classes to haul wheelbarrows of dirt out to the field," said Rice. "We got 80 truckloads of dirt to dress and fix it up. It was a community project. We had lots of help from lots of people."

The field has been home to Packer football for 40 years.

My favorite memory of the field was nothing too special, and it had little to do with Packer success and a lot to do with pure drama. I, along with everyone else, was on my feet in the press box during the 1994 season opener when West Fargo running back Jon Bernstein was wrapped up by a Bismarck St. Mary's defender just inches from the goal line on the final play of the game. The Packers had gone undefeated the season before, en route to their first ever state title and would go 1-7 that year. It was typical high school football - joy or heartbreak. The field saw plenty of it over the years. Now, West Fargo football prepares to move to its new home at the high school which will seat 2,000 fans.

I say goodbye to the field, but I don't do it with a tear in my eye for I was merely an observer. Those heartfelt memories and nostalgic emotions really belong to the players, the ones who sacrificed and fought their way up and down that field. They endured injuries, lopsided losses and had the discipline and desire needed to gain one more inch of ground. It belongs to guys like those that closed it out in style last week with a 42-7 pounding of Fargo North.

The field will always belong to the Packer football players - some not even out of high school yet and others who played before many of us were even born.

It may never host a high school football game again, but the field will live on with them.