Flint, Michigan, 1950,
Two rival teams from opposite
ends of the city have gathered in a tradition that has taken place for the past
three decades, the annual Turkey Day game between Flint Northern High School
and Flint Central High School. For the next year, bragging rights will go to
either the north side or south side of the city—not the students, the city. A
record of more than 20,000 people have gathered for the game at Atwood Stadium,
the city-owned stadium that houses the annual game. It’s a game that, by
pitting the city against itself, brings it together.
Policemen are on the sidelines.
It can get rowdy. After a big play spectators have been known to rush the
field. It is a nice field, not the kind where you’d expect to find a high
school playing. There are no rickety wooden bleachers. No school is in sight. The
stadium sits near the Flint River, its top row of seating level with Third
Avenue, just to the north. Beyond the brick wall that separates that stadium
from the street, the concrete seating cascades down as through carved out of
the bedrock—which, in fact, it was, by horses, in 1928. It is one of Flint’s
crown jewels, its own colosseum.
It’s just a high school game, but
it’s more than that. It is a community game. General Motors in 1950 was at its
height, with about 80,000 employees. In four years the company would shut down
the city streets to hold an annual parade celebrating the 50 millionth car to
come off the assembly line, and just down the street is the General Motors
Institute, a technical school training the next generation of people who will
move the company forward into the very bright-seeming future. So, yes, more
than a high school game. As far as Flint is concerned, there is nowhere else in
the world to be (many, in fact, have moved from hundreds of miles away to be a
part of the auto-fueled community). There is no other game worth watching.
Turkey dinner will wait. Those lucky enough to be in Flint can spend their last
Thursdays in November being thankful that their sons have a stadium like this
one to play ball in, and that one day those sons can grow up to watch their own
boys play ball at Atwood.
One of those boys is Leroy
Bolden, a five-foot-eight, 175-pound halfback who would in two years go on to
play at Michigan State University, where he would eventually become co-captain
before going on to play for the Cleveland Browns. He is one of many who were to
go through the “pipeline,” as Flint Northern alum Norm Bryant put it, between
Flint’s football teams and MSU. But Leroy doesn’t know that yet. He only knows
his team is tied and that, when the ball comes into his hands next, there is
about eighty yards between him and victory. He makes the run. Police prepare to
usher the crowd back into the towering concrete stands of Atwood, which are
frantic with the applause of 20,000 people. This is life in Flint.
Fast forward sixty years. Third
Avenue has been renamed University Avenue as of 2008, an effort to change the
way people look at the area and to connect downtown Flint to the Kettering
University campus, located to the west of downtown, formerly known as the
General Motors Institute, where the University of Michigan-Flint resides. To
the east is Mott Community College. Things have changed in Flint. Only about
8,000of those 80,000 GM jobs remain in the city, and it has almost become a
cliché to residents to hear their city described by the media as the “most
dangerous” or “most violent.”
Take, for example, University
Avenue. The name, one resident said to the city council at the time, was
“purely symbolic.” Other testified that a name change might sound great, but
what they’d really like to see is fewer drug dealers and prostitutes. They want
to see homes looking nicer, never mind that all-but-abandoned football field,
just sitting there like a walled-in crater to the south of the street.
One idea of creating a new Flint is
that it will be a college town, and it’ something people think the city might
be able to pull off (or, perhaps, might be able to not screw up) given that
there are three colleges in or within a short radius. Throw in Michigan State
University’s recently opened College of Human Medicine branch and you have
four. That college town vibe is not quite present, though it may be creeping
in: There are coffee shops open past 5 p.m. now; student nights at the local
bars; there is no shortage of weird, arty events. But something has been
missing, one of the largest unifying forces of any learning institution. There
was no football stadium.
In 2013, that changed. Now there
is a stadium. Or rather, there’s the stadium that there’s always been there,
but it looks like the kind of place you might go—it’s the kind of place people
do go. It’s just something the city can be proud of again. And it’s owned by a
university that doesn’t even have a football team.
Jack Stock is Director of
External Relations at Kettering University. He said he’d been hearing from
people in the community still dedicated to the stadium that they were worried
about its future. He looked into it and found that the building, still owned by
the city, was to be “mothballed,” that is, it was to be kept in some form of
working order but no longer used. In other words, it would be just one more
property along University Avenue that would just be sitting there.
He went back to his boss, Robert
McMahan, Kettering’s president since 2011, who came to the university with a
vision of not just running a university, but cleaning up its surrounding area.
About two years after Stock entered his office to tell him about Atwood,
Kettering would release a new ten-year master plan that would include
initiatives such as creating greenspace around the university, cleaning up the
University Avenue Corridor to connect Kettering with downtown, and creating
more off-campus options for eating and housing for students. (The plan closely
aligned with the city’s master plan, adopted in 2013. It was the first updated
master plan the city had made in 50 years.)
“I ran back to the office and
said, ‘Dr. McMahan, gosh, Atwood Stadium is at risk of never being used again,
and we have, maybe, an opportunity to help.’ He said, ‘We’ll take it over for
The city was game. So long as it
was used for the same purpose outlined in the city charter—that it was to be
used for recreational purposes and the community—Kettering could have it. Kettering
has since sunk more than $2 million into renovating the stadium using money
sought from grants and fundraising. So far they’ve renovated the locker rooms,
replaced the old Field Turf (more commonly known, but no longer referred to, as
Astroturf) done structural repairs, and cleaned up the area around the parking
lot once covered in brambles.
The turf is what has Fred Jackson
excited. It’s the same turf used in the University of Michigan’s Big House and
the Detroit Lion’s Ford Field. Even in the gray late November it is as green as
your neighbor’ yard, Kettering’s Bulldog mascot in its center. At 39, he had
played at Atwood in high school and compared the old turf to worn-out carpet.
Now the coach of Northwestern High School, he said his kids love playing on it.
“It’s perfect turf,” he said. Teams
had been playing there since Kettering had taken it over, which, Jackson said,
they probably shouldn’t have been. He said players would leave every game there
with scars and rashes. “It was like playing on cement. There’s probably a
hundred years of dead skin on that turf.”
It is impossible to talk about
Atwood without talking about what’s going on throughout University Avenue
because Kettering’s efforts are beginning to be more than the symbolic renaming
that skeptics worried about when the city changed the name of the street.
Lights keep the entire corridor bright throughout the night, deterring crime.
In 2013, Kettering worked with the C.S. Mott Foundation to make “University
Corner,” an area adjacent to the campus that houses a bagel and coffee shop for
students that is attached to a Flint Police mini station. At the other end of
the University Avenue Corridor, a Kettering-owned building that was once a
convenience store referred to by some locals as the “stab and grab” is now
being turned into a Jimmy John’s.
“I’ve never been so excited about a Jimmy John’s,” Stock said.
idea is to have busier streets. Our intention is, when you look west now, is
that’s the next piece,” Stock said, referring to the efforts that have taken
place to revitalize Flint’s downtown surrounding UM-Flint, and the neighborhood
to the east, home to Flint’s cultural district with museums, a library,
theaters, and a music institute. “A Jimmy John’s…just a few successes like that
and we’ve got something. We’re not there yet but we’re working hard.”
Tim Monahan lives just blocks from the
entrance to Atwood Stadium. He’s part of the University Corridor Coalition along with Jack
Stock, other residents, and anyone else who’d interested in what’s going on
around University Avenue. The coalition has a name, and that’s about it. There
are no officers, no 501(c)3 status. Just people getting together to talk about
ideas. Monahan was one of the people who, in 2008, voiced his concerns to the
city council about the name change of the avenue not being enough. He’s also
the former president of the Carriage Town Neighborhood Association. What he
said he likes about the coalition is the lack of politics.
“The politics aren’t in it,” he
said. “Kettering has done such a beautiful job. The city would never have been
able to do what Kettering has done. Have you seen that turf? They’ve tried to
do the right things around town, around the corridor.”
He said he recently saw a
historical aerial photo of the neighborhood, and said it was disappointing to
see all the houses that aren’t there anymore, most of them being demolished
after being abandoned. But that’s something that won’t change, he said.
“The whole area right around
there … is really the beginning of the rebirth of Flint, and I think Kettering
is leading the way,” Monahan said.
It’s a large, multi-faceted
effort. But at the center of it all, serving as its monument, is Atwood.
Atwood is now the home field for
Northwestern as well as Flint Southwestern Academy and Powers Catholic High
School, located not far from Atwood. And on August 27, 2015, residents came out to
watch another hometown game.
Jackson coached his kids during
the first game at Atwood on the new turf, after Kettering took it over. Flint
Central and Flint Northern have both closed, but it was still a hometown game.
Northwestern played the neighboring Beecher School district. It wasn’t between
the two famous rival schools, and it wasn’t on Thanksgiving, but even so, about
4,000 people came out to watch the boys play.
“The Atwood Stadium stuff they’ve
been doing has been spectacular,” Monahan said. “We’ve actually had fun
watching these football teams. It was by far and away the biggest crowd I’ve
seen in years. In years. It was just spectacular to see that many people come
in for a game.
“The security was tight, but
there were no problems.”
“I’m just glad it’s back,”
Jackson said, a sentiment that many people share, even if the stadium was only
gone for two years. It had hardly left, but it was already becoming just one
more structure in Flint sitting vacant and unused. “Flint’s
got something that’s nice,” Jackson continued. “I like that. I like the whole
idea of what they’re doing down there. … It’s a great opportunity for our kids.
It was amazing to them. It was like buying a new house.”
The stadium was back, but Flint
had still changed.
Beecher won the game, 36-14. The
Beecher players dedicated the game to their teammate, Gabe Davis, who had been
fatally shot less than three weeks before the game during a block party about
three miles north of the stadium.
Norm Bryant remembers the
Turkey Day games. He’s 79, and played in his share of the games and remembers
when Leroy Borden made those runs, just a few years before he started playing
As a member of the Friends of
Atwood Stadium, which had helped keep the stadium in working condition while
the city owned it, he’s as excited as anyone to see what’s happening at Atwood
and praises Kettering for what they’re doing and for continuing to consult with
the Friends of Atwood group. He was at the game when more than 4,000 people
showed up to watch high school kids play. Some considered it a throwback to
earlier days. Bryant loved seeing the football there, but it wasn’t a Turkey
“No, no, no, no, no. It wasn’t
the same. How you could you compare 4,000 to 20,000? It just wasn’t the same.
You’d have to be back there to know what I’m talking about. … People went out
to the game for entertainment,” he said “It was just something that kept the
Now he, like Kettering, like
everyone in Flint, is wondering the same thing about the stadium that they are
wondering about the city itself: It’s not a matter of how to make Atwood (or
Flint) what it once was, it’s about seeing what it will be like next.
Bryant has ideas. He thinks they
can get colleges to come and play games there, holding battles of the bands at
halftime. They could have tractor pulls. One thing he wants to see built is a
museum dedicated to Atwood, showing visitors the history he lived through.
“And we could say, hey, this was
a crown jewel here. Put some of the old trophies, the ball we used in the
turkey day games on display. …We need to have that, because that’s history,” he
“I don’t know if those days will
ever come back. … We have to find other ways to fill that stadium up.”