A visit to Sun Devil Stadium, Arizona
Historians take very strange vacations. Recently, I was out in the desert of Arizona tromping through Tombstone, site of one of the most notorious shoot-outs in the history of the Old West. On a small patch of sand in 1881, the Earp brothers and Doc Holliday sent two McLaury brothers and one Clanton boy to the great beyond.
Growing up on movies such as “My Darling Clementine,” “Gunfight at the OK Corral” and “Tombstone,” it was quite a thrill to walk around the spot where the legend of the Wild, Wild West was cemented.
There was also another Corral that played a big part of my childhood, but I never cared much for Frank Corral. (Yes, I view the OK Corral as preferable to the kicker who accounted for all of the Rams points in the 1979 NFC Championship Game. By now, all of you should not what a petty, little man I am!)
I also visited the site of the oldest professional football team in the United States. In 1898, just seventeen years after the Gunfight at the OK Corral, the Morgan Athletic Club of Chicago formed a football team known as the Racine Cardinals. The name Racine came from a street in the Chicago neighborhood the team first called home. Twenty-two years later, the Cardinals joined the NFL and have bounced around the country looking for love ever since.
The Cardinals new digs, University of Phoenix Stadium, is a far cry from their former playing field. As Buccaneer fans we should be as ecstatic as Cardinal fans that future games will be played in this palace. After all, some of the worst games the Buccaneers have ever played were in Phoenix. Ironically enough, two of them were victories. All of these games were played at Sun Devil Stadium, on the campus of Arizona State in the Phoenix suburb of Tempe (city motto: We’re Tampa with “E’s” instead of “A’s”).
The first two visits the Bucs made to Tempe resulted in victories. A 14-13 victory in 1989 was the NFL equivalent of an NBA game, 57 minutes of abject boredom followed by 3 minutes of heart palpitations. After stinking up the joint for three and nine-tenths of a game, Vinny Testaverde led the Bucs on a 14 play, 82-yard drive that included two fourth down conversions to win it. Four years later, the Bucs returned to Tempe and won a 7-3 thriller that featured six missed field goals. The Cardinals won two more offensively challenged contests in 1996 and 2005 by the scores of 13-9 and 12-7.
Three of these four contests were played towards the end of the season (1989, 1992 and 2005) on a field that featured sand painted green. Sun Devil Stadium appeared to be proof that you can’t grow grass in the desert.
But that is not true anymore. The Cardinals benefit from an impressive technological innovation. The Cardinals play on natural grass inside a domed stadium. How do they keep the grass alive? They roll the grass outside when the game is over to water and fertilize it and then roll it back in. Here’s a picture of the playing field that the Giants and Patriots played on just months ago, outside in the baking sun.
While it looks bad now, a stadium official told me that a few grass seeds here, a little Miracle Grow there and the field will be back in shape for next season. Call me a nerd, but I find that amazing.
A domed stadium in the desert must be like an oasis for Cardinal fans. Sun Devil Stadium possesses the same aluminum style bleachers that old Tampa Stadium incorporated. With an average September temperature of over 100 degrees, the fans of the Cardinals must have always walked out of early season games feeling like a baked potato. Now they can watch a game in absolute pristine conditions.
Walking through the Cardinals stadium, I kept having flashbacks to past Tampa Bay – St. Louis/Phoenix/Arizona match-ups. The Cardinals name their skyboxes after former players, so when I walked past the Neil Lomax and Stump Mitchell suites I almost got ill. I wasn’t ill because of a bad Mexican lunch, but ill because all I could think about was the 25-point fourth quarter lead the Bucs gave up to these two and the rest of the Cards in 1987.
I was happy there wasn’t a Vai Sikahema suite. To this day I can remember him returning not one, but two punts for touchdowns in Leeman Bennett’s finale as head coach.
I felt better walking by the Jim Hart plaque as he was the Cards quarterback in the 1977 finale when the Bucs scored their first ever home victory, 17-7.
I also thought a little bit about Hugh Culverhouse. I know that sounds odd, but there is a lot about the Cardinals that remind me of what the Bucs used to be. Bill Bidwill has owned the Cardinals for decades and is as much a pariah in the desert as Culverhouse was on the Suncoast. Known for being able to squeeze a dime, Bidwill’s track record is even worse than Culverhouse if you can believe it.
That is at least the case on the football field. I doubt Billy can win a “skeletons in the closet” contest with Hugh. Perhaps with this new stadium, the Cardinals can enjoy the success that greeted the Bucs upon moving into Raymond James. Of course having a Tony Dungy, Mike Alstott, Warren Sapp, Derrick Brooks, John Lynch, etc would probably help enormously.
I also had to chuckle a little as well. For years I have been hearing about how the Bucco Bruce helmets were the least intimidating in the history of the NFL. Well ladies and gentlemen; I present in my defense the Redbird logo.
Other than looking as though he has experienced discomfort in passing an earthworm, this is possibly the least-intimidating helmet logo in the NFL. I think even Bucco Bruce could have taken him out.
The walk around the Stadium ended on a serious note. When walking back to the car, we noticed a statue in the front of the stadium. The closer I got to the statue, the more familiar the figure became.
By the time I stood in front of it, I knew it was a memorial to former Arizona Cardinal defensive back Pat Tillman. In 2002 Tillman, who also starred at Arizona State, walked away from the NFL and joined the United States military. In 2004 he was killed during a combat operation in Afghanistan. While there has been much controversy over the circumstances of his death, no one can question the man’s character and devotion. It is a very powerful symbol at a very impressive football stadium.
Here’s to hoping that the Bucs offense is able to find its way to the end zone on a regular occasion the next time they head to the Grand Canyon State.
Denis Crawford, 28 May 2008