FORT COLLINS — Sometime around 2:30 a.m. Sunday morning, the lights at Hughes Stadium went dark after a game for the final time. In the front seat of my rickety, rumbling 1989 Jeep Cherokee, I sat and watched as the lights flickered off and disappeared into darkness of the early morning all at once, signifying the end of an era me, for the city of Fort Collins and for Colorado State football.
At that point in the night, only a few souls remained on the 160-acre parcel that Hughes Stadium sits on. The low, dim light of the press box remained as writers and communications staff tapped away at their keyboards, simultaneously recording history with each keystroke.
Off in the vacant east parking lot, a few tailgaters hung behind, hoping to hold on to a few more minutes of the night.
Security and maintenance staff had begun their treks home after doing their best to clean up after the party had ended.
As Saturday night gave into early Sunday morning, Hughes Stadium took one final breath of that sweet Rocky Mountain air before it all went dark for the last time. And I can say, the whole night, but that moment in particular, was a sight to be seen.
Growing up in Fort Collins, there’s no bigger dream for a kid from the Choice City than to walk through the south tunnel at Hughes Stadium and hear your name called to the roar of some-30,000 screaming fans. As kids, we tossed the football back and forth in the dirt parking lots outside the stadium and we imagined instead that we were inside with our helmets and shoulder pads on, throwing touchdowns and celebrating in the end zone. In our minds we were Kory Sperry and Gartrell Johnson III, Joey Porter and Clark Haggans, Justin Holland and Bradlee Van Pelt. It didn’t matter that we’d never seen some of them play. In our minds, they were legends.
Nearly every Saturday and Sunday morning as a kid, I’d pull on my green and gold No. 11 Bradlee Van Pelt jersey, lace up my tennis shoes and grab my football before I headed out to my parents’ backyard. Because I was such a football nut, and also because they wanted to get me out of the house so they could finally take a breath, my parents created a miniature 30-yard football field in our backyard, complete with yard lines, end zones and makeshift pylons made out of orange cones.
A miniature Hughes Stadium.
To the dismay of my mother, I’d try to emulate my favorite players by diving over an imaginary defender into the end zone, making her wonder when she’d have to take me into the emergency room for a broken arm.
On those days, a 4-foot-11 replica of Bradlee Van Pelt would drop back in the pocket, survey the field and then take off running as he sidestepped defensive linemen, hurdled linebackers and ran over defensive backs on his way to the end zone. Every once in a while, he’d incorporate a new touchdown dance he’d seen on television. Even when late fall turned into winter, you could find that little boy bundled up in a turtleneck, his jersey and a pair of snow pants out there scoring touchdown after touchdown to the applause of a silent crowd.
As little Van Pelt grew up, he stopped going out into that backyard as often. Instead of being a weekly Saturday tradition, football became a five-to-six day a week time commitment. Flag football gave way to tackle, where the boy did his best to replicate Van Pelt in JAA football. More time passed and more football was played, but no matter who or where he played, nothing would ever top those fall Saturdays in the backyard.
Until Saturday night.
This time, I wasn’t the one throwing or catching touchdowns. Instead, I watched as the likes of Nick Stevens, Michael Gallup, Marvin Kinsey and Izzy Matthews played the role I dreamed of so many times as a kid. And as the final seconds ticked off the clock on the north end zone and students jumped over the wall in their section to rush the field, I found myself committing the cardinal sin of sports reporting: I was cheering.
As throngs of students sprinted past me into a crowd at midfield, I couldn’t help but smile. That day, that game, that moment was the perfect way to close that stadium once and for all.
Living in Fort Collins for the last 20 years, driving by Hughes Stadium has become almost second nature. But every day I make that drive south down Overland Trail, I look to the west and see a stadium that so many memories throughout my entire life are tied to. It will be a bit surreal to not make a right turn into that grass parking lot and walk a quarter of a mile to reach the stadium.
For so many, including myself, Hughes is a not only a part of our town, but a part of who we are. When Colorado State moves into the new on-campus stadium next fall, it will be incredible moment for that program and the school, there’s no doubt about that. College football belongs on campus. But no matter how many games I do or don’t attend at that new stadium, Hughes will always be home for me, and no stadium, no matter how nice, can change that.
Soon a group of kids who were just like me will be out in the parking lots at the new stadium, drawing up plays on the pavement and in their minds they’ll be Nick Stevens and Collin Hill, Marvin Kinsey and Izzy Matthews, Arjay Jean and Toby McBride.
And I can only hope that the new stadium gives them as much as Hughes gave me. As funny as it sounds, I’ll missed the cracked pavement and cold bleacher seats. I’ll miss standing in the student section as freshman on a hot September day as the sun beat down on us. I’ll miss walking out of the tunnel to a quiet, empty stadium with nothing but the stadium lights on after postgame press conferences.
But really, I’ll miss being than 10-year old kid in the Bradlee Van Pelt jersey dodging barbecue grills and corn hole games while throwing running for touchdowns in the grass parking lots.
Thank you, Hughes Stadium. You’ve given me more than I could have ever imagined.
InsideTheRams.com Digital Editor Keegan Pope can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter @ByKeeganPope.