By Brian Bassett

Times Bulletin Sports Editor

When the Van Wert Cougar football team emerged from the tunnel onto the playing surface of Van Wert's H. A. Eggerss stadium September 9, 2011, the only thing on their mind was the matter at hand - the Kenton Wildcats. As the Van Wert Cougar marching band began to play the school fight song, the team charged onto the field to the jubilant cheers of the crowd. The 2011 team, much like every Van Wert Cougar football team as far back as anyone can remember, took the field the same way - to the same ovation - like many its predecessors. Seventy five to be exact.

As the Cougars charged the playing surface at Eggerss Stadium that night, they were the 75th team to do so in the stadium's storied existence. The 2011 season marks the 75th anniversary of the stadium, which has been a focal point for a dynamic community since 1936.

It is no secret to any member of the Van Wert community that Van Wert football boasts a historic tradition of winning, the roots of the program run deep - very deep.

Before Weeb Ewbank led the New York Jets to an upset victory over the Colts in Super Bowl III - or even before he led the 1949 Brown University football team to an 8-1 season with star quarterback, Joe Paterno - he dawned the scarlet-and-gray as the Van Wert head football coach. Though Ewbank predated Eggerss Stadium - coaching Van Wert during the 1928 and 1929 seasons - he would surely be proud of the quality of football the stadium would showcase in the following years.

When Larry Smith led the USC Trojan football team to a victory in the 1990 Rose Bowl Game over the University of Michigan, he did so after playing his high school football on the hallowed grounds of Eggerss Stadium.

Smith's high school teammate at Van Wert - who helped him through the coaching ranks - was Jim Young, who also found success at the college level after graduating from Van Wert. Young served as head coach of Arizona, Purdue and Army before being inducted to the College Football Hall of Fame in 1999 - many years after winning three Western Buckeye League Championships as a Cougar from 1949-52.

Before Jack Lininger won team MVP for the 1949 Ohio State Buckeyes' Rose Bowl team or suited up for the Detroit Lions, he suited up for the Van Wert Cougars from 1941-1944. Van Wert has numerous All-Ohioan's, most of whom found success on the turf of Eggerss Stadium.

New Deal - New Stadium

On April 8, 1935, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, along with the help of Congerss, passed the Emergency Relief Protection Act as the country found itself in devastating economic depression. The act called for the creation of the Works Progress Administration (WPA), which would be funded by the government. The WPA gave jobs to millions of unemployed, unskilled workers building public works projects. Many schools, libraries, and even football stadiums were built to employ those who could not otherwise find work.

In 1938, at the peak of the WPA, the program provided jobs to three million unemployed men and women across the nation. Van Wert was experiencing the same economic conditions as the rest of the United States, and the WPA found its way to the small Ohio town.

Van Wert High School saw opportunity in this program to build a new stadium for their growing football program, and provide government-funded aid to the local unemployed. With the government paying for the salaries and some supplies, all that was left to do was find a way to purchase the materials to build a state-of-the-art stadium.

Fortunately, relief came in the form of local businessman Hans Eggerss, then president of Continental Can Co. the Van Wert branch, which produced fiber storage drums.

"Hans Eggerss put up the money. He loaned Van Wert City Schools the money for all the supplies for the stadium, so they named it after him," said Ron Bagley, a Van Wert resident who played football for the Cougars during the 1953 and 54 seasons.

Eggerss also served as chair for the Citizen Stadium Committee. It is not clear when the stadium officially became H. A. Eggerss Stadium, but that is what it has been called as long as anyone can remember.

The stadium was patterned after Toledo Waite High School's football stadium, and was to be ready for the 1936 football season.

The first game in the brand new stadium was played Friday, September 18, 1936 between Van Wert and South High School from Fort Wayne, Indiana. The Cougars, under head coach Chuck Campbell beat South, 12-0, breaking their new home in with a shutout victory.

The stadium at completion was 252 feet long, 50 feet wide and 30 feet high. It contained over 2,000 tons of reinforced concrete and steel. There were 22 rows of seating made up of 5,456 feet of California redwood seats - which were able to accommodate 3,312 spectators.

There was a 90,000 watt lighting system which promised even lighting over the entire field, with reflectors to eliminate glare. Other features included a loud speaker system, a telephone and a glass-enclosed press box.

Kickoff of that historic game was 8:30 p.m., and the game-ball was delivered by a sky diver at 8:29 p.m., just in time for kickoff.

A dedication service was held before the game, with a dedicatory address given by H. R. Townsend, the Commissioner of Ohio High School Athletics.

Along with the construction of the stadium, 1936 was also the inaugural year for the Western Buckeye League. Van Wert, along with Wapakoneta, Celina and St. Marys were the first members of the WBL. The Cougars completed the 1936 season 7-2-1, and failed to win the league title. They would win the first of their 18 WBL crowns in 1937, however, and again in 1938 and 1939, ushering in many decades of excellence for Cougar football.

The people make the stadium

Though Eggerss Stadium is an impressive structure in and of itself, it would be nothing without the loyal, fanatic fans that fill it.

"If you stand down on the field, and look up and you see the whole stadium full of people, some of those people have been there for generations," said Larry Bowersock, who donned the scarlet-and-gray from 1955-58. "That's tradition to look up there and see all those fans.

"We've sit in the same section since 1970. The only way you can get a seat in that section is probably if someone dies," Bowersock joked. "Because of the loyal people, you look around the stadium and you see people who have been there for 14 or 15 years, in the same seats. That's Van Wert football. Win, lose or draw, people will still support the team."

Pat Jackson - who played for Van Wert during the seasons of 1984-86 before going on to a successful college football career at Bowling Green - agreed with Bowersock.

"I think Van Wert's a unique community where on Friday nights in the fall, that's just what people do. It's neat to be a part of it. As a player when you looked up in the stands, it was always the same people supporting you, getting behind you and encouraging the team. The same people I saw in the stands when I played are there 20-plus years later," Jackson said.

"It's just a neat atmosphere, things that I don't know exist at other stadiums. I think every coach has told me when they come in here that this is the neatest place to play. Everything is right on the field. The home stands are right on the field, the fence in the end-zone is right on the field. Everything is just close. You're on top of everything," said current Van Wert football coach Bob Priest, who before calling plays for the Cougars, suited up for them from 1983-86.

When Jeff Hood - who coached for the Cougars from 1996 to 2006 - came to Van Wert to interview for the head football coaching job, it did not take him long to figure out football was special for Van Wert.

"When I came to my first interview, I just waled away from that stadium going, 'Wow, this is what high school football should be about.' There's very few places you go where you can see a concrete stadium that goes from 10-yard line to 10-yard line. It just wreaks of tradition," he said.

Even opposing coaches have respect for the environment that Eggerss Stadium offers. Doug Frye, who has coached at Wapak for the last two years after spending many years in the same position at St. Marys, said he got a thrill coaching at Eggerss Stadium, as did his children who played there as members of the St. Marys football team. "[My sons] always said it was so neat where the school sat at the end of the field like it did. They always thought it was so great that you walked up into the school down at the end. And the wall down at the other end, they were such unique features," Frye said. "I enjoyed coaching in the stadium and I think that's what high school football is all about."

Gilbert "Gil" Smith

Obviously, many great coaches have paced the home sideline of Eggerss Stadium over the years. None, however, have had as enormous an impact on Van Wert as Gilbert "Gil" Smith. Smith coached Van Wert from 1941 to 1959, and with a record of 130-30-10, he is the winning-est coach in Van Wert Cougar football history. His winning percentage in a impressive 76 percent.

In his 19 years leading the Cougars, Smith won 12 WBL championships - more than eight current WBL schools have in the history of their football program. Smith's defenses pitched 59 shutouts in those 19 years and held opposing offenses in single-digist another 46 times.

Smith only lost 13 league games in his 19 years, five of those losses came in the 1946 season.

"I think of the great joy of being able to play under Gil Smith, to play winning football...He was a very fine man, as well as a great football coach," Young said.

"He was great to play for. He never yell at you. He always had a low voice, but he got his point across," said Willie Hernandez who played with Young from 1949-52, and was named First-Team All-State following the 1952 season.

Bagley also appreciates the time he got to spend under the direction of Smith. "I was extremely fortunate because that was during the time I got to play sports and have a great coach like Gil Smith. I got right in the middle of that winning attitude...He was preparing us for life, he wasn't preparing us just for football," he said.

"I wish I would have been fortunate enough to meet Gil Smith. There's been so many people that I do know who have played for him," Priest said.

Van Wert vs. St. Marys - 1952

One of the most notorious games during the Smith era came during the 1952 season, when the Cougars welcomed in the St. Marys Roughriders and All-State fullback, Galen Cisco - who later earned All-American honors as a fullback and linebacker for the 1957 Ohio State national championship team, before getting drafted by the Boston Red Sox.

"We were both undefeated and Galen Cisco was with St. Marys. St. Mary's was supposed to win," Young said.

"Back then, they had a round-robin before the season started, and they beat us something terrible in a quarter. So everybody expected them to beat us again," Hernandez recalled.

Young said the Cougars set the tone early that night. "Early in the game I scored two touchdowns in the first five minutes. Then Willie sort of ran wild on some long plays. And we beat St. Marys 33-7," he said.

"Jim called a good game. He did most of the play calling. We held them on the four-yard line, I remember. They had three plays to get it in and we held them right there on the four-yard line. On the first play Jim called '41' in which I got the ball and faked it to Jim and went to the right up the center. Nobody even touched me, I went all the way for a touchdown and couldn't hardly believe it," said Hernandez, who many claim to be one of, if not the greatest athlete to suit up for the Cougars.

"Willie Hernandez was, without a doubt, the very best halfback in Northwest Ohio his senior season," Bagley said, adding that you would never know it by his modest demeanor.

Van Wert vs. Bath - 1985

While it is not uncommon for the stadium to be full on Friday nights in the fall, many remember the Van Wert - Bath game in 1985 as the most electric atmosphere Eggerss has experienced.

"It was my junior year. It was the last game of the season. We were 8-1 and they were 9-0, and it was for the league championship. I remember the stadium being packed. Both the visitors stands and the home stands, people were lined up a couple people deep around the fence all the way. Maybe you had five or six thousand people there," Jackson said.

"Talk about a crowd. I mean it was a phenomenal crown, extremely loud. They had Rich Dackin at quarterback. He went on to Bowling Green and was a tremendous quarterback," Priest said.

"It was as big a crowd as I've seen in our stadium. There was a balloon the bank had put on top of the building, like a balloon you would fly in where the band room sits. People were standing inside the fence along the wall. You couldn't have asked for a better environment," said Van Wert Athletic Director Kent Smelser, who was an assistant coach for Van Wert at the time, before later becoming the head coach for Van Wert from 1990-1995.

"We jumped out 19-0, and they came back and beat us in what was a hard-fought game. Both teams went on the make the playoffs," Priest said.

"We were down 19-0 at half. Van Wert was doing well and beating us pretty good in the first half. I still vividly remember coaches at halftime giving us some incredible motivational speeches , and that kind of inspired us. Since then, we're still the only undefeated team in the history of the school," said Dackin, who is now the Athletic Director at Bath.

"They came out and every fourth down, they made it. I swear they made a dozen of them by an inch," Smelser joked. "If any of them wouldn't have happened, we'd have probably won the game. Without a doubt it's the most outstanding memory I have of our stadium."

Cougar Pride

Since the early 1970's the dramatic wins and the heart-breaking losses have occurred in front of the 'Cougar Pride' wall, which is now a focal point of Eggerss Stadium. Any player from that time period on surely has a fond memory of touching the 'Cougar Pride' wall.

is made of concrete. It runs horizontal to the north end-zone the entire width of the field, about three feet behind the back of the end-zone.

In the early 1970's, then football coach Jim Hamman decided the bare wall needed some character. So Hamman assigned a player to paint the wall to spell out his team's motto, 'Cougar Pride'. In big block letters across the wall the entire length, 'Cougar Pride' is spelled out, with a cougar head right in the middle behind the north goal post.

"I came here in 1973 to coach, and I was the coach for a four year period of time. It was during that time that the wall got painted and 'Cougar Pride' was put up there. [It was pointed by] a young man who played for me," Hamman said.

Hamman said Cougar Pride goes beyond just being proud to be a Cougar. "To me, what some people miss a little bit with that is, everybody knows what pride is, you really take pleasure in the accomplishment of something. A cougar is a mountain lion, and mountain lions live in prides, in families. It's a two edged thing. It's taking pride in the whole Cougar family. I take pride in the cross country team, the girls tennis team, and all the other sports, because it's part of the Cougar family," Hamman explained.

"The wall was always something special. There was significance and meaning to it. Pregame we would go down and touch the cougar underneath the goal post. It was just something special," Jackson said.

Penton also remembers a special connection to the wall. "The 'Cougar Pride' wall is important to me and meaningful to me. The first thing I think of when I think Eggerss Stadium is being a kid and seeing that cougar head. I had some tradition, before every game I would walk around the field and stop and spend some time at the wall thinking of 'Cougar Pride' and what it meant to play as a team," he said.

For years, the Cougar football team has "defended the wall", and will continue to in years to come. "One of the things we typically do it, when we win the toss, we defend the wall. That kind of mentality, we defer the choice and defend the wall. The kids understand that's one of the things we do. We're constantly defending the wall, not just for this year's team, but for the teams that have played there before us going back 75 years," Priest said.

Leaving home

Ironically, one of the biggest moments in the history of Van Wert football did not happen a Eggerss Stadium - it happened all the way across the state in Canton when the 2000 Cougar football team made the Division III State Championship Game.

"Essentially everyone and everything from Van Wert but the stadium traveled with us to the game," Penton said.

Although leaving their home was hard, the fans that made the stadium so special throughout the years gave the team an emotional send-off, Cougar style. "I remember when we left to go to the state championship game. People came out and lined up. We left the locker room, the kids had their equipment and people lined up. There were people back there behind the school, out to Jefferson Street. They were on both sides, they made a path for us to walk through, and I remember how thrilling it was. We were leaving our Cougar Pride home, we were leaving to represent Van Wert in the whole state of Ohio," said Hamman who was the defense coordinator for the 2000 team.

"That's a lot of people, from back at the locker room they stretched across the field there back behind [the school]," Hamman recalled.

The field that served as home for the Cougars, was now a gateway to the busses that would take the team to Canton.

"I remember that well, that tunnel of pride across the field through the parking lot," Penton said.

The memories

Of all the games that have been played on the field at Eggerss Stadium, each player certainly has his favorite. Though some players share memories, each has a different set of memories at the forefront of their mind. Whether it be a big win, a tough loss, or even an impressive individual performance. The beauty of Eggerss Stadium is that the players and coaches have the luxury of hundreds and thousands of moments to remember, all in front of a home crowd who would support the team, as Bowersock put it, "Win, lose, or draw."

What I remember about Eggerss Stadium is standing up in Section-A, way up there, when I was in about the third or the fourth grade. And watching Van Wert play and hoping I would be down there on the field some day. That's my earliest memory," Young said.

Hernandez remembered some personal feats. "Against Kenton, I think I had five touchdowns. And against Bellefontaine, I think I had four, they were all over 50-yards, and they were all called back for one reason or another. We finally beat them 7-0," he said, more happy about the team win than any of the touchdowns.

"The last game of the season we played Celina and we beat them. There's several rivals in the WBL but we had various traditions that we would do just before the Celina game. [Coach Hamman] always told us the 'Bulldog Story' before the game. That's the last game I played at Eggerss Stadium," said Penton.

"One of our big wins was against Defiance. Defiance was always a big game for us. I can't remember what year it was, but there was kind of like a fog that set in. We called it the 'Fog Bowl' because literally at halftime and through the second half, The punts were kind of hard to keep your eye on. It was just eerily cool," Hood recalled.

Bowersock remembers a perfect season in jeopardy. "We were behind 13-7 and we were on the 14 or 15-yard line. We got back in the huddle. We said, 'guys we can't lose this winning season and lose a game our senior year. We wound up running two plays and scoring," he said.

"In 1976 we played St. Marys and they were undefeated and ranked first in the state. I think the score was 28-6. We not only beat them, we trounced them. I remember that excitement that night," Hamman recalled of his time at Eggerss.

Priest recalled a St. Marys memory as well, a decade later. "That year St. Marys, Van Wert and Bath all three went to the Playoffs. We were 2-2 and needed to win out, six straight. Against St. Marys we were up 20-19, and if we didn't get a stop, things aren't looking good. I can remember standing right next to coach Buti on one side and coach Smelser on the other side, and it was fourth down and they were going for it. Our defense got a stop and it was a great feeling because if we didn't get that, we were done with the playoffs," he said.

"The thing I remember more than running on the field, is in the locker room. When the band comes through the stadium, the vibration, the anticipation. Once the band went through, you knew it wouldn't be too much longer until the coach came in and said a few words. And then you were going to hit the field. From the time the coach talked to you to the time you hit the field, it was all kind of a blur," Jackson said.

75 years

The stadium has been through a lot in its time just off W. Crawford Street, it has seemingly withstood the test of time. The years are beginning to catch up with it, however, with structural damaging increasing by the year. Seventy five years of Ohio weather has wreaked havoc on Eggress Stadium, and it, like the Van Wert football player it personifies, has held it's ground.

Unfortunately, a decision will have to be made eventually about what to do to the stadium, and no one in the town of Van Wert is looking forward to that day.

For now though, it is a time of celebration among Van Wert Cougar football fans. The Homecoming game Friday night will feature celebration of 75 years of service the Stadium has provided a community. It has been the on constant during changing times.

"I think that every kind that ever played football at Van Wert High school gets an absolute warm feeling in his chest when he thinks about coming on the field on that Friday night with the lights on," Hamman said.

"There's nothing better, and I mean that with my experiences, than walking in Eggerss Stadium and walking on that field. It's a rush anytime, just to stand on that field. It's a tremendous feeling. I don't know that I can explain how I feel. But it calms you and inspires you. There's a tremendous amount of emotions that go through you everytime you are on that field. And you hope that you can do it justice at what you are doing as a coach, and what you are doing as a player. You hope that the team you're coaching can make the guys that played on that field before them proud," said Priest. "And that's the kind of tradition we have here."