Opinion: How Taft Stadium, 86 years young, still is making history, memories with Energy FC's return
There was a wall under the west-side bleachers at Taft Stadium that became something of a brick-and-mortar autograph book.
Over the years, notable folks took to signing their names on the wall. There were football types, of course, coaches and players and the like. But there were also race-car drivers and national-anthem singers and an occasional politician, too.
Taft Stadium was the type of place that drew all sorts of high-profile people because in its heyday, it hosted all sorts of high-profile events.
“It’s a grand old place,” said Darrel Palmer, who served many years on the Taft Stadium Board.
But even with the stadium’s grand history, it is going to do something Monday it has never done before.
Host a game on national TV.
ESPN2 will broadcast Energy FC's match against in-state rival FC Tulsa on Monday night. While ESPN+ shows the Energy and USL Championship games regularly, ESPN2 is picking up a number of games as the league re-starts its season.
Taft is going prime time.
Doing something for the first time, too.
There’s not much the stadium just north of NW 23rd Street and May Avenue hasn’t done in its 86 years. Built as part of the Works Progress Administration during the Great Depression, it quickly became a venerable venue in Oklahoma. It was home in its early days to football teams from Classen, Central and Northwest Classen, Oklahoma City Public Schools programs that were powerhouses back then.
When Central and Classen played for the state title in 1944, a crowd of more than 15,000 packed Taft Stadium.
High school football wasn’t the only thing played there. In 1943, OU and OSU played the Bedlam game there. The schools did so again in 1944.
Doing so gave their fans in Oklahoma City a chance to see the game without having to travel to Norman or Stillwater. We can almost make those drives in our sleep nowadays, but in the 1940s when the interstate-highway system was still a pipedream, the journey wasn't so easy.
And in those days, Taft could hold a crowd similar to the stadiums at OU and OSU.
We don’t think of Taft Stadium anymore as being one of the great sporting venues in our state. It's not even considered among Oklahoma’s great high school stadiums anymore. Lots of districts have built stadiums for gridiron grandeur, palaces on par with many small colleges.
Taft, meanwhile, fell into decades of disrepair.
Only a massive renovation started in 2013 and paid for largely by an OKC bond issue kept Taft from having to be completely torn down. The glorious red-rock facade on the east side of the stadium facing May Avenue was salvaged — thank goodness! — but the rest of the stadium had to be gutted and rebuilt.
Palmer, who coached at Northwest Classen across the street for many years, then became an area athletic director for Oklahoma City schools with his office at the stadium, knows there was history lost in the renovation. He remembers finding an eight-millimeter film in a box one day, and the footage was from one of the car races that had been held at Taft. For decades, the dirt track around the football field was a huge draw for races.
The film showed the winner taking the checkered flag.
“A lady in a formal dress put her head inside the window, kissed the driver,” Palmer said. “She handed him the trophy, and he drove out the double gate, which is still there, and drove onto May Avenue and took off.”
“He just kissed the girl and ran off into the sunset.”
There were many splendid moments like that over the years at Taft. In addition to the car races, there were a couple more football games there that drew crowds between 15,000 and 20,000. First came Putnam City and Putnam West playing for a high school state football title in 1977. Then there was Langston and Grambling State playing for HBCU glory in 1997.
Langston regularly rented out Taft in those days for homecoming games or special events, and Grambling coming to town was pretty special. Legendary coach Eddie Robinson was still patrolling the sideline then — that would actually be his last season — and Grambling’s “World Famed” Marching Band was a draw all on its own.
Palmer remembers the crowd as well as anything that happened on the field.
“People parked everywhere,” he said. “I mean, you can’t imagine.”
Now, of course, Taft Stadium is home to the Energy and to several Oklahoma City Public schools. Middle school, high school and pro events are held there. Soccer, football and track is contested there.
The old venue has lots of life.
Tearing down aging stadiums and replacing them with something new is the way we often do things in America. Even then not-so-aged sometimes get torn down; just this past weekend, The Palace at Auburn Hills in suburban Detroit came down after only 32 years. But Taft Stadium remains after all these years.
By the way, that brick wall under the west bleachers with all the signatures got torn down in the renovation several years back. It's hard to fathom what names might've been scribbled on it, what might've been lost.
And yet, it's impossible to fault the renovation. It saved the stadium, allowing it to continue to be a place where memories are made and on occasion, where history is still made.
Jenni Carlson: Jenni can be reached at 405-475-4125 or email@example.com. Like her at facebook.com/JenniCarlsonOK or follow her at twitter.com/jennicarlson_ok.
Energy FC vs. FC Tulsa
When: 7 p.m. Monday
Where: Taft Stadium
Tickets: Ticketmaster.com or (405) 235-5425. Taft Stadium capacity is being limited to 38%. Fans will undergo temperature checks upon entering the main gate at the northeast corner of the stadium, and while masks are not required, they are strongly encouraged. For other health and safety protocols, go to EnergyFC.com/procedures.