From the 1998 MHSAA Football
In the early
years of high school football in Michigan, the game enjoyed immense
popularity as local heroes pursued mythical state championships
before enthusiastic crowds.
the beginning of the sport in the late 1800s through the 1920s,
prep football took center stage on Saturday afternoons in Michigan,
and even drew crowds for annual Thanksgiving Day contests. High
school football in that era was the ticket for fall sports
entertainment, as regional rivalries and traditional showdowns
the college game was growing quickly. Schools like the University
of Michigan and Notre Dame, with large new stadiums, competed
with high schools for fans. In addition, the Depression years
were hard on sporting event attendance at high schools across
the state. School officials began searching for new ways to draw
the people back to the game as crowds began to dwindle.
Beginning in the early 1930s,
a number of high schools began to change their schedules, shifting
their games to Friday afternoons. At parochial schools, Sunday
afternoon contests were quite common. Then, a handful of schools
in the state began to install artificial lights, and games slowly
made the move to Friday nights. The novelty of football "under
the floodlights" had the desired effect, as large crowds
gathered to watch their local squads compete once again.
of high school gridirons continues today, and with much the same
controversies and successes. After a successful test with portable
lights during the 1997 season, Dearborn Community Schools added
permanent lights at Dearborn, Edsel Ford and Fordson this year.
The schools joined the fray at a cost of more than $350,000. A
year ago, Livonia Franklin and the Grosse Pointe schools installed
lights amid pockets of resistance from various members of the
community. Next season, Farmington Hills Harrison will add lights
to its facility.
which high school was the first to play under the lights? The
answer to that question has been lost in time, but the pursuit
of an answer continues.
Des Moines (Iowa) Demons of the now defunct Class A Western League
became the first baseball team in America to host a game
under permanent lights, defeating the Wichita Aeros, 13-6, on
May 2, 1930.
little over four months later in Michigan, the Vikings of Jackson
High School hosted St. Johns in one of the state's first gridiron
contests under the lights. On Thursday, Sept. 18, more than 1,000
fans showed up for the Vikings' team practice session and a final
test of the 58,000-watt lighting equipment that had been installed
at Withington Stadium. The following night, approximately 4,500
attended as Jackson rolled to a 26-0 victory behind the running
of Charlie Brown and Don Vaughn. The crowd was double that of
the 1929 home opener.
host of dignitaries, including Mayor Milo Hulliberger, Superintendent
Harold Steele, and Ralph Carolyn of Consumers Power were on hand
for the dedication ceremony. Harry Waha of the Junior Chamber
of Commerce--the organization responsible for the purchase of
the lights--was also in attendance.
same evening in Lansing, the Big Reds of Lansing Central downed
East Lansing, 20-0, under 16 huge floodlights at Pattengill Field.
An estimated crowd of 7,000 showed up for the town's first-ever
night contest. On Saturday night, Lansing Eastern and Albion battled
to a 7-7 tie before approximately 5,000 in the city's second nocturnal
success at the gate inspired others to pursue light for their
fields. Benton Harbor, under new head coach Bill Moss, launched
the 1936 season under the lights before the largest opening-game
crowd in school history. A number of coaches from opposing squads
paid a visit to Filstrup Field, both to scout the squad and to
check out the floodlights.
Rapids fired up newly installed lights at Houseman Field on Friday,
Sept. 18, 1936, as the Detroit Lions played their
annual Blue-White game, their final training contest of the preseason.
The Lions, who had spent Thursday afternoon visiting with local
students at the eight Grand Rapids area football fields, celebrated
the end of camp before a crowd of over 5,000. The White squad,
sparked by a 29-yard touchdown by former Nebraska All-American
Glenn Presnell, defeated their teammates in Blue, 7-0. A week
later, Grand Rapids Central and Mt Pleasant kicked off the city's
first-ever prep night contest, while Godwin traveled to Lowell
for another evening contest that same night.
On Oct. 9, Ann Arbor High
School officials illuminated Wines Field for the first time, for
a game with Lincoln High of Ferndale. Comprised of 60, 1,500-watt
bulbs mounted on 10, 52-foot poles surrounding the field, the
system cost approximately $6,000. On hand for the event were Richard
Remington, a well-respected football official whose gridiron all-state
selections for the Detroit News were considered the official
squad in Michigan; L.L. Forsythe, principal at Ann Arbor High
School, and Charles C. Forsythe, the first full-time director
of the MHSAA.
evening contest proved to be a real test for the equipment, as
a fog settled over the field following a drizzling afternoon rain.
The game ended in a 6-6 deadlock.
report in the Ann Arbor Daily News stated that Remington
felt "it was one of the most satisfactory lighting systems
under which he had ever worked."
Charles Forsythe addressed
the crowd over the public address system, and said the Ann Arbor
system was the best he had seen in the state. According to Forsythe,
13 fields in the state were now lighted: Albion; Ann Arbor; Coldwater;
Detroit; Dowagiac; Grand Rapids; Iron Mountain; Ironwood; Jackson;
Kalamazoo; Lansing; Lowell; and Monroe. Additional newspaper reports
indicate that there were others. According to the Kalamazoo
Gazette, Niles and St. Joseph both had lighting systems in
decision to add lights to an existing stadium was not always a
popular decision. In 1937, Muskegon traveled to Benton Harbor
for its first game under the lights. It was a huge event, as around
1,500 local fans made the trip to watch the contest.
"As I recall, the lights
were too low," said Rudy Kolenic, a halfback with the 1937
Big Reds. "There was a lot of mist on the field, and it was
hard to see. We called it the swamp land." Despite conditions
that, according to Muskegon Chronicle sports editor Jimmy
Henderson, were "far less effective for play than sunlight,"
Muskegon downed their Southwestern Conference rivals, 19-0.
played its second night game in the fall of 1939--again against
the Tigers of Benton Harbor. Another large group followed the
Big Reds south, and Muskegon emerged victorious again.
had proven two things to the Muskegon officials. First, the Big
Reds could still play football under what many considered inferior
artificial light. Second, and more importantly, night football
attracted people, and thus the decision was made to light Muskegon's
located on the school's campus, the stadium is surrounded by many
private homes. Fears about the effect on the surrounding neighborhood,
worries about increased crime and the school's break with tradition
were all cited as reasons not to light the field. The high cost
of the job was also mentioned. The price was tagged at $4,000--a
huge sum of money in an era when adult tickets were 60 cents per
officials went about the task of selling the project to a skeptical
public. They circulated fliers to "Patrons of the Big Reds"
requesting that 600 supporters of the project respond by purchasing
season tickets in advance, at the reduced cost of $2.50 for five
home contests. Four of the games were to be played at night. The
fifth game, Muskegon's traditional season-ending showdown with
crosstown rival Muskegon Heights, remained on Saturday afternoon.
The campaign was a success and lights were installed during the
summer of 1940.
Sept. 20, 1940, a record season-opening crowd of 7,500 fans packed
Hackley Stadium for the debut of Friday night football in Muskegon.
The fans enjoyed a 22-0 Big Red victory over Grand Rapids Catholic
Central. The same evening, 5,000 turned out in Flint for Northern
High School's 18-7 victory over Toledo Catholic Central played
under the lights at Atwood Stadium. The Flint Journal reported
that this was "the first nocturnal grid clash here since
1930 when General Motors Tech and St. Michael and St. Matthew
made use of an earlier version of a lighting plant." The
following night, 3,200 gathered for Flint Central's 33-12 win
over Caro also played under the artificial illumination at Atwood.
of lighting gridirons continued throughout the 1940s and 1950s.
The majority of suburban schools built in the late 1950s and 1960s
included money in their budgets for halogen gridiron lights. First
installed at a high school near Cleveland, Ohio, the halogen lights
emitted a stronger light, more closely replicating natural illumination.
football under Friday night lights is as natural as...well, as
natural as the rising sun.
Ron Pesch is the historian
for the MHSAA. Story ideas and potential statistical records submissions
are always welcome. Write to Pesch at 1317 Lakeshore Drive, Muskegon,