Sod for sale: Hackley Stadium’s grass field coming out, turf project about to start

MUSKEGON – John Usmial never lost a football game on the grass field at hallowed Hackley Stadium.

But on Friday, the 1967 Muskegon High School alumnus and fellow Muskegon Big Red Athletic Foundation board member Tony Williams were literally breaking ground on a new era of the century-old stadium.

Usmial and Williams rolled up their sleeves and peeled away pieces of sod, which will be sold for $10 apiece Saturday and Sunday (12-4 p.m. each day) at Hackley Stadium as part of a fund-raiser for the Athletic Foundation. Monday is expected to be “ground-breaking day” for the new synthetic turf surface going in at the home of the Big Reds.

After considering a number of bids, Muskegon Public Schools selected AstroTurf Corporation to complete the roughly $750,000 project. The district’s Board of Education approved the bid recommendation at a special meeting earlier this week.

“This is the beginning of an end, right? This is the end of grass at Hackley Stadium and the beginning of turf,” Williams said.

“We’ve always had requests, that if we ever did anything with Hackley Stadium and went to turf, people want a part of history. John came out, and neither of us have any experience in sod cutting, so it was like learning on the fly, but we figured it out and hopefully we’ll have enough turf to serve the public.”

Each piece of sod is cut 18 inches wide by 3- to 4-feet long. Muskegon football coach Shane Fairfield said he plans to use some of the sod on the Big Reds’ practice field adjacent to Hackley Stadium.

Fairfield said that some people may not realize that the current grass field at Hackley Stadium was laid in 2011. He joked with Williams, “It’s not Kentucky bluegrass, it’s Hackley – Hackley green grass.”

“In 2011, they came in and tore this whole thing out and put all new top dressing in, new dirt, new backfill, all of that kind of stuff, and they put new (sod) down, so this is newer grass.”

On the downside, the natural-grass surface took a beating over the course of a season. Consequently, the Big Reds have had to move a number of home playoff games in recent seasons to nearby schools with synthetic surfaces, such as Grand Haven, because of poor field conditions.

Tony Williams cuts sod at Hackley Stadium

Tony Williams operates the sod-cutting machine at Hackley Stadium on Friday, June 26, 2020, in Muskegon, Mich. Williams is vice president of the Muskegon Big Red Athletic Foundation, which will be selling the pieces of sod over the weekend at Hackley Stadium. (Scott DeCamp | MLive.com)

Muskegon Public Schools has explored the installation of artificial turf in the past, but now the wheels are in motion – in Williams’ case, quite literally, as he was the one manning the sod-cutting machine.

AstroTurf Corporation started in 1965 with the AstroDome in Houston. The company has completed more than 250 installations in Michigan from high school to college, including West Michigan surfaces at Oakridge, Coopersville, East Kentwood and Grand Rapids Catholic Central high schools and Davenport University. AstroTurf also installed the surface at Michigan State’s indoor facility.

Three Grand Rapids businesses working with AstroTurf in the Hackley Stadium project will be school-hired construction manager Christman Company, architect designer Forsite Design Group and Katerburg VerHage Inc., which will handle the base work.

“This will truly be one of the best fields laid in the ground in the entire nation,” G. Aaron Klotz, Great Lakes sales manager for AstroTurf, wrote in an email to MLive. “The AstroTurf RootZone 3D3 Blend product and the Brock USA pad that they selected is known around the world as one of the most durable, playable and safest synthetic turf combinations you can install.”

Hackley Stadium AstroTurf Corporation rendering

Here is an artist rendering of what the new synthetic turf playing surface will look like at Hackley Stadium in Muskegon, Mich. AstroTurf Corporation was selected to install the surface. (Courtesy of AstroTurf Corporation)

Muskegon High School has been playing football at Hackley Stadium since 1907. Never before has it featured a synthetic playing surface.

The winningest high school football program in Michigan and seventh-winningest in the nation will now feature a fast track. The possibilities seem endless, and as Williams and Muskegon athletic director Keith Guy have pointed out, the new turf can be used by far more than the Big Reds football program.

The plan is to have the Hackley Stadium project completed before the 2020 season- and home-opener Aug. 28 vs. East Kentwood.

“I’m so happy that we will have turf this year, no doubt about it. Now it’s just a matter of when – if it’s going to be the first game or second, or thereafter,” Guy said. “I’m very, very excited. I think our kids deserve it, I think our fans to watch our kids play on our field for as many (playoff) games as we qualify for, and I’m looking forward to us playing on the new turf.”

Hackley Stadium sod

Sod is pulled from Hackley Stadium on Friday, June 26, 2020, in Muskegon, Mich. A synthetic playing surface will be installed at the century-old home of the Muskegon Big Reds football team. (Scott DeCamp | MLive.com)

It’s been a long road in making it happen, but it’s becoming a reality.

Usmial and Williams were happy to volunteer their time and efforts in cutting up and rolling up the pieces of sod. The Athletic Foundation annually hosts a fund-raising golf outing, but that was canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic. In its place, the foundation is looking to raise funds through sales of Hackley Stadium sod. The annual goal is generally around $20,000, which is used to help support all of the Big Reds’ athletic programs.

“The whole process has been really amazing, from the point when the bond was passed, the work that went in as far as getting the permit from the state, the bid process and getting it to the Board of Education to make a decision,” said Williams, who is vice president of the Athletic Foundation.

“That was a pretty fast track in the midst of all the other things we’re dealing with, with the pandemic and that kind of thing. My hat is off to the folks that were involved with that process and I think they did a wonderful job to get this started on Monday. It’s incredible.”

Read more:

‘There’s nothing like Hackley Stadium’: Muskegon Big Reds’ home one of a kind

Big Red Zone: For kids in the tough town of Muskegon, athletic success means the promise of a better life

Practice after a game? Keith Guy now appreciates tough-love lesson by Muskegon Heights legend

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