By Gary L. Fisher
NOTE: Gary Fisher, a local historian, spoke on the history of the venerable Atwood Stadium at 7 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 15 at the Genesee County Historical Society at the Durant-Dort Carriage Company office, 316 W. Water St., Flint.
My first trip to Flint’s Atwood Stadium is seared in to my brain. My mom told me my dad would have a big surprise for me when he got home for work. As a five-year-old I assumed that meant a toy of some kind, or maybe a comic book or two. Instead I was told that he had secured ‘box seats’ for a high school football game. Now I had never seen anyone actually sitting in a box, but it sure sounded like fun!
Later I learned that it really just meant that we had terrific seats. The game in question wasn’t just a regular game. It was a really big game: the annual Thanksgiving Day matchup between Flint Central, my neighborhood school, and bitter cross town rival Flint Northern. The game had been played regularly since 1928 and had once attracted crowds as large as 25,000. This game was big too, because if Central won they would be crowned the Michigan Class A State Champions, heightening anticipation.
So off we went on my first trip to Flint’s Atwood Stadium. The pageantry of the bands, the card sections in the end zones, the chants and cheers amidst the chilly November air was positively intoxicating. The stands were filled with kids, neighbors, and friends. My cousin Debbie was in Northern’s amazing marching band. Older guys from the neighborhood were on the field playing. I had listened to rival coaches on a radio show the night before. I knew my mom and grandma were home cooking the Thanksgiving dinner, with Grandpa and my baby sister. Norman Rockwell had nothing on Flint and Atwood Stadium.
The beautiful stadium with its modern Astroturf was positively pregnant with tradition, excitement, and community. It was a temple that attracted blue collar workers building Buicks and Chevys along with doctors, lawyers and business owners. Black, white, rich, poor, old and young. College recruiters from around the country regularly attended this game to scout the talent, take in the atmosphere and worship at this shrine of sports and achievement.
What a day! The 1970 Michigan state championship at stake, the ancient rivals game, the Thanksgiving Day Game.It was better than Disneyland. Later that day, and for years afterwards, my pal Dennis King and I would reenact the game on my side yard, play by play, including the year the Central Drum major slipped and fell – Dennis had to act that bit out.
Northern upset Central that day and I was hooked. In fact, I never missed another Central Northern game. I would attend every single one for the next 30 years, even travelling home from across the state or around the country to do so.
My dad and I established an ongoing tradition as well, attending a city football game every football Friday for the next decade at Atwood. Eventually I would go on to play football for Flint Central in my very own Central Northern games. That they weren’t played on Thanksgiving did nothing to diminish the rivalry, or my feeling of being part of a rich tradition. In fact, it felt like a birthright.
The Thanksgiving Day game tradition ended in 1976, but the powers-that-be held a reunion game in 1977 on Thanksgiving, and invited all the greats from the previous 50 years back for one more go. I attended that game with my buddy Brian Knight. My mom dropped us off at the Atwood gate and we made a beeline for the sidelines where lax security permitted us open access.
As the game wound down, former Northern star Russ Reynolds asked us if we wanted to get in for a “play or two.” We eagerly said yes and jetted around the Astroturf with Reynolds and the collection of old timers and local legends. Reynolds had played in the first Central Northern game in 1928 even before it was held at Atwood. I knew his story even then, and being on the field with him and the others as a 12-year-old kid was thrilling, even if it was flag football, in a nostalgia game, and even if Reynolds was pushing 70. I was on that field!
Over the years I experienced many “firsts” at Atwood:
- My first live sporting event with my dad.
- My first stadium hot dog.
- My first hot cocoa.
- First beer.
- First date.
- First soccer game.
- First real football game
- My CANUSA team was the first Flint team to ever beat the Canadians in soccer.
- My Whittier Junior High team won the first ever City Soccer Championship
When the grand dame fell in to disrepair, I served as a volunteer for the renovation committee. It was unthinkable that it could ever go away. That it was ultimately saved by Kettering University, and will continue to offer its attributes to build the well of unshakable memories for a new generation. Kettering’s effort is one of the greatest preservation wins in Flint history. For me, Atwood is the structural symbol of Flint, standing strong, proud, and unbowed.
Knight died of a sudden heart attack in 2011 and that made a discovery shortly thereafter all the more bittersweet. While watching a tape of that ’77 Nostalgia Bowl, I noticed a couple of kids in the shot. Amidst the legends were Knight and me. Many of those players, like Knight, are now long gone. I paused the video and stared at the screen: ghosts of the past in the Temple of the City. It couldn’t have felt more appropriate.
Gary L. “Fish” Fisher says he comes to his passion for all things Flint honestly. He was born and raised in the city and has lived in the area most of his life, residing in both the Eastside and East Village neighborhoods. His family has been a part of the Flint area for over 100 years, so his roots run deep. In fact, they were in Flint when General Motors got its start; his great-grandfather, grandfathers, grandmother, and dad (along with numerous cousins, uncles, and aunts) all worked for GM, most of them at “The Buick.” His fascination with the history of the city has existed as long as he can remember, and he’s had the opportunity to meet, know, and engage with many of the key players who have shaped the last half -century of the area’s history. Fisher moved his financial planning business into the Mott Foundation building during the water crisis in part as a show of support and solidarity for his hometown, he says, and has been there for three years. He also serves as a trustee on the board of the Genesee County Historical Society, where he delivers seminars and talks on the rich history of the amazing cast of characters and events Flint has produced. He hosts a radio show on WFNT-AM 1470 every Wednesday at 11 a.m. Eastern called “ Fish and The Flint Chronicles.” He asserts Flint has produced the best cars, athletes, and coney islands the world has ever known- and the toughest people!
Fisher can be reached at email@example.com.