It’s hard to say this is the revival of something that was dead, because higher-ups in the Pontiac School District don’t even know if it was alive in the first place.
The football field behind the current Pontiac High School has existed for a long time, first when the school was known as Pontiac Northern High School from 1958 to 2009, and then as Pontiac High School when Northern and Pontiac Central merged into one building in 2009.
Through all the years, history and athletic events on the site, there is one notable thing believed to be missing.
“We don’t know if a varsity football game has ever been played here,” said Lee Montgomery, athletic director for the Pontiac School District.
If that’s the case, it’s about to change for a school with an appropriate nickname of Phoenix, because this is a project that’s raising something from ashes -- and it could cause a renaissance in the community for years.
An unlikely breakthrough
Over the years, the field behind the high school has been used for freshman- and junior varsity-level football games and for varsity soccer games, but that’s been about it.
The varsity football team has played home games a couple miles away at Wisner Stadium, a historic venue that used to serve as a practice site for the Detroit Lions.
However, Wisner Stadium wasn’t like playing at the high school.
And with no lights and decaying stands, getting to use the field for any purpose was a plus for the district.
There wasn’t any hope that would change, until a historic moment that took place in March 2020, just before the COVID-19 pandemic began.
In a sudden role reversal, voters in the city approved a $147 million bond for the school district. It had been a long time since a school bond passed.
“That was the first time in 30 years,” said Montgomery while thanking community members for their sacrifice and generosity.
With the bond passed, administrators in the district turned their eyes to the field, and knew where some of those bond funds should go.
From nothing to being the envy of others
Today, construction on what is essentially a brand new stadium complex behind Pontiac High School is still going on, but what’s already there is like a dream to the community, even as there is more to come.
A gleaming new artificial football field is in place, with the school’s primary color, purple, painted in the end zones and shining brightly in the sunlight.
Home stands that are expected to hold about 2,500 people, visiting stands that should hold around 500 people, an entrance gate, a concession stand and a press box are soon to be built in time for the first game to be played at the new complex, which, at the moment is scheduled for Oct. 8.
Before the spring, a new track also will be installed around the field.
There are several inner-city programs around the state that have enjoyed a lot of success in recent years, but have subpar to poor facilities.
For example, it’s well-documented how players at Detroit Cass Tech -- a program that has won three state championships in the highest division over the past 10 years and has churned out numerous college players -- often walk a mile with equipment to a practice field as not to wear out the main grass field at their stadium.
Other prominent city programs either have it worse than that, or nothing at all, and play road games.
Pontiac, which has a program that has won a combined five games since 2012 and had only 23 players on its roster last year, knows how lucky it is to be on the verge of having a facility that’s on par with more affluent suburban districts around the area.
“This is our first field,” senior Teveion Etchen said. “We do play at Wisner, but Wisner is not like this.”
For senior Isaac Burrow, the first game on Oct. 8 will be icing on the cake, in a literal sense.
“That first game is actually my 18th birthday,” Burrow said.
Hoping for a renaissance
In terms of on the field, first-year Pontiac head coach Ken Wade hopes the complex can lead to an increase in roster numbers and might entice players who are considering playing at a more prominent private or public school program nearby to stay in the district.
Last year, Pontiac High School had an enrollment of more than 900 kids, according to the Michigan High School Athletic Association’s website, a dramatic decrease from the over 1,800 the school had during the first year of the merger in 2009.
Wade said the facility has already made an impression on past players.
“I’ve been reached out to by a lot of alumni and a lot of people who played here,” Wade said. “There is a lot of pride and looking forward to the opportunity to seeing games played out here, and yes, a little bit of jealousy that it didn’t happen when they were players here. It’s a beautiful facility.”
Beyond just the football team, the impacts could be immeasurable.
The school can rent the facility out to youth leagues for many different sports, host big track meets again in a community that used to be a hotbed in that sport, and perhaps most of all, the complex can instill pride in the community and school.
“We want this to be the community’s place to enjoy,” Montgomery said. “We want the community to know that this is the place to be on Friday nights instead of going other places. We want students to walk to this field. If you know anything about Friday nights, people love walking to football facilities. They love staying after school, making sure they are going to a football game. We didn’t have that at Wisner. This is going to be great.”
Time will tell if all those expected impacts will come true, but given what the field has been for the past half-century, it’s no wonder Pontiac is excited about what’s in place now, and for what’s in store for the future.
“If you’ve been here with these student-athletes and understand the things they’ve gone through, they need this,” Montgomery said. “They deserve it. It makes me emotional. It’s a dream come true.”