AIRPORT GARDENS – The lights will shine one last time over Paul Ray Alexander Field Friday in what is likely to be an emotional evening as an era of high school football spanning five decades on that field comes to an end. The Perry Central Commodores will play their final home game this week before moving to a new facility for the 2013 season.
The field, which was at first known as Napier Field and served as the home gridiron for the M.C. Napier Navajos, was just a cornfield and pasture before it was transformed into a football field and opened in 1960. In 1994, the consolidation of M.C. Napier and Dilce Combs high schools resulted in Perry Central, and the field became home to the newly formed Commodores.
For the past 52 years, however, that field has remained one of memories for the young men who played upon its surface, and that includes current Perry Central Athletic Director Randy Napier.
“It’s sort of a bittersweet time for guys like me that played on this field and watched all the games and grew up in this neighborhood,” Napier said. “To see it all come to an end, it is sort of bittersweet, but it gives you an opportunity to come back and revisit all those memories and bring it to a close.”
Napier, who played for the Navajos from 1969 to 1973, and whose brother David also played for M.C. Napier, announced last week that this Friday’s game against Harlan County will also be an opportunity for the former players and coaches of M.C. Napier and Perry Central to return to the field. Any former players or coaches will be asked to identify themselves at the gate, and they will be escorted to a special hospitality area where they can meet other former players. At halftime, they will be escorted to the 50-yard line and introduced to the home crowd one final time.
Napier urged former players and coaches to spread the word in hopes of getting as many former Navajos and Commodores back to Airport Gardens as possible.
Since the field’s opening in 1960, a lot of history has occurred there. Nearly 300 high school games have been played on its surface in that time. Hundreds of Perry County students played there, and thousands more spent time in the stands cheering on their team or rooting against a cross-town rival when the Hazard Bulldogs came to play.
And a lot has also changed in the past five decades, from the solid metal fence that once surrounded the field to the chain-link fence that now runs the perimeter, to an upgraded press box and aluminum stadium bleachers. When the field first opened, the Navajo players used the basement of the band room at M.C. Napier High School as the locker room and rode a bus to the field. In 1971 the team moved its locker room to the basement at Dennis Wooton Elementary.
The field has also undergone a few name changes, from Napier Field to Commodore Field, and later to Paul Ray Alexander Field, named after the late board member who played for the former Dilce Combs High School in the 1960s.
Napier noted that the field, which sits in flood plain near the North Fork of the Kentucky River, has been flooded at least five times, in 1957, 1962, 1967, 1977, and 1984.
But for people like Napier, the field has been more than just a playing surface for high school sports; it was a place where “boys became men” through the competition there that ultimately changed their lives. Each decade produced players who would make their mark there as a Navajo or Commodore. In the 1960s names like Jerry Brewer, Jessie Harris and Calvin Beatty came to mind, Napier noted, and in then in the 1970s Kenny Miller and David Napier, and Larry Napier and Jeff Gillum in the 80s.
Perry Central, of course, produced top-notch players as well, including Timmy Neace, Al Holland, Jr., Twayne Willis and Matt Robinson among others. And it was these young men who supplied the memories on that field every Friday night.
“It’s got a lot of memories for a lot of people in different years,” Napier said.
And for the thousands of fans who have come to those games over the decades, those memories are just as real.
“Think about the thousands of people – not just the people that played their games here – but the students and fans that attended here every Friday night,” Napier continued. “A lot of people met their husbands and wives here.”
There is still one chance to make new memories at Napier/Commodore/Paul Ray Alexander Field. There’s still one chance to see the glare of the lights off the players’ helmets, to watch the competition on the field, and hear the roar of the crowd as the home team breaks the end zone, and maybe even takes a victory.
And it’s not as if the memories will truly end. The football tradition will continue for Perry County Schools with the completion of a new football field as part of a state-of-the-art athletic complex next to the planned East Perry Elementary. So, there’s a bright future to look forward to and new memories to be made, even if Friday night will mark the end of an era for a generation of Perry Countians.
“We feel like it’s time to move on,” Napier said. “It’s going to be a beautiful place that we’ve got up here and we look forward to that, but it’s kind of tough to say goodbye to this.”