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Monday, June 17, 2024

Citizens Field: Home to Gainesville high school football

The football field has been a part of Gainesville tradition since 1948

Keenon Johnson (middle), Newberry Panthers running back, runs the ball down Citizens Field during a game against the Eastside Rams on Thursday, Oct. 14, 2021.
Keenon Johnson (middle), Newberry Panthers running back, runs the ball down Citizens Field during a game against the Eastside Rams on Thursday, Oct. 14, 2021.

While many Gainesville residents spend their Friday night wining and dining, Fontella Moore makes her way to Citizens Field on Eighth Avenue and Waldo Road. 

Upon entering the stadium, Moore scans the concrete bleachers for a seat with a clear view of the band and cheerleaders. Her eyes land on her daughters as they ignite the crowd with their cheers. 

The duo attempts to invigorate Eastside High School’s fans at Citizens Field, despite the Rams’ 30-point deficit against North Marion late in the fourth quarter. 

Eastside’s brutal defeat doesn’t deter Moore, a 42-year-old alumna, from attending games at the field. She has frequented matchups for years — even before her daughters suited up to cheer for the Rams. 

And it doesn’t matter if Eastside or other Gainesville high schools play. High school football at Citizens Field has been a Gainesville tradition for nearly 75 years. 

“This is the thing to do,” she said. “There is nothing like Friday night football.”

Residents have shuffled into Citizens Field every Thursday and Friday night since 1948. Eastside, Gainesville High School and Buchholz High School all currently coexist on the East Gainesville field.

However, Buchholz began its Friday night football at Gainesville’s most venerated stadium: The Swamp. The Gators’ home switched to artificial turf when Buchholz opened in 1971 —  inviting high school football teams to hold games at its facility. The GHS Hurricanes bolted for the larger stadium and left Citizens Field reserved for Eastside, which had been inaugurated in 1970. 

In the early ‘80s, Gainesville City Commissioner Harvey Ward donned a Rams football jersey. The school spirit enlivened the crowd and the local community. 

“Citizens was our thing,” Ward said. “I played a little bit, and I take great pride in it. I knew I was a link in a chain and part of the greater good of the community by embracing what goes on at Citizens Field.”

Ward’s family claims a special connection to Citizens Field. His uncle helped lay sod on when it was built, according to family lore.

But Eastside’s reign as the sole tenant of Citizens Field ended when Steve Spurrier became Florida’s head coach in 1990, said Charley Wise, Alachua County Public Schools’ athletic director. The celebrated coach insisted the facility convert back to natural grass. Buchholz and GHS were dispelled to avoid extra wear and tear. 

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In 1984, ACPS signed a 40-year lease at Citizens Field for $1 per year. The lease asserted the school district would handle field operations, which include maintenance, upgrades and staffing.

This setup stresses Wise and his two-man team, especially when schools schedule back-to-back games on Thursday and Friday nights.

“Luckily, we don’t have to paint the field twice, but it’s tough,” he said. “We got all that trash to pick up, bathrooms and press boxes to clean.”

This season, which started Aug. 20, didn’t have a Thursday game on schedule until the Eastside-North Marion game Moore attended Sept. 30. Thursday contests continue through Oct. 21 while Friday battles stretch to Nov. 5. 

The game scheduling process starts in the spring, Wise said. He gathers all three coaches and school athletic directors, and they collaborate to slate their home games until the regular season ends.

“There are certain weeks when all three schools want it, but they can’t,” Wise said. “Sometimes we have schools play home games elsewhere.”

That alternative materializes Oct. 22, when Buchholz battles Jacksonville-based Bolles in Starke, a town almost an hour away from the Bobcats’ campus. That same day, Eastside will host Palatka at Citizens Field. 

Each school will host five home games this season. They also earn an extra “home game” due to crosstown rivalries: Buchholz v. Eastside Sept. 10; GHS v. Buchholz Oct. 7; and Eastside v. GHS Nov. 5.

The three schools maintain their own fields on campus but elect to play games at Citizens Field due to the infrastructure.

“You can fit 5,000 people there,” Wise said. “They don’t have the facilities to hold games. GHS is tightly packed in off 13th Street.”

Buchholz, which is located on the west side of Gainesville, considered building its own on-campus stadium five years ago. Citizens Field is 6.5 miles from Buchholz’s campus, compared to 4 miles for Eastside and 2.7 miles for GHS. The proposal never came to fruition.

“The deal was on and off, but now it seems off,” Wise said. “When you are on campus, it’s all yours. You have to deal with everything, including cleanup.”

Schools only need to pay for referees and police during games, Wise said. They also collect all profits from the $10 tickets.

Wise and Commissioner Ward anticipate the triad will re-sign when the lease expires. However, the possibility of renovations loom over the future of the field and nearby areas.

“That’s a really nice piece of land that I believe we can do something special with,” Ward said. “It needs to be something that draws the community to a focal point there. We don’t aspire to build something that just City Hall wants.”

Due to slowed efforts during the COVID-19 pandemic, no timeline has been set on potential projects, but the city intends to support a community football stadium, Ward said. 

Meanwhile, Wise said the commission has failed to consult ACPS on its goals. 

He yearns to bring Citizens Field to the 21st century by ditching the current LED-scoreboard for a Jumbotron.

“You need a Jumbotron in today’s age,” he said. “Even little Starke has one, but those cost $200,000, 10 times more than ours.”

But Moore, like other East Gainesville residents, isn’t optimistic about the city’s plans to renovate the stadium.

“Every year, they say they are doing something to enhance the east side, and then they put it off for so long,” she said. “But then you go to Archer or Newberry Road, and things are being put up in months. It makes you wonder where their priorities are.” 

Moore believes Citizens Field helps lure people to the east side.

“If you don’t have to come to the east side, you don’t,” she said. “The fact that kids have to play here makes people think, ‘Wow, the east side isn’t as bad, and it’s a melting pot for everyone.’”

In addition to football, Citizens Field also hosts soccer and the occasional lacrosse game. The site mainly closes during the summer except for some charity events. Wise’s favorite event, however, transpires every spring — the fifth-grade Fun Day. More than 2,000 students from the schools across Alachua County migrate to the stadium.

Football still entices the largest crowds to Citizens Field, especially during rivalry games.

“The largest crowd ever was probably somewhere between 5-6,000 people,” Wise said. “The fire department says a max of 4,000, but more people are usually squeezed in.”

Andre London embraces the sense of community at Citizens Field when he watches his son, a sophomore defensive end for the Rams. The 46-year-old Gainesville resident began attending matchups seven years ago.

“I knew different people in the community, and I would come support their kids,” he said.

Friday night football, he said, provides a safe but energetic experience. Rivalry games provide even more of a spirited aura. 

“It is where you want to be on a Friday night,” London said.

Commissioner Ward believes Citizens Field’s influence extends beyond Thursday or Friday night entertainment. It levels the playing ground for all three Gainesville high schools.

“No matter what part of town you grew up in, you have a connection through what happens at that stadium,” Ward said.

London, however, questions if Citizens Field retains that impact.

“Schools like Buchholz and Eastside have totally different programs and facilities,” he said. “The only thing they share is this field.”

Jaquan Lee, a senior wide receiver and cornerback at Buchholz, has experienced the field through two atmospheres. 

The 17-year-old swapped his Rams jersey for a Buchholz one after his first two seasons. And the change came paired with a new team dynamic.

 “I feel like it’s more of a brotherhood from a Buchholz perspective,” he said. “At Eastside, I feel like everyone does their own thing.”

Buchholz’s boisterous fans bring an inherent advantage. They drown out rivals’ cheers during close games and rile up the stadium after wins. 

Lee first attended games at Citizens Field when his brother, Ralph Webb, played for GHS in the early 2010s. Webb suited up for Vanderbilt and the NFL.

Webb is one of many legends to forge a legacy on the local mecca. A recent Eastside graduate now competes at the fabled site on the west side of town: Gators freshman quarterback Anthony Richardson.

Richardson committed to UF in 2020 as a four-star recruit.

He inspires the community, including Lee, who played alongside him for two years.

“He’s a great character,” he said. “He was that big brother role model, and I knew if he can do it, so can I. Coming from Eastside, not many kids get the opportunity to lead the way.”

But Richardson’s success holds a deeper meaning to East Gainesville’s community and Ward. 

“You got your Tim Tebows, who are amazing, and I am a proud Gator alum,”  he said. “But it’s even more special when it’s an Eastside Ram.”

Citizens Field may be the only place in Gainesville where everyone unites. 

“It doesn’t matter what side of town you are from,” Moore said. “This is the one place where kids and adults can gravitate to and have a good time.”

The same faces often scatter the crowd on Thursday and Friday nights. Moore encourages anyone to escape their usual Friday night routine.

All they have to do is make their way to Waldo Road and Eighth Avenue. They can meet Moore in the stands Fridays at 7 p.m. and leave having experienced a different aspect of Gainesville culture — all at Citizens Field. 

Contact Noah Ram at Follow him on Twitter @Noah_ram1

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Noah Ram

Noah is a third year journalism-sports and media student from Palm Beach Gardens, Florida. He has been with The Alligator since Spring 2019 and has covered men’s and women’s tennis, gymnastics and volleyball. When he isn’t on his beat, Noah is usually sadden over his beloved South Florida sports teams, such as the Heat and Dolphins.

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