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Esko's field of dreams becomes real

After two referendums, one historic flood and a summer of incessant construction, a new era of Esko football is set to debut Friday when the Eskomos host fourth-ranked Two Harbors.

After two referendums, one historic flood and a summer of incessant construction, a new era of Esko football is set to debut Friday when the Eskomos host fourth-ranked Two Harbors.

A pivotal showdown between two of the top teams in the Great Polar Alliance White Division, Friday's game nonetheless is destined to be overshadowed by pageantry as Esko unveils its brand new stadium.

It's been a long time coming for the Eskomos, whose previous home venue, nearby Les Knuti Field, finally fell victim to Father Time a year ago. Last November, voters approved a $2.7 million bonding referendum to refurbish Esko's sprawling athletic complex, and the crown jewel is the multi-use stadium and its cushy SprinTurf.

As part of the referendum, the stadium was supposed to feature natural grass, but the upstart Esko Turf Club raised money at a frenzied pace to ensure the state-of-the-art surface was part of the package.

Bright blue end zones, with "Eskomos" spelled out in white lettering, and a massive igloo stretching across midfield stand out brilliantly on the otherwise green field.

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"When they first passed the referendum, the turf wasn't in the planning," Esko senior lineman Justin Weeks said Wednesday evening. "It just kind of put icing on the cake when they added it."

Weeks' teammate, senior quarterback Marc Peterson, was blown away by the finished product.

"I think it's everything that we imagined, but way, way more," Peterson said. "We didn't expect to have turf, but now that we have it we're very privileged to be able to play on it."

Voters shot down a $6.7 million plan by a 2-to-1 margin in 2009, but the June 2012 flooding hit Esko's athletic fields particularly hard.

Once last fall's referendum passed, the Esko Turf Club went to work. On Dec. 17, the outfit got authorization from Esko's school board to pursue the roughly $400,000 the turf was expected to cost. Skeptics, dubious the group could raise so much money in so little time, abounded. But less than two months later, the Esko Turf Club had raised $368,000, which resulted in dropped jaws at a Feb. 12 board meeting.

The turf got the green light.

Money has continued to pour in, said Esko Turf Club chairman Russ Davidson, who taught high school math in Esko for 35 years. Signs adorning the fence opposite the 1,000-seat bleachers are expected to bring in about $170,000, and private pledges are estimated at about $430,000. That includes an anonymous $300,000 gift from a former Eskomo, which becomes available in 2021.

Davidson relayed a story from the infant stages of the fundraising drive. Upon giving $1,000, a donor told Davidson he didn't "have a chance in hell" of raising the full amount. Davidson and Bob Thornton, who played an integral role in the process, along with the rest of the turf club, believed otherwise.

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"We were dumb enough to both believe that this (would happen)," Davidson said. "I don't know if there's been a day since Dec. 17 that this wasn't on our minds.

"Now these athletes have a field they so richly deserve."

Enhancing what's sure to be an already festive atmosphere Friday, this week is Homecoming for the Eskomos. The pregame celebration starts with a 3:30 student march from the school to the stadium, where a 4:45 dedication ceremony will precede the 5 o'clock kickoff.

While this week's game doesn't feature the traditional 7 p.m. start, future contests will -- something that wasn't possible last year after the lights at Les Knuti Field were deemed unsafe and removed. That followed the condemnation of the field's bleachers and press box.

Those hardships are but a distant memory.

"Last year was a fun season -- we made it to state -- but having those 4 o'clock, 5 o'clock games, it's not as fun as the night games," Weeks said. "Playing under the lights is what all football players want to do. Playing in Friday night games, that's just fun. That's what you want to do."

Construction crews broke ground on the project June 17. The Eskomos' Sept. 6 game against Moose Lake-Willow River, originally scheduled to be at home, was moved to Proctor. While the stadium is almost done, finishing touches remain. The surrounding grounds, including the baseball and softball fields, are a work in progress.

Still, the complex is taking shape, and if the stadium is any indication, it's going to be a gem.

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"Every time I drove past the field as they were working, I was just blown away," Thornton said. "You have your expectations of what the field's going to look like, but when you put so much time and effort into something, and to have a product that looks this nice, it totally exceeds what I had expected.

"It's just beautiful."

Related Topics: ESKOFOOTBALL
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