The end of an era: Metrodome's run as Prep Bowl host is nearly over

The Metrodome's 31-year relationship with Minnesota high school football is entering the two-minute warning. The venerable venue, having hosted the Minnesota State High School League's Prep Bowl since 1982 and the state semifinals since 1990, wil...

Metrodome, 1997
Cook County High School's Craig Horak yells "We did it, we did it!" to the cheering fans from Cook County at the Metrodome in Minneapolis after his team's victory over Adrian to claim the 1997 Minnesota State A high school football championship. (1997 file / News Tribune)

The Metrodome's 31-year relationship with Minnesota high school football is entering the two-minute warning.

The venerable venue, having hosted the Minnesota State High School League's Prep Bowl since 1982 and the state semifinals since 1990, will be imploded early in 2014 and replaced with a modern-day football palace for the Vikings.

Its heyday long since passed, the Metrodome has remained a blessing for the MSHSL. Its functionality allows the league to schedule the tail end of football's postseason for late fall, indoors and under the Dome's Teflon roof. The same is true for the league's soccer tournament.

"This time of year in Minnesota it can be 60 and sunny or 20 and snowing," MSHSL associate director Kevin Merkle said by phone Wednesday. "Obviously the Metrodome isn't what it was when it was built, but it's been great for what we've needed."

Merkle said the 1982 Prep Bowl was rife with pageantry as marching bands and choirs waltzed up and down the stadium's artificial turf in between that day's five state title games.


"It was a pretty big production," Merkle said.

Student-athletes ever since have dreamt of playing in the massive stadium that features 60,000-plus seats and some pretty slick bells and whistles. For so many years, the stock response for any prep football player asked of his team's chief objective was, "get to the Dome."

"It will be really exciting to play at the Dome and play where the Vikings play, and just to play in such a big stadium," said Ely's Mark Heiman, whose team plays in this morning's Nine-Man state tournament semifinals.

The Metrodome, so nondescript today, debuted to rave reviews when it was completed in April 1982 for a price tag of $55 million. Its extravagance defied common sense. Now, it's outdated and destined for demolition.

While the Dome is most famous for hosting a Super Bowl, two World Series, a college men's basketball Final Four and countless big-ticket concerts, it has witnessed plenty of memorable prep football moments.

In the aftermath of the 1991 Halloween Blizzard, high school squads still immersed in section playoffs scrambled to find usable fields. Section semifinals and finals, in addition to being played in Iowa and North Dakota, were rescheduled for the Dome. Because of a packed slate, some of those games didn't start until after midnight.

Perhaps the greatest Prep Bowl game played at the Metrodome was the 1988 large-school final between Blaine and Cretin-Derham Hall, which featured future Heisman Trophy winner Chris Weinke. Blaine won 25-24 on a last-second two-point conversion by Tom Newman, who barely snuck into the end zone before being tackled. Many believe Newman was down before crossing the goal line.

Closer to home, Cromwell has collected four Nine-Man state titles at the Metrodome, including in 2010 when Jordan Suhonen tore up the turf en route to Prep Bowl records for rushing (374 yards), rushing touchdowns (five), longest run from scrimmage (86 yards) and per-carry average (13.4). Cook County captured three straight Class A crowns from 1997-99.


Moose Lake-Willow River has been a Metrodome regular, playing in three of the past four Class AA title games. Last season, the Rebels nearly broke through for their first championship before losing to Caledonia on a last-gasp field goal.

MLWR coach Dave Louzek said it was always a special feeling to walk out of the Metrodome tunnel. Despite playing in front of 55,000 empty seats or more -- championship game crowds typically number between 2,000-8,000 -- the atmosphere is unique.

"You come out of the tunnel and your first reaction is to look up at the stands, and you're just in awe," Louzek said.

"You don't have to have a huge crowd, and it can still be very loud in there, and the atmosphere is just great," Merkle said.

Next year, the Prep Bowl heads to the Minnesota Gophers' TCF Bank Stadium, though the semifinals will be played at various venues across the state. The 2014 slate of championship games will be held a week earlier than usual, before Thanksgiving rather than after.

2015 is a little murkier. It's probable that the finals again will be at TCF, but conflicts with the Gophers' schedule could push those contests up even further. Combined with a late Labor Day, the MSHSL is looking at a much earlier start to the season or shrinking the playoff field -- not every team would qualify for section playoffs -- or both.

But all that can wait. For now, there are 28 teams itching for their shot under the big white bubble this weekend. And the excitement is just as fresh now as it was way back in 1982.

"It's a treat for everybody," Ely coach Brian Lamppa said. "Some of our kids have played baseball in there, but obviously not football. We're excited."

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