The first time I walked into Rhodes Stadium on the campus of Elon University one thought immediately jumped into my mind. “Bill Hunter would have never believed this to be possible.”
This happened in 2007, nine years after Hunter’s death in 1998 from cancer and six years after the beautiful 8,250 seat, $13 million stadium opened. He would have never believed such an event and facility to be possible on the Elon campus.
Hunter was an Elon alum from Graham who became one of the leading sports writers and editors in North Carolina during his 37-year career with the Burlington Times-News. He was my boss and mentor during the five years I worked as a sportswriter at the newspaper. He covered nearly everything that involved athletics at Elon, but football was his specialty. Over the years he spent dozens upon dozens of Saturdays in the press box watching Elon rise to national prominence in small-college football. All of the games were played off campus at Burlington Memorial Stadium located at Williams High School. I remember more than a few autumn Saturdays when I didn’t have a game to cover when I would join Hunter at the stadium, which was within walking distance of my duplex apartment on Summit Avenue in Burlington. I thought it a bit weird that I could walk to an Elon home football game, but a student on campus could not.
The truth is, I was also taken by surprise by Rhodes Stadium in 2007. I left Burlington in 1992 to be news editor at the Jacksonville Daily News on the North Carolina coast. In 2007 I was brought back to the Times-News to be executive editor, a position once held by Don Bolden, who originally hired me with Hunter’s endorsement in 1983. I knew very little about Elon’s emergence and growth during the period I lived on the coast. Upon my return, Don often referred to the changes at Elon as “unreal.” It was his favorite word to describe it.
Rhodes Stadium, named for Dusty and Peggy Rhodes who contributed $2 million toward its construction, was among those changes.
While I was aware an incredible new stadium existed, I knew very little of its history, particularly about how a global event altered the date for its first game, which was originally set for Sept. 15, 2001. A lot happened in America in the days leading up to that date, which pushed the first game in Rhodes Stadium to Sept. 22. Elon’s first game on its campus since 1909 would have to wait.
Much of this history is covered in an excellent new podcast produced by Trip Durham of 2D Consulting in Burlington. Trip, who has spent a lifetime in athletics, including a stint at Elon during the planning and opening of Rhodes Stadium, calls the podcast ‘An Elon Football Odyssey.” He has assembled a great number of voices to tell this story from retired coach Jerry Tolley, who led two NAIA national championship teams in 1980 and ’81 to Leo Lambert, who was president at the time of the stadium’s construction and opening and is now president emeritus.
I’ve known Durham since his high school days and he allowed me to have an early listen to the podcast to get any thoughts I might have about it. I told him it’s excellent work and I would happily share it here when he wanted to make it available on Aug. 4.
I don’t want to give away very much so listeners can appreciate its rich details and observations. But I will say that Durham has assembled a compelling story that also coincides with the horrific events of Sept. 11, 2001, which would have a global impact and remind all of what’s really important.
I was unaware of how Sept. 11 played a role in the stadium’s history until 2011 when I was planning a special section at the Times-News marking the 10-year anniversary of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. I didn’t have time then to learn more about it. The podcast fills in those blanks for me and does a good bit more. I think people associated Elon and with sports in the Piedmont will appreciate it.
Here are some facts about Rhodes Stadium
Location: North Athletics Complex, Elon University, Elon, North Carolina
Cost: $13 Million (including other North Athletics Complex improvements such as the 57-foot Alan White Bell Tower, named for the retired director of athletics)
Design Architect: Ellerbe Becket, Kansas City, Mo.
Seating: 8,250 (1,000 with backrests). Includes 6,500 home (west) seats and 1,750 visitors (east) seats (10,000 capacity using family picnic seating on north end of bowl; 20,000 capacity with future expansion to enclose bowl)
Stadium Dimensions: 12,000 gross square ft. footprint, 3-story press box, 55 ft. above ground level
Amenities: Four VIP Suites – each with club seating for 12, President’s box seating for 36,, Concourse level lobby/lounge, Press level with broadcast capabilities (seating for 35; dual rooms for coaches, cameras, radio), Field lighting for night games, Celebrational brick and stone entrance arcade, Family picnic seating (north end of bowl), Concessions stands (2 – home stands and 1- visitors stands)