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Official Review by Stephen Schmidt, Stadium Journey Regional Correspondent
Chris Crockett speaks from experience. As an avid Tennessee-Martin Skyhawks fan, he and his wife have traveled to every fellow Ohio Valley Conference stadium -- and anywhere else their beloved Skyhawks have played over the past seasons. “The best atmosphere in the conference,” Crockett says while standing near the sidelines of Southeast Missouri State University’s Houck Stadium. “And we go everywhere.”
The venue opened back in 1930 at a cost of a whopping $150,000. It was built on top of rock quarry and named after Louis Houck, a philanthropic railroad pioneer known as the “Father of Southeast Missouri.” Its only downside, according to Crockett, was the difficulty of actually getting into it.
That’s largely due to the fact that most SEMO fans are not extremely interested in entering the stadium, which has the official name of Missouri National Guard Field at Houck Stadium. Not with free beer to be consumed (see below) and an overall communal tailgating experience taking part right outside its gates. The pre-game scene reflects the region’s congruence of Midwestern politeness and Southern hospitality.
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There's nothing highly exotic to write about here. The stadium offers the standard fare (hamburgers for $4, cheeseburgers for $4.50, nachos for $3.50, hot dogs for $3, pretzels for $2.15) with Pepsi products to help wash them down.
Other popular items are cheese-stuffed Bosco Sticks for $5. The stands do offer Culver's frozen custard for $4 for those warm games in the early part of the season. No food or drink is allowed into the stadium.
The atmosphere can best be described as intimate -- both before and during the game. Picture a large high school stadium carved into a hillside neighborhood with a large tailgating party right outside. From the file under "Something you don't see everyday," fans with a ticket to the game can wait in line and receive two small pink raffle-type tickets that are good for two cups of beer as a promotion with local distributors. This has been going on for years as a way to help foster discretion among those of age.
On this night in fall 2013, cups of Coors Light were on the house as fans walked around a portion of Bellevue Street that was closed off to vehicles. A carnival-like scene unfurled with various vendors setting up shop next to a large tent featuring live music and lots of friendly fans scattering in between with free beer in hand. "This is Family Weekend, so we're a little more chill," said one female student, who added that the atmosphere can be much more rowdy for homecoming. Her advice to an out-of-towner? "Just come and be outgoing." Wearing black and red wouldn't hurt either.
Although the Bellevue Block Party is just a few feet from the stadium, the party does not stop for a few lucky boosters who don't mind spending $1,000 and more for the right to tailgate in the stadium's eastern end zone. "It used to be first-come, first-served and it got a little out of control, so we had to put some parameters on it," said one SEMO representative.
Fans have the option to sit a few feet from the back of the end zone, separated by a concrete curb. Before FieldTurf was installed in 2010, though, fans were able to sit even closer as the grass went right up to the edge of the field -- but the arrangement was a little dangerous when it came to players accidentally colliding into fans. Those gathered by the grills and tents are still really close to the action. "Now you'll have to let us know if you run into any next-to-field tailgating anywhere else in the country. I've got to imagine this is really unique," said another school representative.
Pat Ruopp, a SEMO alumnus and a long-time fan, stood just a few feet from the goal post next to a table loaded with picnic food. "We're all just here to just to have a good time and to have fun... People like football here. They enjoy football and this makes a great opportunity for people to come together."
The stadium is a short walk from Broadway Street, which offers a good array of restaurants and bars. Two popular eateries are Burrito-Ville for those looking for a quick Mexican bite or Pagliai's Pizza & Pasta (try the Meat Extravaganza) for Italian enthusiasts. Right next door to Pagliai's is a sports bar called D'Ladium's -- or "D'Lads" by the locals -- that features relics of SEMO's athletic history.
Further down the street is Broadway Biergarten, a popular place to down a stein or two, and The Last Call, which has an expansive outdoor patio area. Those who are little more adventurous can walk 10 minutes down the road and take a right onto Main Street, where a number of other options can be found including two live music venues, Broussard's Cajun Cuisine and Rude Dog Pub.
Cape Girardeau is a charming town that has stretches of streets that mirror its riverboat roots. In fact, it's so charming that at the time of my visit in October 2013, a major studio film, Gone Girl based off a best-selling suspense novel and starring the likes of Ben Affleck, Neil Patrick Harris and Tyler Perry, had recently started using the town as its primary filming location. The film should be released in 2015.
On the night of my most recent visit, there was a late arriving crowd, but it's hard to blame them given that there was free beer, live music, and beautiful weather. A large walk-up crowd snaked around the front gates well into the meat of the first quarter, but the main southern side eventually filled up and grew very loud when the Redhawks did anything remotely positive with the football.
There are plenty of seating options on the smaller northern side where the SEMO students are situated. It should be noted that the northwest corner of the northern side is the one part of the stadium where one cannot see the only scoreboard in the facility, so if you want to keep up with game, avoid these seats. The fans are very friendly and approachable.
Parking is a tad difficult given that are no large parking lots nearby. There is ample free street parking nearby on surrounding streets, which feel completely safe. I parked a couple of blocks from the stadium just 30 minutes before kickoff.
There are only two men's and two women's restrooms in the venue -- one on each side. The main men's room is large enough with a good-old trough arrangement, making it easy to get in and get out. The bathroom on the north side is underneath the stands near the east end zone, which makes it a bit of pain to access if you're coming from the other side of the stands.
Two words: Free beer. That aspect alone creates a high ROI. Furthermore, ticket prices are very reasonable with $10 for reserved seats and $8 for general admission. Throw in the fact that food costs are very reasonable and street parking is free, and a Redhawks football game becomes a great entertainment value.
One point is awarded for a having very friendly and accommodating staff and the overall communal affability of the entire experience.
Two points are awarded for the two free beer tickets (one for each ticket).
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