If there is any constant at Elon University over the last two decades, that constant is evolution. The school has changed its name – and athletic nickname – over the last decade-plus. Known as Elon College from its inception in 1889 until 2001, the name became Elon University as the school and town in which it resides continued their evolution. The town – also known as Elon College – became simply Elon to reflect the surrounding change.
The athletic nickname change was a bit more controversial. Elon became known as the Fightin' Christians in 1921, and the legend says they received this name while playing Greensboro's Guilford College. A sportswriter covering the game allegedly remarked, “look at those fightin' Christians”, and the name was born. The school retired the nickname (and the associated mascot, Sam) in 2000 as a continuing part of the transition from NAIA to NCAA athletics. The school is now known as the Phoenix. This name honors the university's resurgence following a 1923 fire that made most of the campus a total loss.
The final piece to the Elon athletic puzzle opened in 2001. Prior to the opening of Rhodes Stadium on campus, the school played their home games a few miles from campus at Memorial Stadium in downtown Burlington. Though the facility was nice for its classification, the atmosphere and home crowds suffered a bit. Just over a decade later, Rhodes Stadium is now one of the crown jewels of a growing, modern campus that still makes sure to remember its history.
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Attending a game at Elon offers a lot of the standards to which fans are accustomed, along with a couple of unexpected options. Those standards are fairly-priced and available at multiple stands along both the home and visiting sides of the concourse. The choices offered to you include pizza slices ($2.75), quarter-pound hot dogs ($2.75), peanuts ($2.50), soft pretzels ($2.25), nachos ($3), popcorn ($2.50), and chips ($1). Candy ($1.25) is available to satisfy your sweet tooth, as well as frozen treats from a standalone cart run by local establishment Smitty's along the home side of the concourse. Coca-Cola is the bottler for the campus, with fountain soda and Powerade available for purchase, along with 20-ounce bottled water. Each beverage choice is $2.50.
There is a bit of a "local flare" available, as well. Chicken franchise Bojangles' Famous Chicken & Biscuits is quite popular throughout the Carolinas, and Rhodes Stadium offers their renowned Cajun chicken filet sandwich for $3.25. Aluminum water bottles have also become very popular with runners, walkers, and hikers, and Elon offers these bottles for sale for $10 at their stands. It should also be noted that the lines at all the stands seem to move relatively quickly, which will get you back to your seat in a hurry.
This is, as previously mentioned, still a relatively new stadium nestled among a beautiful and historic campus. Much of the athletic complex surrounds the facility, and there is also a commemorative bell tower just outside the entry gates. Almost every seat in the stadium has a great view, either of the athletic facilities and trees behind the visiting stands; the football field house behind one end zone, the bell tower and campus behind the other; or the construction of the new softball facility and more sections of trees behind the home stands.
It is especially recommended to stay on the home side during games when the leaves are changing, as the spectrum of color visible in the distance is amazing. The sun also sets from the home side to the visiting side, so you will find yourself in the shade for a lot of the game. Those seats on the home side also afford you a great view of the large video scoreboard on the hill between the home and visiting side. Most of the seats are bleachers with some fixed chairs as premium seats and grass seating available in both end zones.
Elon features a phoenix mascot who wanders through the stands to interact with kids (and adults, interestingly) and pose for photos. They also have two large groups of cheerleaders, a dance team, and the Fire of the Carolinas band. The band performs before the game, during the half, and after the game. The band's selection of stands music is not as prevalent as other schools, but they do provide a solid effort.
In the interest of full disclosure, I attended Elon, and I often noticed that the school is essentially the entire town. The town has a population of just over 7,000, while the school's enrollment is just over 5,200. The campus and its surroundings are gorgeous, but this blessing is also a curse. Much of the available nightlife and dining is along U.S. Route 70 (Church Street) or University Drive in neighboring Burlington.
The Fat Frogg is the primary option in Elon proper, offering appetizers, sandwiches, wraps, burgers, and other traditional fare. Most of Elon is walkable, though the distance to a lot of places (a mile or more) may dissuade you from leaving the car parked. If you find yourself tiring of typical chain fare, there are several options within a short drive. The Blue Ribbon Diner, Brixx, The Root, and Sandy's Subs are all choices with varying foods, prices, and scale, though there are food options for every palate and budget around Burlington and near Interstates 85 and 40.
The fans who attend Elon games compose an intriguing mix. There are the locals who have attended Elon games for years, all the way back to the NAIA days. Alongside those fans, you have the current students, kids from the Burlington/Elon area, and those who attend from visiting teams. The fans are smart, they love their Phoenix and they make noise at just the right times.
The problem at Elon is similar to that of many other schools. Rhodes Stadium is a gorgeous facility, and the school plays in one of the top conferences at the FCS level, the Southern Conference. The day I attended, however, was Alumni and Family Day, and the stadium was filled to less than half its capacity. This may change when Elon plays a more local rival (Samford, Elon's opponent that day, is based in Alabama) or has a more consistent winner on the field, but the lack of attendance on a sunny, 70-plus degree day in November was disappointing.
Elon can be found off Interstates 85 and 40 (these roads are co-signed) between Greensboro and Durham. If you fly in to see a game, Greensboro and Raleigh-Durham International Airports are both viable options. Greensboro is about 40-45 minutes to the west, and RDU 40-45 minutes to the east. There are a number of chain hotels within minutes in Burlington, with most along exits 140 (University Drive) and 141 (Huffman Mill Road).
The beauty and walkability of Elon's campus presents a bit of a problem when parking your vehicle. There is not a lot of parking close to the stadium, and the parking that is relatively close also requires a special permit to utilize. There are several lots in the center of the campus within a sizable walk or shuttle ride, and these lots cost $10 per space. The best suggestion is to park for free at the Francis Center, which is 1.6 miles from the stadium down Haggard Avenue. The university offers a shuttle from this lot to the front gate of the stadium.
Once inside the stadium, the concourse wraps all the way around, making for relatively easy movement. If you plan to get concessions or use the restroom and don't mind the walk, it may be better to use the facilities on the visiting side. These facilities are in a bit more of an open structure and allow you to continue to watch the action. The stands and restrooms are under the seating bowl on the home side, and you will be limited to listening for the roar of the crowd as you wait. The restrooms on both sides are plentiful and modern, with no concern for lines.
If you know how to plan, a game at Elon is fairly reasonable in terms of price. The school helps make things a bit easier in this regard. As previously mentioned, the school plays in the Southern Conference, so a quality opponent will be on the visiting sideline just about every week. Game tickets start at $20, so if you consider the price of a ticket, a parking space in the free lot at the Francis Center, a program (more on this in a bit), a hot dog, and a soda, this will set you back just over $25.
The free shuttle is a nice perk, as even though a walk across a college campus on a warm fall day is a tremendous way to spend an afternoon, not everyone is a fan of walking a mile or more to get back to their vehicle. As for the ticket prices and concessions, they are quite good for the level and conference in which Elon plays.
One of the first things to greet you when walking through the gates is a friendly person handing you a free program. The program contains a number of helpful items, including policies and procedures, biographical information about university employees and the coaching staff, game notes, rosters, and a schedule of upcoming events. Though we live in an age of everything being at the touch of a button with our phones, having the printed information at your fingertips - for free, no less - is a great touch.
Speaking of the friendly people handing you a program, friendly people are found all over Rhodes Stadium. The gameday staff is polite and helpful, taking the time to say hello and strike up a conversation in many cases. From the ticket booth to the ushers and in between, it is clear that everyone who meets and greets the fans loves their job and the university.
The team employs a tradition similar to that at Clemson's Memorial Stadium before each game. There is a phoenix statue at the top of the hill just outside the field house, and the players all touch the statue for luck before running down a small hill to the playing surface. Much like Howard's Rock at Clemson, fans can walk up and touch the statue or have pictures made with it. The field house provides a beautiful backdrop for the statue.
The university provides an area for kids on the hill between the video board and the seating section on the visiting side. The area, called the Phoenix Phun Zone, contains several inflatable toys and a hilly area for children to play. Along with this area, kids are able to throw a football around on the hills in either end zone. For those with kids who would prefer to run and play instead of staying seated, this is a nice option.
Though the school and community have experienced exponential growth over the last 15 years or so, the history of the football program remains visible to fans entering the gates of Rhodes Stadium. Banners honoring the 1980 and 1981 NAIA national championship teams hang on the wall at the sideline level below the scoreboard. The school also has banners for the retired numbers of five former Elon stars along the same wall. Each of these banners displays the player's retired number, name, and dates he played at the school. This is a nice way to tie the university's past successes to the current state of Elon football.
Though change is still taking place around the stadium - and the entire campus - this stadium is a truly beautiful destination. If you attended Elon before any of this was built, or ever witnessed a game in Burlington, the surroundings are a must-see. There is not a bad seat in the house, and each of those seats allows you to see football played at the highest level of the Football Championship Subdivision. One can only hope, though, that more fans will eventually make their way to this gem in North Carolina's Triad region. It can be said with reasonable certainty that they would love what they see.
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