By Phil Anastasia
Ed Alston looked across the rich green field to the deep purple end zone and shook his head in wonder.
"It's a transformation," said Camden's assistant coach, a former player for the Panthers who last took the field at Farnham Park in uniform in the fall of 1976.
Alston is one link to the past for one of South Jersey football's most fabled programs on one of South Jersey football's most hallowed grounds.
But the 37-year gap between his past as a player and his present as a coach is but a blink at this historic place.
Camden on Friday night will debut its new artifical turf field for a West Jersey Football League game against Cumberland.
There will be a parade down Park Boulevard from the high school, led by the Mighty Marching Panthers band and including youth football and soccer teams, and a ribbon-cutting ceremony with school and city officials.
It's the end of Phase I of the rejuvenation of the Camden High School athletic complex, a product of some tireless work by members of the "We Can Do This" committee as well as funding from the city and grants from the NFL Grassroots Field Program, the U.S. Soccer Foundation and the Camden County Board of Chosen Freeholders.
Phase II, tentatively scheduled to be completed by the start of the 2014 football season, will include the construction a new fieldhouse, concession stand, press box, bleachers and scoreboard as well as improvements to the perimeter of the facility at the corner of Park Boulevard and Vesper Boulevard.
The old place looks great. The field is a vibrant green, springy to the step, with those positively prominent purple end zones. There are four banks of permanent lights.
The track has been refurbished, the home bleachers are painted, and there's a snazzy-looking mural -- featuring a Panther between the famous lines, "You Want The High, You Got the High" -- on the front of the press box courtesy of Camden art teacher Linda Delengowski.
"I want to sleep here," Camden coach Dwayne Savage said with a laugh as his players took the field for the first time at Tuesday's practice.
What's really cool about this project is that it moves Camden High School football -- as well as the youth football and soccer programs that will use the facility -- into the future at a site that is stocked with so much history.
In his book, "A History of South Jersey Football," the late Doug Frambes wrote that Camden's football team -- then representing the Camden Manual Training and High School -- moved to a new football field in Forest Hill Park in 1915.
That was Farnham Park.
That was 98 years ago.
The complex that came to be known for its proximity to Our Lady of Lourdes hospital -- with the 30-foot statue of the Blessed Mother hovering above site the way "Touchdown Jesus" rises above Notre Dame's football stadium -- has been home to some of the signature teams and moments in South Jersey football history.
The place was home to the 1924 Camden team that went undefeated and travelled to Atlantic City for an unoffical South Jersey championship game -- only to walk off the field in the first quarter in protest to "raw" officiating. (Aside: Who else suspects Nucky Thompson paid off the zebras?)
It was home to the 1941 Camden team that might be the best in South Jersey history, an 8-0 squad that allowed eight points all season, sent all 11 starters to college football and featured stars such as George Savitsky, Al Litwa, Matt Siedlecki.
It was home to those terrific Andy Hinson-coached Camden teams in the mid-1970s with the likes of future NFL stars Art Still and Derrick Ramsey.
It was home -- for years and years, through the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s -- to three teams, as Camden Catholic and St. Joseph also played there and created their own memories.
Really, how many fields have been home to three teams at the same time? The place was the capital of South Jersey football in those days, with games on Friday night, Saturday afternoon and Sunday afternoon on many weekends.
It was at Farnham Park on a Saturday afternoon in October of 1951 that Camden Catholic senior running back Ben "Sonny" Morrell -- a sensational player on his way to Notre Dame -- suffered a broken neck in one of the most tragic events in South Jersey sports history. He died a few days later.
Camden's football looks to sprint ahead to the future across that slick, shiny field like Temple-bound senior wide receiver Sean Chandler on a go pattern.
But the best thing about the Panthers' re-modeled home isn't just that it's so new.
It's that it's so old, too.
-- Contact Phil Anastasia at email@example.com
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