The previous Newark Schools Stadium, the Old Lady of Bloomfield Avenue, was condemned two years before Willie Cowans began matriculating at Barringer High School. Since 2008, the Blue Bears' senior running back has been waiting to sprint across the turf inside the New Lady of Bloomfield Ave.
"I thought I was going to graduate before I get to play here," Cowans said.
Finally, Friday morning marked the dawn of a new Newark Schools Stadium, which opened officially when new Superintendent Cami Anderson cut the ceremonial blue ribbon. It came nearly eight hours before Barringer's season-opening football game against rival Livingston, but not a minute too soon for student-athletes throughout Brick City's school system.
"I've been waiting to play on this field since they were first building it, when I was a freshman," Cowans said. "I've been so anxious for them to finish this field. I'm just so excited that it's open."
Nearly five years and $24 million later, the new stadium will again provide a hub of athletic activity in the North Ward. Although the end zones, scoreboard and even midfield logo bear Barringer's branding, the facility will provide a home-field advantage for others schools throughout the city. Just as the Old Lady did before, the New Lady will provide a proving ground for Brick City scholastic and youth squads seeking bragging rights in baseball, football, soccer and track and field.
Nostalgia and newness blend together with the new stadium. Inside, synthetic turf stretches for yards, lined not only for football but also for baseball, soccer and softball games high schools and youth organization alike will stage throughout the coming years. There is room for 5,500 fans in the blue-and-silver bleachers that stretch toward the sky and sandwich both sides of the field – streamlined from the previous capacity of 15,000 – not to mention plenty of room to stand and watch.
And there are construction touches that pay homage to a proud past: The stately clock tower standing mere feet from the corner of Abington Avenue, the Roman Colosseum-esque facade that defined Schools Stadium for previous generations.
"It was clear from the get-go that we would keep the Colosseum look with this new stadium," said Steve Morlino, Newark Public Schools executive director of facilities management. "That was paramount in everyone's mind, to give the same appearance to everyone coming down Bloomfield Avenue as it had before."
"I think this is going to be landmark again and its full glory is going to come back," Morlino continued. "The clock tower here and the facade really lend to what it's all about."
More than just celebrating the new facility, Friday was all about recalling the cooperative spirit that helped Schools Stadium overcome bureaucratic and funding obstacles while trying to replace the blighted old facility. Mayor Cory Booker, Essex County Executive Joseph N. DiVincenzo Jr. and North Ward Councilman Anibal Ramos took time to publicly compliment each other's efforts.
"This is a field of dreams," Booker said. "And we took it from the nightmare it had sunk into and transformed it through the collective work of countless people, the dream of a superintendent and the actions and dedication and love of humanity that are vaunted across the globe."
Before letting the Barringer football players prepare for Friday night's opening game against Livingston, officials also took turns remembering the history made inside the old Schools Stadium. Olympic track athletes trained there in 1936, Booker said, and legends were created like former Barringer and New England Patriots' great Andre Tippett.
DiVincenzo played inside the stadium during his days as a student-athlete at Barringer and recalled some of his glory days before passing the torch to the Barringer football and soccer teams that sat before him.
"You have to create your own history from here on in," said DiVincenzo.
The next chapter in the history of Newark Schools Stadium begins Friday night.
"I know that my students won't travel outside of our city and see facilities that make ours look inadequate," Booker said. "They won't travel and think that their leaders and representatives in their city love them less. They have first-class facilities.
"And they can now know that the field is set. The whistle is blown. It's gametime. It's now time for you to chase your dreams. It's time for you to demonstrate your heroism. It's time for you to make your name go down as another Newark legend."