Tokay and Lodi high schools have had some great football teams over the years — and now they finally have a worthy field to play on. After decades of decay, years of work and weeks of delays, the Grape Bowl finally reopened its gates to give the general public a view of the new playing surface installed this year. And initial reviews were glowing.
"This is top-notch," said Cindy McDougal, who was at the stadium with her two young sons. "I'm hoping that my children will play on it someday."
About 80 people came to an open house hosted by the city and the Save the Grape Bowl campaign Thursday night, running across its new field and admiring the state of the art lights that surrounded it.
"People are impressed," said Jim Rodems, interim director of the city Parks and Recreation Department. "We're pretty pleased people are coming to check it out."
The grassy turf is considerably brighter than the grass that used to sit in its place, and the painted lines criss-crossing the field are now vibrant — and massive. Every yard line, endzone boundary and number is clearly visible from the very top of the bleachers.
The field has been painted for both football and soccer, but Rodems said the facility will have many uses. Aside from high school football games, the field can now host soccer practices, youth and flag football games, and even concerts at some point in the future.
The Bowl's most prominent feature may be the powerful new lights — you might even call them the renovation's bright spot. While the lighting in the Grape Bowl's last version was dim, the new lighting system creates a vibrant — and very visible — setting.
Lyle Cook has seen how the Grape Bowl has changed over the last several decades; the 82-year-old has been around longer than the facility itself. Cook played football there in the mid-1940s for Lodi High, when the stadium wasn't even 10 years old (it was built in 1940).
"I played football here for four years," Cook said. "It's my field. I've got part of it in my heart."
Cook came to the open house with his son and granddaughter, kicking a soccer ball around with them under the lights.
Various city officials were on hand to chat with residents, including Mayor Phil Katzakian and city spokesman Jeff Hood. The Parks and Recreation Department also brought two bags of footballs and soccer balls so people could test out the field's merits as a playing surface. Many visitors, especially children, made use of the opportunity — including Hood, who tossed a football around with his sons Jacob and Aaron.
Susan Lake has many memories of the Grape Bowl. She graduated from Tokay High there in 1982, and played softball on the field in the 1980s. Her husband, Russ, also graduated at the Grape Bowl, but he is a Lodi High alumnus. They were playing football with their 11-year-old daughter Kendall, which Susan Lake said wasn't a common occurrence.
"The last time I got out and threw a football anywhere was probably never," Susan Lake said with a laugh. "It takes a special occasion like this."
Both she and her husband had nothing but good things to say about the new field.
"It's kind of a neat blend between the old history and the new facility" Russ Lake said.
The first events at the renovated Grape Bowl will be Saturday, when the Junior Tigers will be one of several youth football teams to take the field for playoff games. Rodems said the stadium has also been rented out for an upcoming high school football playoff game, which Lodi High has an outside chance of playing in. If McNair High wins its next football game and Lodi prevails against Turlock (both would be considered upsets), the ensuing matchup between the two Lodi Unified schools would be played at the Grape Bowl. Otherwise, a local high school team won't take the field until next season.
Despite the nearly $3 million in renovations, the stadium is still without a few amenities, including permanent restrooms and a concession stand. But Rodems said more than a million dollars remains to be spent on the facility, and fundraising is still in progress to help pay for more upgrades.
Those in attendance Tuesday night were quite happy with what was already in place.
"It's something so great for Lodi," Cook said. "I'm really proud of this stadium."
Contact reporter Fernando Gallo at fernando@lodinews. com.