He’s 90 years young. He’ll be 91 years young next April. He’s Willard Akers of Dublin. Unless somebody can find somebody else, Willard is the only living person who saw the first football game ever played on Soldier’s Field in Dublin. And Soldier’s Field is 75 years old this football season. He says he’s tried and tried to find others, but without success.
When a football field is 75 years old there’s history buried in that ground, lots of history. Akers wants to protect that history. Pulaski County combined its two middle schools into one football program last year. It was a very necessary move. Now in a few days a vote to build a new middle school will take place. Akers hopes it passes. He will vote yes for the new middle school for one simple reason. “It’s what we should do for the kids,” he says, and he’s right.
But he also hopes that new middle school will not mean the end of Soldier’s Field. “Soldier’s Field should always be preserved. There are many ways it can be used, certainly for recreation. I want the field to stay. There’s too much history there and there is still much it can do for our community. We must not let Soldier’s Field go away,” said Akers last week.
I would be surprised if Willard Akers gets disappointed. I see no reason to do away with Soldier’s Field and have not heard such a suggestion by any official in the county concerning the field. In this opinion old Soldier’s Field just might have another 75 years in it. It’s part of the Dublin community. There will be a hundred ways over the years to come to use the facility. And it’s about history. We need not be like some people who want to destroy our history, we need to preserve it.
About that history. Soldier’s Field had its first football game in 1943, and old Dublin High School soundly defeated Hillsville High, 43-0. Dublin High played 304 games and went 176-116-12. Back in the day, they had ties. The Dukes were 101-44-5 on Soldier’s Field. The field was named in honor of the soldiers who died in the military serving our nation.
Akers played in that first game, but times were different then. “We had four or five of our better players join the military. They wanted to go to war and fight for the country. A lot of our young people did then and joined before even graduating from high school. It helped me. I was able to get a starting position on the team, and if those guys had stayed, I probably wouldn’t have gotten to play very much,” laughed Akers. So, Akers didn’t only see the first game ever at Soldier’s Field, he played in it, and is the only living player left from that team of 1943.
The final game played on Soldier’s was in 1973 and Dublin lost to Galax, 11-8. It was heartbreaking. In the final moments a Galax field goal bounced over the crossbar. This writer was standing on the sideline. What a tough defeat.
The first high school game I ever covered was at Soldiers Field, a Dublin rout of Fort Chiswell in 1970 as a member of the old New River District. The Dukes had a really good team. Won the district title and advanced to the first round of the playoffs, the first year ever that the Virginia High School League sponsored a statewide playoff system.
The Dukes lost a questionable decision at Gate City as a Group AA member. Gate City blocked a punt and scored its only touchdown. Dublin blocked a punt, Johnny Ray Simpson scooped it up and ran for a touchdown, but a procedure penalty was called on the Dukes’ defense and the score was nullified. It’s a penalty still yet today I do not understand.
I covered the final four years of old Dublin. It was great. I learned the trade, and got to know and become friends with a lot of good people who I still am friends with today. I’ll still never forget that first team in 1970. The Dukes were quick. The late Rodney Hendricks at halfback, Terry Haynes at fullback, and the long and speedy Rick Walson at wideout. Gate City was concerned, so that above discussed playoff game was played in the mud. Gate City coach Harry Frye admitted after the game to bringing fire trucks to water down the field. I don’t believe they could have beaten that Dublin team otherwise. Frye said to this reporter following the game, “It’s my field. I’ll do whatever I want.” At least he didn’t lie about it, and there was no rule.
It was tougher to qualify for the playoffs back then. If you didn’t win your district title, your season was over. In 1972 Dublin went 9-1, and scored 374 points, the most ever by a Dukes football team, the most ever scored by a team in the New River District, but didn’t make the playoffs. That was a bitter moment.
Most consider the 1958, 10-0 Dublin team as maybe the best ever in school history. For the entire season, the Dukes gave up a total of 14 points! That’s 1.4 points per game. You might remember the name of the defensive coach on that team. He would later become the Superintendent of Schools for Pulaski County, Kenneth J. Dobson.
Many believe the best athlete to ever play on Soldier’s Field was Dublin’s Charlie Sumner. Sumner would play college football for William and Mary where he had a stellar career. He would later join the coaching ranks. He was the defensive coordinator the last time the Oakland Raiders won the Super Bowl.
The first coach ever for old Dublin High was C.V. Connelly. He was followed by Don Barton, then Jennings Barnum, Ed Phelps, Bob Hartsock, Jimmy Painter, and then two guys who set the Dublin community on fire. Ken Dobson and Gene Crookshank put together the best two back-to-back seasons in school history. In 1957 Dublin was 9-0-1, and in 1958 a spotless 10-0. Dave Brown finished it out from 1959-1973.
Then came Pulaski County High School. There was lots of rain in August of 1974. The parking lots around the new school were too wet and officials were afraid cars might get stuck. So, the first game the Cougars ever played was on Soldier’s Field. They came up short to Andrew Lewis, but as usual, why other fields were wet and muddy, old Soldier’s was dry and ready to go.
I remember my four years of being associated with old Dublin High very fondly. Willard Akers, old Dublin, and Soldier’s Field go hand in hand. Dublin was a true community school. That was its best asset.
And no. Nothing is going to happen to Soldier’s Field. Like Willard Akers, I hope there is a new middle school ahead for our young people. He will vote yes. So will I. I’d vote twice if I could.
But history is big with me. The history of old Soldier’s Field is meaningful to lots of people. There’s been some great football played in that yard. I was lucky to get to see some of it. Back in early 1943, the Sutton Company graded it out for $500. What a steal. When you get a bargain that good, you should keep it.
By DAN CALLAHAN, The Patriot