Sunday, July 13, 2008

The Cardozo High School stadium — with its arching stonework and grandstand view of the District — was once a showcase for local athletics. It was the legendary arena for city football championships and stamping ground of future NFL players Byron Leftwich and Hall of Famer Willie Wood.

But years of neglect have turned the stadium, atop 13th Street Northwest, into a faded acropolis of crumbling concrete, weeds and broken glass.

The District now is trying to restore the field to its old grandeur with a $4 million renovation, part of an overall $21.5 million spending package for school facilities.

“I remember playing my senior playoff games there,” said Leftwich, the former Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback and a 1997 graduate of H.D. Woodson High School. “The field was so great because it felt like a stadium. No other field in the District felt like that.

“It’s hard when you don’t have the proper facilities to practice on. It’s disappointing for me when you go out of the District to other schools and realize how much better their facilities are. It makes it so much tougher for the kids to gain opportunities on the field,” he said.

Leftwich said school funding for field upgrades isn’t always adequate.

Renovations to the field and the 92-year-old structure are expected to be complete by August, in time for football season.

The field had been ravaged from years of overuse by both school and community teams.

Over the years, the conditions dissuaded students from joining the football team and prompted some to choose other sports such as basketball and baseball.

“We’re hopeful that this new stadium will bring new life to football here at Cardozo,” said football coach and athletic director Robert Richards. “We’ve always had trouble with numbers, and the new stadium should help us with fall recruiting.”

Wood, a Cardozo alumnus, went on to become a six-time Super Bowl champion and Hall of Famer with Vince Lombardi’s Green Bay Packers. Former Washington Redskins receiver Ataveus Cash also cut his moves on the field.

Cardozo likewise produced other professional athletes, including NBA player Martyn “Moochie” Norris and baseball great Maury Wills.

The stadium was built along with the school in 1916, and hosted Central High School football games and track meets until it was renamed Cardozo in 1928. The name honors Francis Lewis Cardozo, the first black to hold administrative office in South Carolina.

Cardozo became segregated as an all-black school in 1950 but was reintegrated in 1954.

The facilities plan calls for six new fields throughout the District to be completed over the summer — also at Anacostia, Eastern, Spingarn, Wilson and Stanton high schools.

Improvements to Cardozo Field call for synthetic turf similar to that used in college and professional stadiums. In addition, the field is to be outfitted with new bleachers, a press box and a track.

Mr. Richards said new turf was needed because of constant demand from a variety of sports teams.

He said last season was especially difficult for players because other fields in their division were in better condition.

“We were the only stadium in our division that hadn’t been renovated, so it was a little tough on the players,” he said.

“It’s great that they’re upgrading,” Leftwich said. “Now kids in D.C. will get a chance to be just like everybody else.”

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