On a pristine summer day at Gateway STEM High School, Les Snead could have just as easily been one of the hundreds of students sitting in the bleachers looking out at their brand new athletic facility dreaming of what could be and all that the field, the track and everything else represented.
Speaking on behalf of the Rams as part of the more than million dollar project completed in conjunction with PHL, Inc., Snead couldn’t help but allow his mind to wander back to his own high school days in Eufaula, Ala. He wasn’t sure he’d one day become a NFL general manager but he always dreamed it possible.
“It brings back memories because this is where it started for me in life and I am still in football,” Snead said. “So anytime you get a chance to come try to help high school kids get to the next level because they are basically the future, it’s just an honor.
“It keeps you young. It keeps you humble. And it lets you know a little bit why you are on the planet. You come full circle. You get to where they are and you get to a point where you’ve got to give back for the cycle to continue.”
Snead did his part Friday afternoon to help that cycle continue well into the future as he joined Tom Kuhn of PHL, Inc., Gateway STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) High principal Dr. Elizabeth Bender, St. Louis Public School Superintendent Dr. Kelvin Adams and other assorted dignitaries plus the junior and senior classes and athletic teams from Gateway in cutting the ribbon on their rebuilt athletic facility.
The facility features brand new or rebuilt amenities such as lights, bathrooms, concession stands, a press box, a public address system, pavilion, storage space, visiting locker room, security system and fencing.
The centerpiece, though, is the 11,000 square-yard artificial turf which features a multi-configuration playing surface that can be used for football and soccer surrounded by an eight-lane, 400-meter running track.
The project ultimately cost upwards of $1.5 million with the Rams supporting an NFL Grassroots Program grant for $200,000. The rest came from bonds passed last year to support the St. Louis Public School system.
All of that was worth every penny for the Gateway football team which couldn’t contain its excitement for the day. Soon after the ribbon-cutting, the team huddled at midfield and jumped up and down chanting and cheering as though the Aug. 31 home opener was only hours away.
“I am really excited,” Gateway senior team captain Michael Ball said. “We have never had anything like this before that you can play on. It’s in great condition; we don’t have to worry about mud or anything.”
The new facility figures to be a bustling centerpiece for Gateway and the Public High League. On a regular weekend, it will be common for up to three football games to be played on the field during the season as Gateway is joined by four other schools in hosting games there. The same can go for soccer games being played throughout the week and the track figures to host 48 practices for St. Louis Public Schools in the spring and four PHL track meets during the spring semester.
It’s also going to be available for use beyond the athletic teams with school physical education classes, the marching band and community athletic and recreational programs will put it to use when available as well.
The Rams, PHL, Inc., SLPS and the city of St. Louis teamed up in 2009 to build a similar facility at Tandy Park, next to Sumner High. That gives the city two multi-use facilities for all of the P.H.L. schools to use.
“Everybody uses it,” Kuhn said. “Four or five schools don’t have fields because they are landlocked and they alternate and get to use it too. They all look forward to it. They looked forward to using Sumner before and now they get this one. This one will be a crown jewel of the district with the other one.”
On Friday, though, it was all about Gateway and its newest addition. The school, which is home to about 1,200 students in grades nine through 12, offers a variety of educational paths including everything from business courses to applied sciences to agriculture for juniors and seniors after completing some more basic work in their first two years.
Dr. Bender, the school’s principal opened Friday’s festivities by addressing the crowd and calling it a “glorious” day for Gateway and the public schools. Of the many onlookers and dignitaries in attendance, perhaps nobody was more excited than she was as she fought back tears in telling the assembly that the new facilities could help the school journey to higher and better places.
“So often city kids are told they are going to get things and they don’t,” Dr. Bender said. “Then they see it here and they start to see that things really do happen. They start to see classmates getting scholarships; they see what it’s really like to be able to play on a level playing field. The other things we have been playing on aren’t even close to this. This gives them a competitive edge and they are excited.”
Indeed, you’d be hard pressed to find a facility more up to date and modern than the one that now sits to the south of Gateway High. What it replaces is a field that was not only unacceptable but barely functional.
Gateway football coach Jason Dulick has coached at the school for eight years but just took over as head coach last year. For the better part of his time at Gateway, he and the coaching staff have spent as much time figuring out how to practice on a field with craters and divots as game planning for opponents.
The field was all grass and dirt with no real rhyme or reason for where a patch of grass might pop up. It often was covered in garbage and Dulick and his staff would even have to spend time lining the fields before postseason games.
Simply getting through a practice was a difficult task.
“It was that bad,” Dulick said. “We’d have to stay out of one area and then if you spent too much time at say the 20 yard line the next day you’d come out there’d be a big mud hole at the 20. We would have to kind of move around.”
With the finishing touches on the facility and school back in session, the Jaguars will open their season on Aug. 31 with a game against Vashon. The team has already started practicing on the field and Ball said the difference in the playing surface is “unbelievable.”
The next mission for everyone involved is to maintain the facilities and keep it up so the next generation of kids to use it can think as big as Friday’s group.
“This is what it’s all about,” Dulick said. “Now, they can dream big because now the playing field is more level. They are now on more the same level of some of their counterparts in the area that have these nice fields and it’s a sense of pride also. They are going to have to take ownership also and be accountable and make sure everything is cleaned up.”
That was part of the challenge Snead presented to the Gateway students on Friday. He related to them his story and the idea of growing from cubs into lions. He reminded them that every decision they make henceforth will ultimately help decide their future.
But most of all, Snead wanted every kid listening to his message to know that whenever they look at the football field or the track or any piece of their new facility, they aren’t just looking at a place to play a sport but a place that should serve as a constant reminder of the power of their dreams.
“When you are a kid that’s when you dream,” Snead said. “You have got to take the steps to reach those dreams. It sounds like this school is just the way they described it. It’s definitely somewhere you would want to go. It may be in a neighborhood or part of the city that needed help but you can tell they are passionate about helping these kids go from this part to a better part.”