116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
MARION — He remembers sitting on the home team bench when he was a kid. Must’ve been sometime in the 1960s.
“That was a thrill,” Dave Messerli said.
Not many are more synonymous with Marion High School football than Messerli.
His father was the district’s superintendent, hence, the all-star seats. He began helping the program in 1972 as a “scout,” then was head freshman coach, head sophomore coach and head varsity coach for 18 years.
He was right there front and center when Marion won a state championship in 1980, right there front and center to watch running backs Todd Twachtmann (The Gazette’s first Male Athlete of the Year) and Carey Bender do otherworldly things.
Bender, tight end Allen Reisner and defensive lineman Ron Geater eventually found their ways from Thomas Park to the National Football League.
Messerli was right there front and center Friday night, too, helping run the clock for the final football game ever at Thomas Park. Marion dropped a 22-21 heartbreaker to Mason City.
Not the way anyone wanted it to end at a place the school has been playing its home football games since the mid-1930s.The very first game at Thomas Park was against Cedar Rapids Roosevelt on Sept. 27, 1936.
That’s 86 seasons.
“First off, I think the setting at Thomas Park is really unique for a football field,” Messerli said.
As Messerli said, the stadium is part of a park, part of a neighborhood, with houses right across the street behind one end zone and trees behind the other. There’s a creek that runs a few hundred feet below the home grandstand.
It’s not on the high school campus, so Marion’s varsity team would congregate and dress at the school, hop on a bus and ride the short way to the field.
“I always felt it was neat to go down to the field,” Messerli said. “One of the things I loved most was when we rode the bus down from school, and we were about ready to go down the hills, you could see the lights and see the stands. That was really the time when the kids started getting excited on the bus. They’d be tapping their feet, their shoes on the bus floor in excitement.
“Sometimes that would make the hair stick up on the back of my neck.”
He wasn’t the only one who had that feeling. Virtually everyone did.
“It was just a magical place,” said former Marion player and head coach Tony Perkins. “Everything from the location to getting on the bus as a player and as a coach, going from the high school to the field. The biggest memory for every player that ever played there, once you got to Mentzer (elementary school) at the top of the hill and saw those lights ...
“The captains would immediately say ‘Tops on,’ and everybody would throw their helmet on, and all of a sudden, the cleats would start hitting the bus floor. It was all in rhythm. All the way there, your blood was just pumping.”
Perkins’ father, Larry, was a coach in the program for a quarter-century, so Friday was a melancholy night.
“I’ve been around that field my whole life,” he said.
Coe College played some of its home games at the Thomas Park facility over the years, including when the late Bob Thurness was its head coach. Thurness went to Coe after leading Marion to that aforementioned state championship.
“Thurny would probably say ‘Well, men, this is a pretty good place to play,’” Messerli said, imitating Thurness’ infamous gruff voice. “I know he had a lot of sentimental feelings and love for the place.”
So do a ton of people. The August 2020 derecho did a number on the stadium, making it unplayable for the truncated 2020 prep football season.
Yet somehow enough repairs were made to it to have Marion host one final season there. An elementary school will be built at the facility, with a brand-new football field and track being constructed in land directly adjacent to the high school.
It is supposed to be ready for the 2022 season.
“I guess it’s a sign of the times,” Messerli said. “Change, in this case, will be very positive for the whole Marion school community. With the new additions, a new elementary, a new facility at the high school, with artificial turf and everything, it’s going to be exciting. There are a lot of memories to be made up at the new facility … It should be one of the better facilities around. I know they are going to put everything they have into it to make it one of the better facilities around.”
In many ways, it still won’t have the feel of the old 90-year-old Thomas Park.
“To me, it’s a sentimental place,” Messerli said. “Because it brings back a lot of positive memories over the years.”
The Gazette area has 27 schools who have qualified for the playoffs in the smallest four classes.
That’s six in 8-Player: Springville, Turkey Valley, Edgewood-Colesburg, Montezuma, BGM and English Valleys.
In Class A, playoff qualifiers include area teams North Linn, Lisbon, Highland, Starmont, Alburnett, East Buchanan, North Tama and Belle Plaine. In 1A, they include Dyersville Beckman, Cascade, Iowa City Regina, West Branch, Sigourney-Keota and MFL MarMac.
From The Gazette area in 2A, qualifiers are West Liberty, Waukon, Union Community, Monticello, Williamsburg, North Fayette Valley and Mid-Prairie.
First-round games are Friday. There is one final regular-season week for teams in Class 3A, 4A and 5A.
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