One of the city's oldest standing historical landmarks, Roosevelt Stadium is scheduled to be demolished by the beginning of next year to erect the new Emerson High School, which will feature a new state-of-the-art stadium where traditions will continue.
The 86th annual turkey game
The celebration began Thanksgiving morning at 8:30 a.m. with a special breakfast for honored guests and alumni inside the stadium. The final game brought many of Roosevelt's recent and past veterans, such as Gary Wilcomes, a Union Hill alum and father of the school's current principal, David Wilcomes.
"My father played in 1932," David Wilcomes said. "My whole family went to Union Hill, and on Thanksgiving morning everyone was at the game."
Wilcomes was a head coach himself for the Hillers from '77 to '83, and had the chance to see some of his old players, who still refer to him as coach.
"I think today emphasized why it was so great to be here for the coaches and the players," said Wilcomes. "It makes the game secondary to see all these kids successful. It makes you feel good."
A photographic exhibit of the first Emerson-Union Hill football game at the stadium in 1937, as well as other photographs from the last 67 years, was also on display nearby the breakfast tent.
"We always had a breakfast every year, but it was on a smaller scale," said Lenny Calvo, president of the Board of Education. "The Board of Education basically paid for everything, but we were the support staff behind the scenes. Wilcomes and his committee were responsible for putting this last hurrah together. They wanted to make sure we did something special for the last game."
"It was really a team effort between Emerson and Union Hill," said Wilcomes. "It was just a nice day and very fitting for the last game of the stadium."
An Emerson High School alumnus, Calvo recalled his own football glory days at Roosevelt Stadium, and the long standing tradition of the Thanksgiving Day game.
"This has always been a special day for the city of Union City, and there's a lot of history that comes from [the stadium]," said Calvo. "Once the new school is built, we'll keep that tradition going. It will be the only stadium of its kind in Union City."
In commemoration of Roosevelt Stadium, the students of Union Hill High School, under the direction of Peter Drozd, business teacher, constructed a Web site capturing the history of the Thanksgiving game and the stadium, which they researched through old stories and newspapers found in the Jersey City Public Library.
"This project was started by two students last year, and picked up by summer class," said Drozd. "Two students then finished it at the beginning of this year."
The research and construction of the site for the stadium's history was done by Drozd's Computer Application IV class. The Web site exhibition was part of the morning's festivities, and Drozd was available to help patrons surf through the site. The Web site is currently pending approval to become part of either the school's or the city's official Web site.
History behind Roosevelt Stadium
As researched by the students of Union Hill, Roosevelt Stadium was originally the site of the Hudson County Consumers Brewing Company, which was located from 24th to 26th streets, enclosed by Hudson Boulevard (now Kennedy Boulevard) and Kerrigan and Summit avenues.
According to the site, "The brewery was an extensive industrial compound of low brick buildings, busy mills, and spiraling smokestacks."
The brewery had enjoyed much success since its inception in the early 1900s, and offered employment to thousands of Union City residents until Prohibition shut the business down in the late 1920s.
The property was later acquired by the city of Union City for $456,000, and transformed into a gated playground. In October of 1935, Harry J. Thourot, director of public affairs, was able to obtain funds from the Work Progress Administration to construct the stadium, which was modeled after the coliseum and arenas of ancient Greece and Rome. The WPA granted $172,472 for the stadium, and in 1936 employed 350 men to begin the construction. On Nov. 12, 1937, city, county and state officials gathered with about 11,000 people to dedicate the new stadium, which had been referred to as the "Depression Baby."
The stadium stood 15 rows deep and seated 7,000 people. Eventually additional room was added to seat 4,000 more. Today, the stadium accommodates a capacity of 18,000 people, and provides for regulation football, soccer fields, and a baseball diamond. There is also a quarter mile track that encircles the stadium, dressing rooms and tool house equipment.
The rise of the new stadium meant a rebirth for the residents of Union City, for along with the opening came many new jobs, and the municipal administration at the time provided $88,000 for materials, supplies and equipment.
Lewis B. Eastmead, then mayor of Union City, praised the stadium as a "Mecca" for youth sports. Roosevelt Stadium had become the site for the great games and athletic competitions of the city. The annual "turkey" game between the Emerson Bulldogs and the Union Hill Hillers had begun in 1919 before West Hoboken and Union Hill were combined into Union City.
The first Thanksgiving Day football game was played in the new stadium on Nov. 25, 1937 and drew crowds from all over the city, who jam-packed the stadium rooting for their favorite team.
In addition to the school athletics, the stadium was used for boxing matches, semi-pro baseball games, soccer games, track meets, softball games, and much more. The stadium was also the home of the Union City Rams, a semi-pro football team that was a member of the American Football Association, and the Union City Reds, who were members of the Metropolitan Baseball League. Roosevelt Stadium set the stage for generations of home-grown athletes to leave a legacy.
Meet and greet
With the game scheduled to begin at 10:30 a.m., the stadium began to flood with fans, and the Union Hill and Emerson cheerleaders paraded with their school floats around the track, to resonating cheers. Pre-game ceremonies began with introductions by Principal Wilcomes, who then handed over the spotlight to one of the day's honored guests, Rep. Robert Menendez.
"This is not just only a [football game]," said Menendez, a Union Hill alum. "It's about tradition. It's about pride, and above all, it's about a sense of community," said Menendez. "It's history, and it reminds me of my days at Union Hill."
Wilcomes continued to introduce invited state dignitaries, members of the Board of Education, and the members of Union City's municipal government.
"Something all these people have in common is that they are a product of the Union City school system," said Wilcomes.
After a few words from Mayor Brian Stack, Wilcomes concluded the pre-game ceremonies, and the starting lineups were introduced. followed by the singing of the national anthem by Union Hill student Taileen Alvarez. The team captains met on the field as Mayor Stack carried out the coin toss, which had the Hillers starting the kickoff.
The final score of 21 to 0 had the Emerson Bulldogs victorious over the Union Hill Hillers, but that was hardly the end to the rivalry.
"The game's 67-year tradition at the stadium has come to a close, but the 86-year tradition will continue," said Wilcomes. "I think the players will remember more than anyone that they were part of the last game."