Playmakers 2023: St. Al’s historic football stadium gets a facelift

Published 4:00 am Thursday, August 24, 2023

EDITOR’S NOTE: This story appears in “Playmakers,” The Vicksburg Post’s annual football preview magazine. The 2023 edition will be available with The Post’s weekend print edition on Aug. 19. You can also get a copy by visiting our office at 1106 Washington St., by calling 601-636-4545, or view a digital version here.

Walking through the entrance at St. Aloysius’ football field is to take a journey through Vicksburg’s sports history.

The unassuming green space on Grove Street has had several names and hosted hundreds of games since the late 19th century. From Beck’s Bottom, to the St. Aloysius Athletic Field, Farrell Stadium and Balzli Field, and soon the Pinkston Family Athletic Complex, it has evolved but been a constant in the River City’s landscape since the 1890s.

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“As a history major, walking out that door and staring at that field and seeing the ghosts of football past, and who all has played out here, it’s neat,” said St. Alfootball coach Bubba Nettles, the field’s current caretaker.

St. Al’s field was originally called Beck’s Bottom, and served as a community space where a number of groups and clubs gathered to play. During the first part of the 20th century, as high school sports took root in Mississippi, it became Vicksburg’s primary football venue. St. Al, as well as the original Vicksburg High, Carr Central, and occasionally the county schools all played games there.

By the 1950s the action mostly shifted to City Park, and St. Al became the primary tenant of Beck’s Bottom.

A Vicksburg resident named James Farrell died in the late 1930s and bequeathed two houses that he owned on Monroe Street to the Knights of Columbus Council 898, with instructions to build something in his memory.
In the fall of 1953, that became a football stadium to surround the field at Beck’s Bottom.

The 1,600-seat facility was built in less than a month, with the Knights of Columbus donating labor to accomplish the task between home games on Sept. 25 and Oct. 9. It was formally dedicated before a game against Utica on Oct. 22.

“The stadium will be constructed of steel set in concrete, according to Mr. (Warren) Doiron, and will be a permanent structure,” the Vicksburg Post reported at the time.

The stadium was named for Farrell and has been St. Al’s permanent football home ever since. Years later, longtime coach Joe Balzli’s name was added to make the official name Joe Balzli Field at Farrell Stadium.

“This field here has seen a lot of football,” Nettles said. “Not just from St. Al, but from what I understand a lot of the public schools a long time ago played on this field. It’s got some stories and some legends have played on this field,”

Farrell Stadium/Balzli Field has continued to evolve in the 21st century.

A $300,000 upgrade in 2000 replaced the original wood bleachers with the current metal ones, as well as a new pressbox. A fieldhouse was added in 2010, and LED lights installed in 2021.

For the 2023 season, the field will get perhaps its biggest renovation since the original 1953 construction — as well as another name.

In early 2022, the family of John Murray Pinkston, Jr. donated $1 million to Vicksburg Catholic School for the purpose of upgrading its athletic facilities. A number of projects have been undertaken since then, from painting the gym to sprucing up the Bazinsky softball and baseball fields that St. Al’s teams play on.

“With what that donation has allowed us to do with upgrading our facilities, taking care of our field, that’s a favor I can never repay,” said Nettles, who is also St. Al’s athletics director.

The biggest projects funded by the Pinkstons’ donation have been at Farrell Stadium/Balzli Field.

The first was to improve drainage on the playing surface. It has allowed the grass, which was often thin and dead, to flourish. More importantly, it has kept the surface playable even after heavy rains rather than turning into a muddy wasteland.

Other structural improvements followed. A retaining wall was built along the Grove Street side of the facility, and the space between the south end zone and the street was widened by a few feet to create more walking space.

“Trying to figure out in terms of upgrades to the facility, what was the most important thing and what was the most fiscal thing to achieve what we wanted,” Nettles said. “Everywhere you turn out here, it’s completely brand new. It looks fantastic out here.”

The next phase of renovations have been going on since early this year and were expected to be completed in time for the season opener on Aug. 18.

A concession stand was built near the home stands and stocked with new equipment. The gravel parking area behind the concession stand will be paved, as will the old gravel running path that goes around the perimeter of the football field.

The old brick entrance will remain, but is getting plenty of upgrades as well.

Pinkston’s name will join those of Farrell and Balzli on a fresh facade surrounding the steps into the stadium. A monument honoring Pinkston has also been placed next to Balzli’s behind the south end zone.

“As much as he’s done, he’s owed that,” Nettles said.

The stadium’s ticket office and restrooms will remain in the entrance building, but have been completely gutted and modernized.

“Those (restrooms) were completely gutted. They’ve relaid the floor and put in new, upgraded stalls, toilets, sinks for both men and women,” Nettles said. “With the upgrades to the original concession stand and bathrooms, and now our brand new concession stand, you’re starting to physically see the changes that are being made. And it’s awesome.”

Pinkston’s gift, Nettles added, is doing more than upgrading Farrell Stadium for the next generation. It has helped spark more donations from the school’s alumni to fund even more projects down the line.

In late 2021, the Flashes Athletic Association was formed as a revamped version of the school’s athletic booster club. The FAA, which is led by president Steve Smith, is serving as a fundraising arm that supports all of St. Al’s athletic programs.

“They completely revamped it. They came up with new bylaws and guidelines and everything else, and they have been running with it since the end of 2021,” Nettles said. “They have hit the ground running and every year it seems they increased the amount of fundraising for our athletic programs. They are the lifeblood of our school in terms of athletics. Joining that benefits every single sport that we offer, so it’s a big thing.”

Nettles wasn’t sure what the next phase of renovations might entail, but he was excited about the prospect of making them. Taking care of one of Vicksburg’s iconic sports venues is now his responsibility, but he also said it was a community effort and he’s glad to have plenty of people in the St. Al community chipping in to help.

“Corey Pinkston’s donation really opened the eyes to our alumni and fan base to say, ‘OK, let’s get some stuff done.’ It’s been wonderful,” Nettles said. “The one thing that St. Al survives on is the wonderful people of our community who have graduated from here, or have kids from here. We are one big, gigantic family that everybody is willing and wanting to help in any possible way they can.”

About Ernest Bowker

Ernest Bowker is The Vicksburg Post's sports editor. He has been a member of The Vicksburg Post's sports staff since 1998, making him one of the longest-tenured reporters in the paper's 140-year history. The New Jersey native is a graduate of LSU. In his career, he has won more than 50 awards from the Mississippi Press Association and Associated Press for his coverage of local sports in Vicksburg.

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