I grew up in a community that never made much of an investment in youth sports.
My hometown would build top-notch ball fields for beer-league softball teams, then turn its back when Little League and Pop Warner came looking for a piece of the pie so thousands of kids would have a safe place to play.
Now that I'm a father, it's nice to come to a city such as Lawrence, where there isn't that same problem. A quick drive around town shows this city is serious about giving its kids plenty of open spaces for recreation, from the massive Youth Sports Inc. complex on the southwest side of town to the numerous city parks that are equipped with ball fields.
However, Lawrence still falls short in one very important area: looking out for many of its high school athletes. It's hardly a new complaint. I heard the gripes about how the best high school football team in the state didn't even have a home field of its own back when I was a student at KU in the mid-1990s, and I'm sure there are plenty of Lawrence High alumni whose dismay with that situation dates much longer.
Fast forward more than a decade. A second public high school, Free State, is closing in on its 10-year anniversary. There's talk about when, not if, a third public school will open its doors. A fledgling 8-man football program is suiting up at Veritas Christian.
And, still, there's no full-time high school football facility within the city limits for anybody to call home.
Meanwhile, LHS and Veritas must farm out their home soccer matches to the YSI complex, which, while a fine setup for the little ones, is not an ideal environment for high school competition.
Fortunately, there's a blueprint to take care of these problems, and more. All it requires is city planners to make a quick jaunt west on I-70 and check out the Hummer Sports Park in Topeka.
Now, I know it's fashionable to take shots at our neighbor to the west. The reality is, outside of being home to the Sunflower State's capitol, Topeka doesn't have much to offer.
Unless you're a high school athlete. It's a realization I came to last week when I was asked to cover a KU soccer match that was first moved from Waco, Texas, to Lawrence because of Hurricane Rita. A subsequent round of thunderstorms in our fair city left the Jayhawks looking for another place to play.
Enter Hummer Sports Park, an athlete's dream packed with state-of-the-art facilities for six different sports. The crown jewels of the complex are full-size football and soccer fields that sit side-by-side, share a press box, locker rooms and some common stadium seating, and feature FieldTurf - a synthetic compound that feels like real grass and maintains a playable surface even when Mother Nature has rendered the authentic green stuff useless.
Doesn't that sound like something our local athletes could use?
Picture a typical fall night here in Lawrence. Afternoon thunderstorms have battered the area, turning local athletic fields into quagmires.
Not to worry. That scheduled LHS soccer-football double dip is still on. The hot dogs are on the grill, the cheerleaders have screamed themselves hoarse, and all the moms in attendance are happy because they know they won't have to wash muddy uniforms.
Sure, it comes with a price tag. But it's an idea worth exploring.