School officials are hopeful the stadium will be ready for Choctaw's Sept. 6 home game against Gulf Breeze.
FORT WALTON BEACH — Jenny Hamilton choked up when telling the story about attending her first football game in 1968 to watch the Choctawhatchee Indians play at Joe Etheredge Stadium.
“When we first got to Fort Walton Beach we drove down Racetrack Road and looked at the stadium,” said Hamilton, who taught at the school for 35 years. “It was packed. We went in to see the game. There were no seats available. It breaks my heart for the students not to have this.
“I would bring lawn chairs out there, anything so the kids can play in their house,” Hamilton said.
But it will take more than lawn chairs to reopen the beloved stadium that debuted in 1966.
The Okaloosa County School District closed the stadium to the public in early July after a mandatory state inspection by structural engineers revealed shifting, misalignment and gaps in the concrete seating that could cause them to collapse.
After first finding life-threatening structural damage at the aging stadium, engineers have been hard a work, so that Choctaw football players can play Gulf Breeze in their home opener Sept. 6 — 33 days from today.
Engineers said heavy use, the harsh Gulf Coast climate and the 52-year-old stadium all created the current problems.
In its 25-page report and engineering drawings, all of the home side seating must be worked on to prevent a catastrophic caving in or large chunks of concrete falling from the bleachers and hurting someone. The visitors' side only needs braces on the back of the top row to make it sturdy.
Home and visitor bleachers are made of precast double tee concrete. Stacked on top of each other, their heavy weight and gravity keep them in place. They rest on 12-inch masonry walls and span various lengths. The construction type has a reputation for great strength, and continues to be employed today in different structures.
So what do engineers need to do to ensure they restore Etheredge and allow people to buy their season tickets again?
They must use hydraulics to lift the hefty rows of seating and move them a few inches back into their original positions. Additionally, engineers must add hundreds of brackets at each end of the concrete double tee spans to prevent them from shifting in the future.
Further damage exists in seating at the 50-yard line that extends up to the press box. The concrete there exhibited cracking and chipping. To fix the cracked and chipped concrete, engineers must smooth it out and strengthen it with a structural repair mortar. That will ensure no loose pieces fall to the ground.
Finally, engineers must place a 4-foot bracket across the back of the top rows on the home bleachers to keep seating from shifting.
"I wouldn't call it routine repairs," said Bill Smith, Okaloosa Schools facilities director. "It'll take time to get it done."
Steve Horton, an assistant superintendent for Okaloosa schools, added that eventually the district plans to correct all the problems that the 2019 and 2017 Schmidt Consulting Group inspections highlighted.
Horton guaranteed that “longer term solutions will be done (to stadium seating), so they don’t keep sliding out of place.”
Etheredge can really pack in the "Big Green," having the largest capacity of any stadium in the county. Home seating includes four sections of 16 rows, two sections of 32 rows and one section with four rows of aluminum seating anchored to the concrete at the 50-yard line. That section continues another 13 rows up to the press box with 24 folding seats for season ticket holders in each row. The visitors’ side seats fewer fans with seven sections of 16 rows.
The Aug. 8 School Board workshop should shed more light on the situation. School district staff expect more information from its engineering team, such as a cost estimate, the sequence of repairs and a project timeline. Right now, none of that information exists.
But school officials, like Smith and Horton, cling to a Sept. 6 end date. Just in case the work takes longer, Choctaw athletic director Greg Thomas has a Plan B for the football team's five home games this season. His Indians will play 4 miles away at the Fort Walton Beach High School stadium. If both high schools play at home on the same Friday, Choctaw plans to play on Thursday, instead.
However, Smith plans to have the stadium remediated. He said repairs started “full bore” since the early July inspection revealed the possible public safety hazards.
Smith reported at this point the stadium repairs would not exceed $200,000.
“It has done well for its age,” Smith said of the stadium he remembers playing in during the late 1960s with the Niceville Eagles.
This is not the first time the stadium has needed repairs. In 2017, an inspection by Schmidt Consulting Group engineers reported seeing concrete seating on the visitors' side had a "fairly significant drop in elevation leaving the bleacher seat mangled and distorted." The damage was repaired for $134,412.
New Choctaw principal Michelle Heck said she will keep her fingers crossed that repairs get done quickly. She knows the stadium is critical to the high school's culture after serving as the head coach for the girls’ soccer team for seven years.
“Being on that field under the lights on those cold winter nights was very meaningful to me,” Heck said. “I understand from the student athletes’ perspective how important Etheredge is.”
Diehard Choctaw fans demanded the ability to be part of the stadium's remediation. So, the high school granted their wish on its homepage last week, creating a place for them to donate. They gave $5,500 in the first two weeks. The first high school in Fort Walton Beach has had many students stroll through its doors since it opened in 1952.
More than anything, the loyal Big Green fans want to return to raucously cheering for their teams as soon as possible.
District 3 School Board member Linda Evanchyk and her husband, Mike McMain, both graduated from Choctaw in 1974 and plan to contribute, too.
“We have a lot of loyal Big Green supporters,” Evanchyk said. “Friday nights in Fort Walton Beach were all about football. We didn’t have any big shopping malls. There was no social media. The bottom line was you went to the ball game. It really was the center of town.”