Cessna Stadium opened in 1969 as a place meant to propel Wichita State football into a new era.
A crowd of 28,245 watched the Shockers defeat Utah State 17-7 on Sept. 13 of that year. The stadium featured stands that expanded the capacity to 31,500 from 12,500. A year-long fund-raising effort for $1.5 million resulted in “lush, green synthetic grass” known as Poly-Turf, a two-level press box with private boxes, covered seating for the 220 Turf Club members and a new running track.
“It was so cool – I was from back East and the stadiums held maybe 3-4,000 people,” said Ed Plopa, a freshman defensive back in 1969. “When we played Utah State, that place was going nuts.”
This Monday, as part of the Memorial ’70 ceremony, football players, friends and families from those years received a piece of Cessna Stadium seating.
Memorial ’70 is the annual remembrance held on Oct. 2 to honor the 31 people — WSU football players, administrators, supporters and flight crew — who died in a plane crash in Colorado in 1970.
Over the summer, the east stands of Cessna Stadium were demolished as part of a multi-year project that will remake the stadium. Former WSU Foundation Vice President Mike Lamb proposed the idea to preserve some of the stadium and share it with the Memorial ’70 group.
WSU’s Building Trades staff at the Gaddis Physical Plant retrieved the seating and cut the metal into 10-inch-by 9-inch sections. Students at the Innovation Hub etched the dates of Veterans Field (1946-1968) and Cessna Stadium (1969-2023) on 70 of seats. They also designed, stained and attached oak end pieces.
In the stands that day for the Utah State game sat a group of roughly 29 freshmen – ineligible to play in those days by NCAA rules – who would help see the program through the turmoil of the next few seasons. They watched the Shockers knock off Utah State with a touchdown pass from Butch Dusharm to Tom Owen and a 1-yard run by fullback Randy Jackson.
The crowd surpassed the team’s previous attendance record of 18,321 for a 1954 game against Oklahoma State.
“The exciting part for most of us was the Poly-Turf,” said Bob Krestel, a freshman lineman in 1969. “That was a big deal. Most of us had only played on grass in high school.”
Cessna Stadium, funded by $300,000 from Cessna Aircraft, $125,000 from the Wichita Board of Education and an increase of 25 cents per credit hour in student fees, opened as a success.
The turf, billed as the first installation of Poly-Turf in the nation, was a critical piece of the fund-raising drive. Playing high school and college games wore down the grass at Veterans Field, the site upon which Cessna Stadium expanded. The Board of Education donated money to allow high schools to continue at Cessna Stadium.
Of that group of 1969 freshmen, four (Marvin Brown, John Duren, Carl Krueger and Richard Stines) died in the 1970 crash on Mount Trelease on the way to play Utah State. Fifteen landed safely in Logan, Utah on the team’s other plane.
Many of that group – sophomores in 1970 at the time of the crash – started when the Shockers resumed the season on Oct. 24 against Arkansas in Little Rock. In 1972, the Shockers went 6-5 with many of that class of 29 playing key roles in the team’s first winning season since 1963.
Those experiences inspired and shaped that group, Krestel believes, and guided them to fulfilling lives and business careers.
“In spite of the tragedy, a lot of guys found a way to continue on and be successful,” he said. “You wonder if being part of that is what drives people.”