The Heart of Eugene: Hayward Field
by Maggie Vanoni
Norm Oyler usually sits in the middle section of the West Grandstands at the University of Oregon’s Hayward Field. The rows of wooden benches were added to the stadium in 1925, and they creak every time Oyler readjusts his position. On this day, he’s watching the 2018 Oregon Relays, an annual high school track and field meet. He doesn’t mind the uncomfortable seating or the loud people who are sitting closely around him. He’s used to it. He’s attended home meets at Hayward Field for the past 60 years. “You go to other meets in other places of the country,” he said, “and you don’t have the fan support and types of cheering, you don’t have that feeling in the air.” To the city of Eugene and to the people of the sport of track and field, “Historic Hayward Field,” as Eugene locals like to call it, is more than just a facility. It’s the core of their community. An endless list of historic athletes has competed here: Galen Rupp, Mo Farah, Allyson Felix, Mary Slaney and of course the late Steve Prefontaine, who died in 1975, hours after racing at Hayward. Twenty world records have been set here. It’s been home to 15 NCAA championships, seven U.S. national championships and six Olympic Trials. Even when the rain is often so heavy it falls sideways, athletes, fans and media crowd around the eight lanes of brick-red track. And even when the Oregon Ducks aren’t competing or are underperforming, the cheers don’t stop, and the fans don’t leave. “Every meet that I go to there, you get a sense of that this is a central point of track and field in this country,” said Ruth Hammonds, who has officiated meets at Hayward for two decades. “It’s just a thrill. There is just something almost magical about Hayward Field.” Like many native Oregonians, I grew up hearing stories about the track. History has been made there, and what’s happened there has shaped the sport into what it is today. But in June 2018, it will be destroyed. Not changed. Not remolded or renovated. Demolished. Bulldozed to the ground. The new stadium—larger, shinier and more modern, and built in part because it will host the 2021 world championships—is a reality the people of Hayward, the people of Eugene and the people of track and field are being forced to accept. Some are excited, and others are devastated, but everyone is wondering what will happen to the Hayward feeling, what both fans and athletes call the Hayward Magic. “I mean, maybe more people will come, but I just like the feeling of capacity Hayward Field has now,” Oyler said. “Whereas, I don’t know what the feeling is going to be … but it’s definitely not going to have the closeness we have now.”
Originally opened in 1919 as a football field, Hayward was named for former University of Oregon track and field coach Bill Hayward. Three years later, the University added a track to the field, and in 1967 it became solely dedicated to the sport of track and field.
Today, it seats over 10,000 people and fills up for international competition such as the Prefontaine Classic and national competitions such as the NCAA Outdoor Track and Field Championships. The support has given Eugene the nickname of TrackTown USA.
“I think it’s the love between the competitors and the fans,” Oyler said. “The competitors come here and they know they are going to get supported. Even if you get away from Eugene and you’re supported, the cheer, the feeling is not the same as Hayward Field.”
Growing up just 15 minutes away from Nike’s headquarters, I constantly heard of the legendary stories of Prefontaine. When I went to the University of Oregon, I anticipated watching the next “Pre.”
But after watching my first meet at Hayward, I remembered only one or two of the athletes’ names. What I did remember clearly was the excitement that erupted from the stands. It didn’t matter which team, it didn’t matter which athlete and it didn’t even matter who won. There was a wave of cheering for every athlete, every team and every event.
The athletes feel it, too.
“When I see the crowd, it’s a like a million moms and dads watching me,” Olympic gold medalist and former UO runner English Gardner said at the 2016 Prefontaine Classic. “I feel like these people have supported me throughout the years, me growing as an athlete here at Oregon. When I get out there in front of them, I kind of get a little more edge, a little more fire underneath my belt.”
When the news broke of Hayward’s plans for demolition, people felt the heartbreak. The sorrow mimics the feeling of your parents telling you the family was moving out of your childhood house.
But as most children soon realize, the move is necessary.
Looking out from the West grandstands, across the track and infield, Oyler and I watch as patches of shingles on the East Grandstand’s roof flap in the wind. At a meet the week before, bundles of the shingles had flown off during a storm.
When Hammonds came across the projected sketches, the renderings shocked her. But she knew it was the right time, the right call. And she expects what’s special about Hayward – the sense of community — to remain.
“That’s the part I think we don’t want to lose, and I don’t think we will lose it,” she said. “That’s not captured in the wood and in the grandstands. That is captured in the location and the community and the history, and I think that will remain and I think that it will get better.”