BY JAMES COOK
TRAVERSE CITY — An unexpected walk by the Traverse City St. Francis football team was one of the first thank yous to the Oleson brothers.
Then football players from all over Northern Michigan were able to enjoy the gift.
Team managers — spared numerous grass and mud stains — also had to be thankful.
Traverse City's Thirlby Field at Harry T. Running Stadium received the finishing touches on its long-awaited facelift, earning the top spot in this year's top 10 local sports stories.
The grass field was replaced with an artificial playing surface, the result of a large financial gift by Don and Gerry Oleson. The pair, who played football for TC Central 50 years ago, donated approximately $1 million for the turf to be installed in time for last fall's high school football season.
"It was something Traverse City needed," Gerry Oleson said in August. "It was really needed. It's something Traverse City can be proud of. It's a first-class city, so it should have a first-class football stadium."
Upon learning of the brothers' generosity, the St. Francis football stopped practice for a playoff game and took a bus to personally thank them.
The bus couldn't fit down the narrow road that the brothers both live on near Long Lake, so the players walked the rest of the way.
"All these guys come clomping down the road," Don Oleson said. "It was a pretty special thing. They were in their uniforms and everything."
The turf allowed Traverse City to host a state football playoff game between two out-of-area teams, host Traverse City Wolves semi-pro games and is hoping for many other uses now that three varsity football teams aren't churning the old field's grass into a shallow pool of mud. Even at the end of the 2010 prep football season, the artificial turf was in top shape.
And the turf won't solely be enjoyed by teenagers in pads hitting each other. The field can be used for events in conjunction with Cherry Festival and other events, as well as hosting state playoff games in football and possibly even soccer.
"We held a passing camp this summer," TC West football coach Tim Wooer said. "And everybody I've talked to is in awe and very appreciative of the Oleson family."