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Once, football was Atlantic City's best bet

As a kid in Atlantic City in the 1980s, I grew up within earshot of Bader Field, a little strip of land beside the Albany Avenue Bridge whose name denoted two important, and not entirely compatible, local institutions.

As a kid in Atlantic City in the 1980s, I grew up within earshot of Bader Field, a little strip of land beside the Albany Avenue Bridge whose name denoted two important, and not entirely compatible, local institutions.

Bader Field was an airport, famous to aviation-history buffs as the place where the term airport was coined to describe it, when it was built, in 1910, to accommodate visitors from New York, back when our Queen of Resorts enjoyed a higher profile among the Manhattan elite.

But to me, Bader Field was a high school football stadium, home to the two most important teams in South Jersey and probably the world, the Atlantic City Vikings and the Holy Spirit Spartans. They shared the stadium on Saturdays throughout the fall, one team playing home while the other was away, until the big Thanksgiving Day rivalry game, when the two teams played each other.

In the early '80s, the A.C.-Spirit game was the event of the season, and this was a neighborhood where Frank Sinatra had a regular gig at the Golden Nugget. Every family, it seemed, was for Atlantic High or for the Spartans, going back to the days when Holy Spirit was a little start-up on Massachusetts Avenue in the Inlet. The schools shared a stadium, but the rivalry cut across every conceivable cultural divide, pitting urban vs. suburban, public vs. private school, and straddling the region's historical racial divide. In the 1960s, the game was so big that they played it the night before Thanksgiving, in Convention Hall, where they had to chop two yards off each end zone because an entire football field didn't fit inside that historic venue.

From the Spartan perspective, which I witnessed as a water boy, the Atlantic High game was the highlight of a season overloaded with rivalries. The night before the game, a team dinner was held in the cafeteria, and each player got a new game jersey with his name on the back. Afterward, there was a big dance and a bonfire, and a Viking ship was burned in effigy.

On game day, they used police tape to divide the cement stands into home and away sections, though a few diehards would brave the splintered wooden bleachers to sit closer to the "away" team. I remember the postgame tears every year of the seniors, most of whom had played their last football game, and the parties some old A.C. families would throw in the interval between the game's end and turkey-dinner time. Mostly I remember the sense that for one day, at least, Atlantic City and half the county were gathered together in one place.

But Bader Field was too valuable to waste on something as frivolous as a football game.

The field was retired as the Vikings' home in 1994, and a few years later, the stadium was torn down. In 2006, as a Goldman Sachs analyst was hinting at a $1 billion price tag for the site, the airport was decommissioned, and Bader Field was entered into the great game of Atlantic City Monopoly, a condition that's determined its fate ever since.

In 2008, developers floated $900 million to build four casinos on the site. By 2011, the number was down to $400 million, and today, with the industry in chaos and competition on every side, nobody's talking about casinos at Bader Field anymore. A minor-league baseball stadium has sat mostly unused since 2009. An ice hockey rink - Flyers Skate Zone - occupies part of the site, but the old airport and athletic fields sit mostly derelict.

What I liked most about the old Bader Field was its integration into the city. You didn't need to be a student of the New Urbanism to understand the effect a lively high school sports complex - as opposed to a big, vacant lot - had on neighborhood morale. On game days, the stream of pedestrians across the Albany Avenue Bridge connected two parts of the city that were naturally separated by the bay. The first "It's not whether you win or lose but how you play the game" speech I ever got came while walking across that bridge to watch a Holy Spirit game.

The sounds of the stadium - the marching band, the crowd's roar, the ref's whistles - were audible to half the city throughout the fall, a lovely little sonic backdrop to life in the Chelsea neighborhood. The stadium itself was across the street from McGettigan's Saloon and another block from Spanky's sub shop, meaning enterprising alums could duck into the bar for a beer or run down the street for a cheesesteak at halftime. On Thanksgiving mornings, I'm told, the crowd at McGettigan's was so thick you had to throw your money over patrons' heads at the bartender, who threw a can of beer back at you.

Last spring, the dream of casinos receding into memory, the city solicited bids to bring youth athletics back to Bader Field - not in the form of local high school football, but as a hub for regional lacrosse, field hockey, softball, and baseball tournaments, which I believe are a growth industry. Meanwhile, Glenn Straub, owner of the Revel casino, has threatened litigation if the city ignores his terrifying proposal to honor the site's heritage by bringing "aviation entertainment" to the Chelsea Heights neighborhood.

But how great would it be if someday the Atlantic High-Holy Spirit game could be brought back to Bader Field?

The era of the mega-casino brought jobs and revenue to South Jersey for two generations but came at the cost of some beloved institutions. The end of the casino monopoly has meant trauma for the region but also may represent a chance to reclaim the places that were lost in the dislocation of the boom years. First, though, we must remember what those places meant to us. At present, the adults in the room have their heads, as it were, in the clouds.

William Sprouse is the author of "The Domestic Life of the Jersey Devil."