Those several minutes before 7 p.m. stand alone. The sight of the home football team leaving its locker room to run out onto the field through the tunnel of the marching band and cheerleaders is met with affection and cheers — no matter the record of the team.
At Marsh Field in Monroeville, the football team’s uniform scheme is instantly recognizable. The black uniforms with the gold-winged helmet, punctuated by the red cross above the face mask give the school and community an association with the team.
“It gets your heart pumping,” current Monroeville senior captain Noah Smith said. “It gets you to think back on all the tradition, and all the faith you have in each other. It gets you ready and makes you think of what other players have done on the field there.”
But on that final walk out onto the field exists another connection that has become an indelible image of Friday night lights at 66 North Street. Players from both teams walk out of Jason Alexander Memorial Fieldhouse, which displays those words in big, black block letters facing the home bleachers.
Until 20 years ago, Marsh Field had no locker rooms to speak of. Now, the recently-renovated, multi-purpose building continues a strong tradition that was born out of an unspeakable tragedy.
“There are boys playing football on that field and using that fieldhouse now who weren’t alive when my son was,” noted Henry Alexander, the night before he and his family were recognized as the ‘12th man’ prior to the Oct. 18 game vs. Plymouth.
“There was an effort to perpetuate something beyond his life, extending into the future. There will be kids who know that name. They will see his picture in the locker room and know what he looked like.
“They will have never had a personal connection to Jason, but they do have a connection. And for that, our family is very pleased,” he added.
How it started
In the spring of 1999, construction began on an idea of a memory both Henry and Jean Alexander had of their son.
Jason was killed at age 17 in a car crash at the intersection of Hasbrock and Ridge roads south of Norwalk in December 1995 when the driver of a delivery truck failed to stop on Hasbrock Road. A senior at Monroeville, just six weeks earlier he had played his final football game for the Eagles.
When Jason and his teammates played — and for several decades prior to that — no building housed locker rooms at Marsh Field. Prior to kickoff and at halftime, the Eagles used a room in the sewage plant behind the visitors’ side, and opposing teams used the picnic pavilion beyond the north parking lot by the baseball field.
“I remember Jason had mentioned a couple times about the conditions and so forth, how it was a lot different at the other schools they traveled to,” Henry said. “That was something I always remembered him saying.”
Henry, Jean, daughter Heather and son Chris, wanted to do something in way of a memorial for Jason. Multiple ideas were offered and considered, including an academic scholarship that has seen considerable amount of monies awarded to area students since its establishment.
But what did Jason love?
What did Monroeville need?
“The fieldhouse came to mind because it was needed and would be beneficial,” Henry said. “It wasn’t tearing something down to build a bigger, nicer one — they didn’t have anything. It just wasn’t a good situation.”
Both Henry and Jean felt strongly that a memorial shouldn’t be simply donating a large sum of money to recognize one person. A fieldhouse where none existed before would be a boon to both athletes and Marsh Field while serving as a lasting tribute to their son. The new building was officially dedicated and finished on Oct. 3, 1999.
“But if we do something that a lot of kids benefit from — and had my son been alive at that time and playing football — he would have shared in that same benefit,” Henry said. “The fact that he can’t doesn’t diminish its value.
“So to do something for the community that would memorialize Jason’s name, and benefit a number of people on an ongoing basis was our objective.”
Steve Reer was a hands-on athletic booster at Monroeville, including a lengthy stretch as president from 1992-2008. During that time, Reer was a key backer for the fieldhouse, along with several other projects at Marsh Field.
A fieldhouse at a small-school football facility may be considered commonplace now, Reer noted, but at the time, putting into words what the building meant to Monroeville and the Eagles was difficult.
“It was definitely a big deal when we got it done,” he said. “Two locker rooms, public restrooms and a concession stand and a referee's room — wow, it accommodated a lot for us. The community was very proud and very thankful to Mr. and Mrs. Alexander.”
But when Reer thinks of the building, or even looks at it, he keeps going back to one significant memory.
“Henry came to my house every January for 12 straight years with a check,” he said. “Every year he brought it to my house, and we'd sit down and hash it out. And every time, it was the hardest thing for him to get through that. We'd sit down and share some tears and talk.
“I just keep going back to that … all those years,” Reer added. “Every January he’d knock on my door and walk in. And he always took his shoes off and would visit for an hour or so every time. I'll just never forget it.”
The new look
Work began on upgrading and renovating the fieldhouse this past March.
All told, the Monroeville Football Alumni Association had volunteers who worked more than 120 hours on renovations, along with raising $15,000 for the improvements.
Among the changes are fresh paint on interior walls and ceilings and new LED lighting in all the fixtures.
The center of the concrete floor now features the iconic red cross, the same as the players put on their helmets. Seven new fans provide better air circulation, and the trainers’ room has been upgraded as well.
Throughout the locker room, the MFAA logo is displayed, along with images of Marsh Field and photos that the community voted to display.
“It was pretty amazing to see the red cross painted on the floor that first time we saw it completely done,” Noah Smith said of the first time the team saw the new look. His dad, Chris, also helps stripe the field among other things at Marsh Field.
“Another thing I noticed was the pictures on the wall. It was just cool to see other people when they were in the game and the memories of past teams that they had.”
One of the photos shows Jason Alexander in his senior season, wearing his No. 25 home jersey and Eagles helmet.
“I heard he was a good player that was always for the team who had dedication to his teammates and school,” Smith said of Jason. “It gives you a sense of both appreciation and motivation to see his name and picture.”
Henry Alexander said he was most happy that the volunteers took what was already there and made it better and more serviceable.
“They made the building more functional beyond its appearance,” Alexander said. “It also builds on the tradition of the program.”
Reer said a lot of the process had to do with the Alexander family staying connected to the football program.
“Jason was definitely a big Monroeville Eagle as a player — it was his love and his dad knew that,” he said. “Henry wanted that football tradition to run forever through Jason’s name — his love of football at Monroeville. And it has.”
Henry has mentioned often that the biggest concern any parent has in losing a child is that their son or daughter will be forgotten over time.
“We never forget, but you don’t want them forgotten by others,” he said. “We run into some of Jason’s classmates periodically. Some have graduated college, pursued careers, and are married with children. Life goes on for them and they experience those things a child who dies young never gets to experience.
“So the fact that people remember Jason is tremendously important,” he added. “Not just our family, but all families. This is a tremendous honor that Monroeville remembers him and wanted to do this. The attitude in the community and school in Monroeville is if you’re part of the program, you are part of that forever.”
From Reer’s view, and the view of many — Jason’s Monroeville legacy has lived on.
“All you need to know is, 20 years later, that fieldhouse still has a picture of him hanging in it ... It’s used numerous times a year and people are walking by his name on the outside of that wall almost daily,” he said. “Henry and Jean’s boy's name is as strong now as it was the day we started that project. It’s never faded away at all.
“Jason’s memory today with that building is as strong as it was the day we built it,” Reer added. “Jason Alexander is still strong in the community — he’ll always be a part of Monroeville.”