By TIM KELLY
A modern invention, artificial turf, has given a whole new life to one of South Jersey’s oldest and most unique high school football venues.
Carey Stadium, the century-old playground of the Ocean City Red Raiders, is evolving into a kind of summer football wonderland that attracts professional, college and other high school teams, coaches and fans.
Located just off the beach and Boardwalk at Sixth Street and adjacent to another wonderland — Wonderland Pier — whose looming Ferris wheel is part of the scenery, Carey is usually buzzing with activities and attractions for locals and visitors alike.
This summer alone, Carey hosted a six-team, NFL-sanctioned 7-on-7 competition, Philadelphia Eagles star Vinny Curry’s Youth Football Camp, a Youth Gridiron Academy flag football event for kids as young as 5, and an open practice of the Villanova University Wildcats.
Of course, regular informal workouts take place at Carey by organized teams and individual fitness buffs.
The marching band, another big part of football Fridays, practices on the field, too.
“This place is beautiful,” Haddonfield High School head coach Frank DeLano said in July when he brought his Bulldawgs to Carey to compete against the Red Raiders and teams from Millville, Cedar Creek, Salem and Clearview.
“I’m normally not a fan of 7-on-7, but this was a chance for our team to bond,” DeLano said. “(Afterward, the players) will be up on the boards eating pizza. These are the kinds of experiences that make a team.”
Carey, of course, is also home to the summer activities of the Red Raiders’ gridders, including the currently ongoing preseason training camp.
And that’s just football.
Carey also is home to the Ocean City Nor’easters soccer team and its many guest youth soccer programs. It’s a staging area for charity walks and runs, site of city-hosted events and much more.
The result is what city officials and the Ocean City Board of Education envisioned when the idea to install fake grass took root in 2014 and blossomed just prior to the 2016 football season.
It’s safe to say the investment, reported to be $1.25 million at the time, is already bringing big returns.
“I come here to work out all the time,” said Curry, an Eagles defensive end and member of the 2018 Super Bowl champs. “I always see kids out here playing football. This is where I wanted to bring my camp. (His contacts working with the school and city) were very helpful, very cooperative.”
“Everyone has been extremely great. My thing is, football is supposed to be fun. Look around,” he said of the huge turnout of players, parents, fans and members of the media. “Looks like a lot of fun going on.”
Nobody appreciates Carey, named for legendary Ocean City teacher and coach Fenton Carey, more than the Red Raiders’ current head coach Kevin Smith. At Curry’s camp, where many Raider coaches and players volunteered, he spoke in reverent tones.
“You think about the fact that Ocean City has been playing football here for 100 years and its humbling,” he said. “And the setting here is one-of-a-kind. There’s no other place like it.”
It’s not all about romance, however. Smith is first and foremost a football coach charged with maintaining the historic program. And with that in mind, Carey Stadium is a good fit for the school and the squad.
“The thing I liked most about (the Red Raiders’ training camp) was we saw a lot of improvement from individuals and the team as a whole,” Smith said in an email.
“We have a long way to go but we got better every day. That’s a good way to start.”