CINCINNATI -- Fans were showing up for high school football games in historic numbers in the early 2000s as the American-as-apple-pie sport dominated fall weekends for many families.
The top six all-time-best attendances for the Ohio High School Athletic Association state football finals weekend all occurred between 1997 and 2003.
A record 65,663 showed up for six state finals games in 2001 over two days at Canton Fawcett Stadium and Paul Brown Tiger Stadium in Massillon. In 2002, 65,584 showed up. That was the second-biggest finals weekend, and it included the 20,328 that saw Elder win the school's first state football title, 21-19, over Warren Harding at Fawcett Stadium.
But no crowd at either of those Stark County sites matched the state-tournament record 48,589 that showed up at Cincinnati's Paul Brown Stadium on Saturday, Nov. 10, 2001, to watch St. Xavier beat Princeton 6-0 and then Elder beat Colerain 35-21 in Division I regional semifinals.
That's right. Nearly 50,000 people showed up to an NFL stadium to watch four high school teams get after it for the right to play in the regional final.
But as of the Sunday prior, the doubleheader had been scheduled to take place at 11,000-seat Dayton Welcome Stadium. At that point, the OHSAA couldn't settle on the bid put in by the Cincinnati Bengals. According to Bengals officials, the $5 tickets for playoff games in those days made Paul Brown Stadium unrealistic because of the cost to run the building.
That left Welcome Stadium, because the 35,000-seat Nippert Stadium at the University of Cincinnati was not available. The Bearcats had to host East Carolina that weekend.
The proposal from the Bengals, Hamilton County and the company that ran the stadium in those days included costs for ushers, ticket takers, clean-up personnel, police and concession workers.
"We first got wind of the fact that the playoff games might not be already scheduled last Thursday," Troy Blackburn, then the Bengals' director of business development, told The Cincinnati Post that week. "We phoned the OHSAA and they indicated that that was the case and said that if we wanted, we could submit a bid by the following day."
The Bengals included a proposal that merged the games into a doubleheader that would justify a $10 admission. The OHSAA required a $5 ticket for a game, and there were two games. But even that wasn't good enough until the phone calls started rolling in from passionate fans wanting to see the games and fearful of being left out in the cold in Dayton.
Ultimately, on Monday, the Bengals, the county and the OHSAA reached a deal by which doubleheader tickets would cost students $5 and adults $10.
"Nobody's profiting off of this," Hamilton County Commissioner Todd Portune told The Post. "What's taken in at the gate will be applied directly against cost of hosting the event. The important thing is using the facility and giving the kids this tremendous opportunity."
And any fan who wanted to buy a ticket was able to buy one.
"If we had played at Dayton, we may have been limited (on tickets)," then-Elder athletic director Dave Dabbelt said.
Controversy did not end with the deal to bring the games to Paul Brown Stadium, however. Sure, fans would be able to pack the stands, but the school bands had a bit of trouble getting on to the field for halftime.
The Bengals, in fact, tried to keep them off the then-grass field.
"It sounds goofy, but the fact of the matter is a marching band does more harm to the football field than an entire (football) team does," Joe Feldkamp, the assistant stadium manager in 2001, told The Post.
Portune and county commissioners certainly were not having that, so Hamilton County, which owns the stadium and leases it to the Bengals, ordered that the marching bands be allowed on the field. Still, the Bengals resisted on Friday night until Portune threatened to call on deputy sheriffs to escort the bands onto the field.
When the Princeton High School band became the first to take the field at halftime of the first game, it received a standing ovation.
"That shows you where the public stood on this issue," Steve Geis, then-director of the Elder High School marching band, told The Post.
The grass survived.
"It turned out to be a good experience for everybody," Geis said. "This whole controversy should never have happened."
Finally, with fans and the marching bands in the building, a pair of classic football games took place.
St. Xavier beat Princeton, 6-0, in a defensive struggle between two teams known mostly for their high-powered offenses.
Yet, the only points were scored on an 11-yard touchdown run by Enye Willingham. The Bombers intercepted Princeton quarterback Mike Daniels five times and improved to 11-0. Princeton ended its season at 8-4.
In the second game, Elder beat Colerain, 35-21, behind senior quarterback Keith Bolger's 161 yards on the ground with two rushing touchdowns and one touchdown pass.
The Panthers amassed 268 yards on the ground on offense and the Elder defense recovered three Colerain fumbles in the second half.
Elder improved to 11-1 and previously unbeaten Colerain fell to 11-1.
The doubleheader set up the Region 4 final between St. Xavier and Elder, which the Bombers won 24-21 before a sold-out OHSAA single-game record crowd of 30,051 at UC's Nippert Stadium, according to OHSAA Director of Communications Tim Stried. It was St. Xavier's sixth straight win over Elder and the third straight by single-digit points.
For the second time in three weeks, Welcome Stadium was replaced as a site for a game when the St. X-Dublin Coffman state semifinal was moved to Columbus Crew Stadium to accommodate more fans. The Bombers won, 35-14, then were upset by Cleveland St. Ignatius the following week, 37-6, in the state final in Canton.