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Homecoming comes early for Golden Bears

When the California Golden Bears take the field this season in Berkeley it may not be the players that get all the attention.

After being closed for renovations since June 2010, California Memorial Stadium will reopen for the 2012 regular season, returning the Golden Bears to their historic home field.

The original structure began construction in December 1922 and opened in November of the following year in time for the 'Big Game' against Stanford. The construction was funded from contributions made to memorialize those who lost their lives in World War I, hence the name 'Memorial Stadium'.

Architects John Galen Howard and co-designers G.F. Buckingham and E.E. Carpenter were the masterminds behind the mammoth structure whose original seating capacity was nearly 72,000 and in 2006 was added to the National Register of Historic Places.

Memorial Stadium may be best known as the site of arguably the most unbelievable or at least bizarre play in college football history. Deemed simply 'The Play', California returned a kickoff for a touchdown in the closing seconds against Stanford with a number of laterals all while the Stanford band stormed the field. Few college football fans do not know the famous call by radio announcer Joe Starkey when he proclaimed 'the band is out on the field!'

With such history associated with it, it was important to maintain the historical significance while updating the stadium.

"It was about restoring and preserving its character, and you have to strike a balance between preservation and restoration," architect Frederic Knapp said.

There will be a number of notable changes to the new structure. One of the more noticeable will be the seating which has been scaled back to 62,717.

The seats themselves have also changed with the old wooden benches replaced by aluminum seating and chair seating set in the new premium Field and Stadium Club levels.

More importantly for the players that will go out and attempt to execute plays and win football games is the new surface of the field. The original Memorial Stadium had a grass surface before the Golden Bears installed Astroturf in 1981. That Astroturf remained until 1994 when the stadium returned to grass before moving to a synthetic grass called Momentum Turf in 2003.

The newly revamped Memorial Stadium will feature a playing surface made up of 'Matrix Turf'. The surface is also a synthetic grass, made up of monofilament yarns and a silica pea gravel base that provides support and better shock absorption.

Installed by Hellas Sports Construction, the Matrix Turf surface is also used by the Dallas Cowboys, Baylor University, the Cotton Bowl, the Sun Bowl and the Alamodome/Valero Bowl.

"We believe the Matrix product is the perfect match for our year-round needs," head football coach Jeff Tedford said.

Tedford's squad will certainly want a field that lends itself to speed with several explosive playmakers like All-Pac-12 wide receiver Keenan Allen and 1,000-yard rusher Isi Sofele on the roster.

Fans will more than likely be stunned by the video scoreboards that have been installed on the existing north and south scoreboards. The two screens will provide 90 percent more video than the previous video screens in the stadium.

The original scoreboards were also renovated as was the concourse and ticket windows along with other structural upgrades that include securities against seismic activity.

While some things have changed drastically some have stayed the same. The facade of the stadium, while given a full restoration, will have the same look as the original.

"The goal was not to repair every single hairline crack and make it look brand new," project manager Allan Miller said. "It still needs to look like it's from 1923, but well maintained."

The Golden Bears will only get one chance to show off their new home to a national audience when they welcome in Washington on November 2. It is the team's only scheduled date on national television.

Still there are a number of great matchups for California fans to enjoy in the refurbished stadium, including matchups with conference powerhouse Oregon and in-state rival UCLA. Perhaps most importantly the new Memorial Stadium will be the host of the 2012 'Big Game' with Stanford.

"It's great to move home," Tedford said of his team's return after playing the 2011 season at At&T Park, "I know the players are fired up. Many of them talked about the excitement of getting back home. To be able to come back in the north tunnel and play in that environment that's so special at Memorial Stadium."

There is still work to do to complete the project and when the Golden Bears open the season against Nevada there may still be some banners or signs missing. Still the massive undertaking that began just over two years ago is on schedule to be 'game ready' in time for opening weekend. It will also be ready to impress veteran and first-time visitors to the historic stadium.

"I think people are going to walk in and are going to say `Wow,'" senior project manager Brian Main said. "They're going to be blown away."