Fans in the stands: Celebrating the long-awaited return of football

Football fans in the Walkup Skydome stands

Two years ago, during the first football game of the 2019 season against Missouri State University, Northern Arizona University tight end Matthew Kempton suffered an ACL tear in his knee, putting him out for the rest of the season. His sole mission became his recovery, as he underwent countless hours of physical therapy in hopes of returning to the field the following season.

He didn’t, though not because of his knee. The 2020 season was cancelled because of COVID-19. Though the team didn’t know when they would return to the field, practice continued, and Kempton gained additional time to rehab his knee. A short Spring 2021 season was announced.

There, the Lumberjacks held a 2-0 record in the Walkup Skydome, while regaining and defending the Grand Canyon Trophy for the first time in its 10-game history.

“Obviously with COVID, it wasn’t a normal season, but it was exciting to go out there, play football and showcase all the practice we put in as a team,” Kempton said. After a two-year hiatus, he had the opportunity to join his teammates on the field for the spring season. “You’ll have nerves going into any game, and this was especially nerve-racking, but once you get past those first couple plays, it felt right back to normal.”

Now, the Lumberjacks will reach another exciting milestone—playing with fans in the stands. When they kick off their season against the No. 1 Sam Houston Bearkats on Thursday night, it will be the first game in 650 days with people filling in the Skydome’s bleachers.

“So much goes into playing an actual season and playing against actual teams, whether that’s in conference or out of conference,” Kempton said. “This is a season I am looking forward to.”

Kickoff for Thursday’s game, which will also start head coach Chris Ball’s third season at NAU, is set for a 6 p.m., and the game will air on ESPN+. This year’s season opener also will include the annual Running of the Freshman as well as the inaugural Sprinting of the Sophomores. (Their Running of the Freshman also was cancelled in 2020.) Students should line up at the horseshoe at Lot P67 beginning at 5:20 p.m. with the run set for 5:49 p.m.

Tickets for this game and the other five of its home games this fall start at $16 and can be purchased at Questions can be directed to the Lumberjack Ticket Office at or (928) 523-0639.

Doors will open at 4:30 p.m, and the first 5,000 fans in attendance will receive a Jacks are Back rally towel.NAU Athletics also will introduce mobile ticketing at both the Walkup Skydome and Rolle Activity Center. Step-by-step mobile ticketing instructions can be found online: fan resources and student resources.

Lots will open to tailgating at 2 p.m. while the Ponderosa will open at 3 p.m. ahead of the 6 p.m. kickoff.

NAU Communications