This article was first written for and published by NRL.com.
From the days of players laying turf instead of training to a state-of-the-art venue in 2020, the Cowboys have come a long way.
It was a nod to history last Thursday when the Cowboys hosted the Bulldogs in a farewell to 1300SMILES Stadium. It was fitting the last fixture featured the same two teams that opened the stadium on March 11, 1995.
Over the last 25 years, it has become more than just a home ground for a football team. It is the heart of a community that lives and breathes rugby league.
But when you hear the story about how the stadium was built, its importance is there for all to see. It was built by a community for a team that would very quickly become an integral part of that community.
When it was announced a team from North Queensland would be admitted for the 1995 ARL season, excitement followed.
That was led by the likes of Laurie Spina, a man who had been playing footy in Sydney for the Roosters and Sharks but would now have the chance to go home and play for a team that represented his local community.
Young men from North Queensland suddenly had the chance to play for a team that represented their area.
Along with this excitement, there was a realisation the team would need somewhere to play.
Spina said building a home ground without a lot of money was hard work.
“When we were first told we had a team, getting together was really good but we soon worked out that even though there wasn’t much financing, that we would need somewhere to play,” he said.
An old trotting track at the site of the Willow Sports Complex had to be redeveloped in just over a year to have it ready for March 1995.
But the construction of this project looked nothing like we would expect today because the community (including Laurie and the inaugural team) helped build the stadium.
“To build that stadium we all had to put in – the public, the supporters and even the players. I remember the week before the first game when everything was just about ready, except there was dirt on the hill and no grass,” Spina said.
“All the grass arrived and instead of training one afternoon the whole club was tacking the grass onto the hill for that first game against the Bulldogs.
“The whole community put in to get it ready for the first game. I don’t think you would see it these days; so many people helping to put something together because they want a team and a home for that team so badly.”
The community got behind their team. They expected 12,500 for that opening game but 23,000 people showed up and according to Laurie, the Cowboys averaged around 22,500 for that first season.
Legend has it that on some nights there were 28,000 in the stadium.
That stadium is the home of many happy memories.
For Spina, they include that very first game against the Bulldogs. On that night he felt like the whole of North Queensland was behind him.
Since then, he and his son Ben Spina became the first father-son duo to play for the Cowboys. Both had the opportunity to play in that stadium.
While the Cowboys’ greatest day – their 2015 grand final win – took place in Sydney, Spina remembers the thousands who packed the stadium to welcome the team home.
Fortunately, these memories will never fade.
When Spina left the stadium on Thursday night there was a touch of sadness along with an acceptance of change and excitement for what the future holds.
“We hold so many memories there, but you have to look forward. I haven’t been to see it but they say the new stadium is state of the art and I can’t wait to see it,” he said.
“Even with a new stadium though, the memories will always stay with the old stadium. That’s where the North Queensland Cowboys were first built and that’s the basis of the club.”