Even before the fireworks went off, the 31st annual Stadium of Fire was ablaze with pride and patriotism as nearly 50,000 gathered in celebration of country and honor.
Hosted by former Cougar and NFL tight end Chad Lewis, the festivities started on Saturday with a commemoration of the Civil War and a dramatic musical interpretation of the Gettysburg address, followed by the chorus’ rendition of “Proud to be an American” as the flag was brought into the stadium by parachuters.
The event, broadcast live to U.S. troops around the world through the American Forces network, also provided an opportunity to remember those still fighting to protect the great American ideals.
“The greatest casualty of war is being forgotten,” said Lewis, quoting a soldier he summated Mount Kilimanjaro with earlier this year. “Tonight we honor all those in Afghanistan and Iraq.”
The national anthem began with a video of then 13-year old David Archuleta’s 2003 performance at the Stadium of Fire. Then Archuleta emerged to finish, aided by the pyrotechnic dramatization of bombs bursting in air.
Donned in patriotic plaid, Archuleta retook the stage a short while later amidst a roar of audience appreciation.
“It’s crazy how many there are of you guys out there,” Archuleta told the crowd as he thanked them for all the support they’ve shown. “I love being home.”
Archuleta’s short set included a handful of songs from his two studio albums, and a special dedication to the troops that earned him a standing ovation.
Thunder, unheard since the football season, filled the stands as the stadium lights were brought down for Brad Paisley’s entrance. On their feet before he even hit the stage, the crowd got right into Paisley’s set, dancing and singing along.
Although not very talkative on stage, Paisley paused to honor the servicemen overseas, and wish the audience a happy Fourth of July weekend.
“It’s nice to see all your smiling faces,” Paisley said. “I’m so happy to be here. God gave us a great night for a concert.”
In less than an hour on stage, Paisley was able to give the audience a mere smattering of favorite hits from his musical catalog, and left them wanting more in all the right ways.
“He’s a consummate professional,” said Jenny Long, who came from Colorado for the show. “I could have listened to him all night.”
BYU graduate Stephen Jones was also on hand to help bring an end to the five-month search for the Stadium of Fire’s first annual talent contest winners. Drawn from more than 400 entries, three finalists had the opportunity to perform on the Stadium of Fire stage, including BYU’s own alt-rock garage band The Whits and 11-year old Eve Asplund of Farmington, who was out to prove that she has a musical future as sparkly as the sequined shirt that she wore on stage.
Voters overwhelmed the text messaging system, forcing Jones and Lewis to think quickly.
“Let’s hear it for breaking the system,” Jones joked with the audience as Lewis pulled out a decibel meter to determine the winner “the old fashioned way,” by volume of cheers. A few deafening moments later, age, experience and honest-to-goodness country music won out, and Artie Hemphill and the Iron Horse Band were $10,000 richer.
Capping off the evening was “America’s largest stadium fireworks show,” a half hour of tightly timed explosions of light and color set to popular and dramatic music.
By the end, it was impossible to pinpoint a favorite part, said 5-year-old Brooks Udy, a second-time Stadium of Fire attendee.
“Everything was too good,” Udy said. “It was better than Disneyland.”
However, the show was not without it’s minor glitches — the skydiver carrying the flag toppled onto the field after catching his feet on a barrier and firefighters had to rush to stamp out a small fire in the stands behind the stage as Archuleta sang about stomping the roses — but still produced a patriotic feeling among attendees.
“I’m not even from the United States and I feel like a proud American tonight,” said Rhys Clarke, a visitor from England. “The way that Americans demonstrate their patriotism is so special and unique.”
Cedar City’s Brian Brown said recognizing Independence Day is all about the liberties enjoyed in America, and how they were achieved.
“For me, the Fourth of July means freedom and sacrifice,” Brown said. “Celebrating like this just brings up the emotions.”
For Moriah Ihler of Malad, Idaho, one of more than 1,000 Stadium of Fire dancers, the evening even provided a glimpse into her potential future.
“I want to be a Cougarette,” explained Ihler, 17. “Yesterday was a long day. We spent a good 12 hours outside rehearsing, but this was just incredible. Just to be on this field dancing gave me that extra push.”
The night also included a tribute to the 2010-2011 BYU men’s basketball team, which Lewis pointed out ranked No. 1 nationally for the combination of winning percentage and graduation rate, and coach Dave Rose. In his six years with the team, Rose has amassed 159 wins and just 45 losses.
“And he beat pancreatic cancer while he was at it,” Lewis said.
The tribute included a special video message from Jimmer Fredette, thanking his former coach and teammates, several of whom were in the audience.
“It was nice to have him be a part of this, even though he’s in Sacramento,” said former teammate Brock Zylstra, who enjoyed the show with his wife.”This was my first time at Stadium of Fire and I loved it. Back home we watch the fireworks in a high school football field. This display was probably 10 times better.”