Hundreds of Wildcats serve their neighbors

More than 250 members of the Abilene Christian University community – students, parents, alumni, prospective students and trustees – turned out on Saturday to serve their neighbors in the inaugural statewide Wildcats Serving day.

Events were held in Abilene, Austin, Dallas, Fort Worth, Houston and San Antonio, coordinated by university relations director Craig Fisher (’92) and his team of university relations managers in those markets. Among the services rendered, Wildcats helped organize a Family Fun Day with Impact Church of Christ for a fifth-ward apartment complex in Houston, served at the CitySquare thrift store in Dallas and volunteered at Global Samaritan Resources in Abilene.

Among the participants: a high school senior who drove from Denton to the Wildcats Serving Dallas event at the Community Enrichment Center event in North Richland Hills.

“It was a great day for the ACU community across Texas,” Fisher said. “We were able to come together to serve and to make a difference for others. We thank all of the nonprofits for their willingness to partner with us.”

Photos from the events (Fort Worth still to come) are available on the ACU Alumni Relations Flickr page.


VIA News: Gray Stadium demo begins Monday

Elmer Gray Stadium old 600x400 96Demolition of old Elmer Gray Stadium, a venerable U.S. track and field venue for decades at Abilene Christian University, will begin at 9 a.m. Monday, March 30. It will make way for the eventual footprint of the proposed Wildcat Stadium and a return to on-campus football games for the first time since World War II.

Elmer Gray was the first ACU student-athlete to compete in the U.S. Olympic Trials for track and field. He finished fifth in the semifinals of the 800-meter run in 1932.

Elmer Gray was the first ACU student-athlete to compete in the U.S. Olympic trials for track and field. He finished fifth in the semifinals of the 800-meter run in 1932.

Just to the southwest, new Elmer Gray Stadium is taking shape as construction crews prepare it for an April 10 grand opening (11:30 a.m.) and an inaugural track and field meet the next day.

The second annual Wes Kittley Invitational on April 11 will bring the most high-powered full-team competition to campus since 1960, when ACU, the University of Michigan, Ohio State University and the University of Texas faced off in a quadrangular meet before a standing-room-only crowd. This year’s meet, which features ACU along with Texas Tech University and TCU of the Big 12 Conference, begins at 3 p.m.

Construction on the new stadium, which is shared with the Wildcat women’s soccer program, will still be a bit of a work in progress for its opening. And throwing events will take place across Ambler Avenue but all others will be held on the new running surface at the venue along Campus Court, north of Edwards Hall.

Gray Stadium’s full-pour polyurethane performance surface is purple and was installed by Beynon, whose handiwork can be seen in track and field stadiums at major universities throughout the Big 12, Big 10, Pac 12, Southeastern and Atlantic Coast conferences.

The stadium is one of five major building projects that are part of ACU’s $75 million Vision in Action initiative.

Watch this blog for construction updates and special features about ACU’s legendary track and field program – named “Texas Sports Dynasty of the Century” by Texas Monthly magazine in 1999 – and the old stadium where national champions and Olympians thrilled fans for generations.

ACU and Texas Tech will be joined April 11 by TCU in the biggest full-team track and field meet on campus in decades.

ACU and Texas Tech will be joined April 11 by TCU in the biggest full-team track and field meet on campus in decades.


McNeal headlines April 9 leadership seminar

Reggie McNeal 6x5 96Missional church leadership expert Dr. Reggie McNeal will be the featured speaker April 9 when CitySquare and Abilene Christian University’s Siburt Institute host a half-day Equipping for Ministry seminar in Dallas.

McNeal, author of Kingdom Come: Why We Must Quit Our Obsession Over Fixing the Church and What We Should Do Instead, will speak on “Developing Kingdom Leadership.”

The event runs from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at ACU at CitySquare (511 N. Akard St. in downtown Dallas, east of Interstate 35 and south of the Woodall Rogers Freeway).

The missional leadership specialist for Leadership Network, McNeal will examine the key success strategies for helping congregations move from church-centric to Kingdom-centric in their ministry. The philosophical change represents one of the most potentially transformative developments in church life in centuries of Christendom.

The cost to attend is just $40, which includes lunch. Enroll today on the Siburt Institute’s website to reserve your place.


10 Questions with country star Aaron Watson

Opry Circle 600x400 96

The circle onstage at the Opry is a cherished piece of country music history (Photo by Chris Holo / Holo Photographics Inc.)

The spotlight is pretty much the same shape as the well-worn piece of wooden stage underneath the WSM radio microphone at Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry, where Abilene Christian University graduate Aaron Watson (’00) is about to find out how it feels to step into country music’s most famous circle, literally and figuratively.

And he’s not nervous until you start talking about the icons of the industry who have preceded him.

Watson is feeling on top of the world and the music business, and with good reason. Earlier this month he became the first male independent recording artist to have the top-selling album in country music, and he has been featured in Rolling Stone, Texas Monthly, on National Public Radio and the front page of Nashville’s The Tennessean. He’s standing in tall cotton, as they say in these here parts of Texas, a place where he has put deep roots and built a loyal following of fans who aren’t the least bit surprised at his success. With 12 albums in the rear-view mirror over the past 15 years, he’s got the perfect analogy: “I tell people I’m not up and coming. I’m slow and steady,” he said.

We caught up with him recently as he prepared to make his Opry debut on Tuesday night, March 31. Joining him onstage will be Larry Gatlin, the Charlie Daniels Band, Pam Tillis, Easton Corbin and Eric Paslay. Gatlin, Daniels and Tillis are longtime members of the Grand Ole Opry, as once was Holly Dunn (’79).

MingleJingle13-158 6x6 96

Watson is a popular performer on the campus of his alma mater. (Photo by Paul White)

What music do you listen to on your tour bus and why?

I stumble onto artists and different bands I like. I recently met Drew Holcomb while performing at the Ryman in Nashville and think he has a really cool sound. I’m always looking for positive forms of music that inspire me as a writer and as a human being. And it’s important it be music I can listen to with my kids around. In other words, if my wife – Kim (Calkins ’01) – doesn’t approve of it, we don’t listen to it. Like nearly every guy my age I grew up listening to the Red Hot Chili Peppers and U2. And of course I have my Willie [Nelson], Waylon [Jennings] and Merle Haggard music, my Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt stuff. I listen not so much to the singers as the songwriters because I have more in common with them. Songwriters are more interested in the lyrics and tune, not the dance moves.

One of the lines from a song on your new album says “I’d rather be an old fencepost in Texas than the king of Tennessee.” How will you explain that to the good folks who invited you to Nashville, assuming they ask about it?

Growing up in Texas, I guess I’ve heard that saying all my life, so it’s not a big deal. When we were in Nashville recently for the annual Country Radio Seminar, a guy said, “If you’re not being played on mainstream country radio, you don’t exist.” I was recently interviewed by Rolling Stone magazine and the writer asked me how I’d respond to that. I said, “I guess I’d say, ‘My name is Aaron Watson and I don’t get played on mainstream radio but I’ve got the No. 1 album in country music.’

I love country music and country music is everywhere. Early in my career I went to Nashville numerous times and had the door shut in my face. But I had a dream and a passion for music and had to find a way to get noticed, and that was by being independent. That’s not a slam against Nashville; it’s just my story. My latest album is called “The Underdog” and I think that fits. I’ve been asked, “How are you doing this?” and I say, “I’m not, God is. If Jesus can walk on water, then making Aaron Watson have the No. 1 album is a walk in the park for Him. I give Him all the glory.” I try to stay focused on what matters most to me: my faith, my family and my fans. I’m in Nashville all the time; my booking agent is there, my record distribution is done in Nashville. But I’m a Texas guy. My momma lives in Texas and I’m a momma’s boy.

You recently performed in a gospel concert at the historic Ryman Auditorium. What was that like?

It was incredible. It’s the home of the original Grand Ole Opry, the mother church. It has more country music history than any other place in the world. To walk backstage and see pictures on the wall of Ernest Tubb and Elvis Presley and others; man, it was amazing. Most of all, my wife was there with me. So often, she has to stay at home with the kids, but to have her with me made it that much more special. She’s been there supporting me from the beginning, so I was more excited for all the people around me who have invested in me and believed in me before the music came along.

You are the third former ACU student to play the Opry (along with Ronnie Dunn and Holly Dunn). Whom have you asked for advice about this opportunity and what was their advice?

Well, now you’re making me nervous about the Opry thing by mentioning those two people and what they’ve accomplished. I’ve been doing this for 15 years and have played more than 2,000 shows. I haven’t asked for any advice about the Opry and think I’ll just stick to what’s got me this far: staying focused on faith and family. Play from the soul.

Most artists refer to their Opry debut as the highlight of their music careers. What thoughts are running through your head about standing behind the famous WSM microphone? 

I’m excited and thankful because this is a bucket list opportunity, but more excited for my little boys and the baseball games they have tonight. I get excited when it comes to being a daddy. So, I’ll get up on the stage and be genuine and be thankful. It’s an incredible honor and another great stage I can stand on and share my love for Jesus Christ. I have 20 other shows to play in April. There are people who will show up at each one of those and expect the same from me. To me they will be just as important as those at the Opry that night.

Assuming you can give a shout-out from the Opry stage to friends, fans and family, whom would you name and why?

My mom and dad for sure. This will be sort of a 40th wedding anniversary trip for them. I am who I am because of them. My dad exposed me to all those great vinyl records and music while growing up. And my mom was the one who would have slapped me in the back of the head if I wasn’t singing in church. The reason why I can carry a tune is because of singing at church. My parents gave me a wonderful start to life and encouraged me to chase my dreams. I also plan to sing a song I wrote for my wife.

Opry performances blend newer and established country music stars such as Trace Adkins and Loretta Lynn. (Photo by -______)

Opry performances blend newer and established country music stars such as Trace Adkins and Loretta Lynn. (Photo by Chris Holo / Holo Photographics Inc.)

The Opry is described by some as country music’s largest live jam session, both on stage and backstage. Whom do you most hope to meet while there?

So many of my music heroes have passed on, so I don’t know who I’ll meet there. When I played the Ryman recently, it was awesome to sit around and visit with Steven Curtis Chapman. Early in my career, I got to hang out with Willie Nelson and sing a song with him on stage (“Honky Tonk Kid”). So Willie kind of spoiled me. Actually, I’m more excited to be sharing the stage with Larry Gatlin that night than anyone else. He is from this part of West Texas and helped me get started in the business. I met him for the first time in a downtown Abilene coffee shop. People forget that I’m only playing for 15 minutes at the Opry. This will be my first time to ever see it live, and I’ve got a really great seat that night to watch. Afterward, I plan to hang out in the lobby and shake hands until they kick me out.

Texas music legend Ernest Tubb made history when he became the first musician to play an electric guitar at the Opry in the 1940s. What do you most want Nashville’s music industry to understand about Texans and the country music they make?

It’s pretty simple. I’m a country singer and very much a Texan. George Jones was from Texas. George Strait is from Texas. There’s a lot of great country music out there, played all over the world, not just in Nashville. I have a business to run and I can’t put my destiny in the hands of somebody who doesn’t know me, my daughter, my sons, my wife. I enjoy the freedom of being an independent artist from Texas and making my own decisions without somebody telling me what kind of jeans to wear.

Where in Texas do you enjoy playing most, because of its history or reputation or ambiance, and why?

My backyard or at my ranch in Buffalo Gap. It’s kind of like we say about church: it’s not the building, it’s the people. I most want to play where my wife and kids are.

Where are some of the oddest places you’ve written a song?

I wouldn’t call it odd but I like to go hunting and write while enjoying the peacefulness of the outdoors. I’m supposed to be looking for deer but I find myself on the iPhone instead. The truth is I’m always writing a song and working on the ideas that are in my head. I’m always jotting down things on a piece of paper. My wife knows me well enough that when she finds stuff written on the back of a receipt or a piece of cardboard, to just put it on my desk rather than throw it in the trash.


VIA News: Chambers’ generosity made a mark

E.D. Chambers was chair of ACU's Board of Trustees from 1942-43.

E.D. Chambers was chair of ACU’s Board of Trustees from 1942-43.

Although the building bearing the Chambers name is gone, the legacy of E.D. and Julia Chambers continues on.

Chambers Hall was demolished over Spring Break – the spot where it stood for 85 years now empty, awaiting a new chapter with construction of the Halbert-Walling Research Center. With attention turning to the future, let’s take a moment to appreciate the history of one of Abilene Christian University’s most generous families.

From 1929-45, E.D. Chambers was a member of the Abilene Christian College Board of Trustees, serving as its chair in 1942-43. But that long relationship began with an unexpected visit.

In 1928, two members of the board – J.E. McKinzie and J.C. Reese – traveled through rural West Texas, looking for families willing to support the college, which at the time was in near-constant financial trouble and planning to move campuses from downtown Abilene to the Hashknife Ranch northeast of town.

W.N. and Zona Luce had agreed to give 640 acres, and the trustees went to a bank in Spur, about 70 miles east of Lubbock, to close the deal.

Reese recalled the visit in an interview with Mae Robbins (’54) for her 1960 master’s thesis analyzing donations the college had received in its first 50 years.

A circa 1940s look at the library housed in Chambers.

A circa 1940s look at the library housed in Chambers.

“We asked Brother W.B. Lee, president of the bank, if he knew of anyone else who would be interested in helping Abilene Christian College in a similar way,” Reese told Robbins. “He suggested Mr. E.D. Chambers of Afton. We visited Mr. and Mrs. Chambers and told them of our need. He gave us a check and invited us to come back. We looked at the check later and found it to be made for $500.”

Adjusted for inflation, that would be the equivalent today of writing a $7,000 check.

That seemingly off the cuff, $500 gift quickly turned into much more. McKinzie and Reese went on to Amarillo, then swung through Afton on their way back to Abilene. Visiting again with Chambers, Reese recalled the rancher “said that he had 160 acres he wanted to donate to the college. Then he studied a minute and said that would leave a 40-acre jog so he would throw in the extra 40 acres, too, and he already knew a man who wanted to buy the land.”

The cafeteria was housed in Chambers until McGlothlin Campus Center opened in the late 1960s.

Catchings Cafeteria was housed in Chambers until McGlothlin Campus Center opened in 1968.

The family presumably sold the land because in 1929, ACU received $30,000 from E.D. and Julia Chambers – or nearly $412,000 in 2015 dollars. In return, one of the new campus’ original buildings was named Chambers Hall.

E.D. Chambers’ tenure on ACU’s board was bookended by significant gifts. Late in their lives, he and Julia established the Chambers Trust Estate, setting aside more than $150,000. Of that, $65,000 ($850,000 when adjusted for inflation) went to fund what became McKinzie Hall, with the remainder invested so that the returns would be split between ACU and church missions.

The gift was made in January 1945; E.D. and Julia Chambers died within a week of each other that July. The trust was transferred to ACU’s endowment in 1999, and it continues to award money for student scholarships today, 88 years after E.D. first pressed a check into the hands of Reese and McKinzie.


Wildcats playing NCAA’s top baseball teams

Sophomore first baseman Russell Crippen

Sophomore first baseman Russell Crippen

Wildcat fans who may still be in denial that Abilene Christian University is playing major NCAA Division I competition need to head to Crutcher Scott Field in April.

Kudos to head baseball coach Britt Bonneau, whose team plays in the historically strong Southland Conference, for not shying away from challenging the best competition in the Southwest.

Junior catcher Alex Copeland

Junior catcher Alex Copeland

Scheduling such heavyweights can be hard on the won-loss record but is part of the process of seasoning Bonneau’s team for future success, especially when ACU is surrounded geographically with premier programs across Texas, Oklahoma and Arizona.

This week’s current No. 4-ranked team, TCU, comes to Scott Field on April 6. The Horned Frogs of the Big 12 Conference have been ranked as high as No. 1 this season and have been to the College World Series twice in the last five years – 2010 and 2014. TCU won 48 games last year and the Big 12 title.

On April 14, Texas Tech University’s baseball team makes its first appearance on ACU’s campus since 1995. The Wildcats gave the Red Raiders, who played in the 2014 College World Series, all they wanted on March 3 when the two teams battled for 16 innings in Lubbock before ACU fell, 6-5. Tech was ranked No. 5 in the nation at the time.

Head coach Britt Bonneau and sophomore _______

Head coach Britt Bonneau and junior outfielder Heath Beasley

Earlier this week, ACU hosted No. 23 Dallas Baptist University at Scott Field. DBU is a member of the Missouri Valley Conference and a perennial power in college baseball with appearances in the NCAA regional tournament four of the past seven years. In the game Monday night, ACU matched the Patriots’ firepower after the first inning but couldn’t overcome an early 6-0 deficit and lost, 11-6.

The Wildcats have rematches with Texas Tech (April 21 in Midland) and TCU (April 22 and May 12 in Fort Worth), and play No. 1 Texas A&M University in College Station on April 15.

Later this season ACU plays at No. 11 Arizona State University (May 19 in Tempe) and No. 20 University of Arizona (May 21-22 in Tucson).

Underdogs frequently pull shockers in topsy-turvy collegiate baseball. ACU upset Arizona – the 2012 national champion and a power in the Pac 12 Conference – on their home field late last spring in Tucson.

Follow the Wildcats’ 2015 schedule here and make plans to attend the next game in Abilene or on the road this season.


VIA News: H-W groundbreaking scheduled

Newest renderings of Halbert-Walling Research Center show a yellow-tinted lecture hall dominating a glassed-in lobby reminiscent of other on-campus facilities, such as Williams Performing Arts Center and Hunter Welcome Center.

Newest renderings of the Halbert-Walling Research Center show a lecture hall dominating a glassed-in lobby, reminiscent of other on-campus facilities, such as Williams Performing Arts Center and Hunter Welcome Center. A rendering of Onstead Science Center, formerly Foster Science Building, stands to the right.

The campus transformation begun 13 months ago under the Vision in Action initiative continues next week, as crews break ground on the new Halbert-Walling Research Center.

ACU HW Interior 1The groundbreaking ceremony will take place at 11 a.m. next Tuesday, March 31, after which crews will begin constructing the 54,000-square-foot classroom and laboratory facility serving ACU’s biology, chemistry and biochemistry, and pre-health professions programs.

Halbert-Walling Research Center is named for David (’78) and Kathy (Gay ’78) Halbert, whose $15 million gift through their Caris Foundation was one of the three major contributions that will transform the ACU campus in a way not seen for 50 years, and for David Halbert’s grandfather, Dean Walling (’30), a former ACU trustee and chair of the Design for Development Campaign that led to the construction of numerous buildings in the 1960s and ’70s.

ACU_Aerial Perspective Looking East

An aerial rendering looking southeast shows Halbert-Walling Research Center situated south of Phillips Education Building and north of Nelson Hall, with Onstead Science Center at right and Gardner Hall in the background. The rendering includes a look at a reimagined quad for the campus’ south side.

Halbert-Walling is one of three science facilities to be built through the $75 million Vision in Action initiative. The Engineering and Physics Laboratories at Bennett Gymnasium have been completed, and crews continue to work on transforming Foster Science Building into Onstead Science Center. Across campus, the new Elmer Gray Stadium for soccer and track and field is on pace for an April 10 grand opening and Wildcat Stadium will be the first on-campus ACU football facility since World War II.

The groundbreaking for Halbert-Walling follows the demolition of Chambers Hall, the former residence hall, library, dining hall and academic facility whose piecemeal destruction can be seen via time-lapse video here. Halbert-Walling is scheduled for completion in Fall 2016.


Benny and the Jets: An NFL wedding at ACU

Boone is the radio-TV voice of the Wildcats

Boone is the radio-TV voice of the Wildcats

Daryl Richardson (’14) had 541 runs and catches in three seasons as a running back for the Abilene Christian University football team, and not once did he fumble. But when he took a knee last Dec. 31 in New York City, the ball dropped.

Displaying some of the same dramatic flair he flashed in a Wildcat uniform, Richardson – now with the New York Jets – proposed to his ACU college sweetheart from a horse-drawn carriage in the heart of Times Square on New Year’s Eve. Boom.

Daryl Richardson

Daryl Richardson

“He asked right before midnight,” says Morgan (Myrick 09) Richardson. “So right as I said ‘Yes,’ the clock struck 12 and immediately fireworks went off all around us. It was perfect.”

The fireworks first went off between the two in 2009: Morgan’s last year as an ACU undergrad; and the first for Daryl, who had transferred from Cisco College to follow in the footsteps of his brother, Bernard Scott (’10), the Wildcats’ all-time rushing leader. Morgan had organized a weekly mentoring program pairing ACU student-athletes with local at-risk youths. She remembers a particular October day in which Daryl agreed to take on an extra kid who didn’t have a player to pal around with. The boy, like Daryl, was a running back; but he didn’t have much to run in. His shoes were shot. So Daryl passed on to the youngster the cleats he’d been eagerly waiting a month to receive from Scott, who was in his rookie season for the Cincinnati Bengals.

Morgan witnessed what happened, and soon after they themselves were a pair.

“Something about that day,” she remembers. “I was like, ‘I’m going to end up marrying this guy.’ ”

Daryl and Morgan Richardson

Daryl and Morgan Richardson

She was right. Flanked by a phalanx of gridiron groomsmen, Daryl and Morgan married Saturday night in their alma mater’s Chapel on the Hill. Officiating the ceremony was Dr. Jerry Taylor, ACU associate professor of Bible and ministry, and one of their heroes in the faith. The wedding party, 30 in all, looked like an overdressed scrimmage. Daryl’s tuxedoed backfield included former St. Louis Rams teammates Steven Jackson and Benny Cunningham and his cousins and fellow Wildcat stars Clyde Gates (10) and Aston Whiteside (’12). Among the other current and former players there to cheer him on were Scott and ACU’s all-time leading passer Mitchell Gale (13) – both now with the Canadian Football League’s Toronto Argonauts – and Rams linebacker Alec Ogletree.

“Daryl has been so blessed with great people around him,” Morgan says. “I know so many guys go to the NFL and are surrounded by all these people who are going to get them in trouble and just want to party. But Daryl got there and God seriously looked over him and blessed him with the best people.”

Jackson’s hospitality was noteworthy because of the cutthroat nature of the NFL. The perennial Pro Bowl player and the Rams’ all-time leading rusher could have seen Daryl as a rookie trying to take his job and given him the stiffarm. Instead, he extended a hand of welcome.

Richardson and NFL teammates Steven Jackson and Benny Cunningham.

Richardson and NFL teammates Steven Jackson and Benny Cunningham.

“He’s a great guy,” Daryl says of Jackson. “He gave me the ins and outs of the NFL, a lot of knowledge. He’s always there for me when I need him. One thing he taught me is to take care of the people coming in under you.”

Which is what Daryl did in his second year in 2013 when Cunningham came in as a rookie after Jackson signed as a free agent with the Atlanta Falcons.

This season will be Daryl’s fourth in the NFL and the Jets, who signed him as a free agent in 2014, his second team. He spent all of last season on the practice squad – a reserve group of players available to a team as needed – but hopes new head coach Todd Bowles will give him a chance to prove himself. Which is fine. He’s used to it.

The Richardsons

Richardson proposed to Myrick on a carriage ride in New York City.

Daryl arrived in Abilene with the weight of expectations as the little brother of ACU’s greatest running back and left with arguably the best numbers of any Wildcat ball carrier not named Bernard Scott or Wilbert Montgomery (’77). He was the penultimate player taken in the 2012 draft (252nd out of 253) yet defied the statistical odds and made the Rams’ opening day roster. When Whiteside made the Chicago Bears practice squad the following year, it meant four family members – along with Scott and Gates (currently with the Tennessee Titans) – from the tiny Texas town of Vernon (population approximately 12,000) had reached professional football’s highest level in a five-year window. (That is the equivalent of the city of Abilene sending 40 high school players to the NFL in five years.) And last December, Daryl’s remarkable journey came full circle when he returned to ACU to join Gates as the only members of their family to graduate from college.

There is no way to know whether or not Daryl will make it back onto the Jets’ or any team’s active roster. As Morgan says from their experience, “The NFL is full of empty promises and broken dreams.” But keep an eye on Daryl Richardson. He has a way of quietly working his way into record books and rosters and horse-drawn carriages. Who knows? Maybe a new year in New York means more fireworks.


Leap of faith: West takes plunge twice

Boone is the radio-TV voice of the Wildcats

Boone is the radio-TV voice of the Wildcats

Forgive Whitney West if she didn’t quickly catch on to the fact that Tanner Swinford was asking her to marry him. She was a little wet behind the ears.

It was Sunday, Jan. 25, and the junior point guard on the Abilene Christian University women’s basketball team had just been baptized – along with Swinford – at Redeemer Church in Abilene when both were asked to say a few words to the group of family, friends and teammates there to cheer them on. Swinford went first.

Junior guard Whitney West

Junior guard Whitney West

A Lampasas, Texas, native who came to Christ after a knee injury cut short his senior season of high school football, Swinford spoke of wanting a faith that produces spiritual fruit and a love that could be expressed in speech and action. He meant every word. In fact, he meant more than every word. His testimony was actually setting a back screen for the big question he was preparing to propose. West never saw it coming.

“On this day that I’ve been given the opportunity to outwardly profess my faith in Christ through baptism,” Swinford said, “I would like nothing more than to outwardly profess and proclaim my love for Whitney through a marriage proposal.”

A perfectly executed pick and pop.

The assembled on-lookers gasped and squealed, but West still didn’t realize what was happening until Swinford pulled out the ring and got down on the same right knee that ended his football career and began his life of faith.

“I hate talking in front of people,” West admitted. “So the whole time he was talking, I’m freaking out about what I’m going to say. So I’m looking at him, but I’m not listening all the way. So he literally had to say, ‘Will you marry me?’ before I picked up on it.”

Picking up the question proved considerably more difficult than answering it. Yes.

West and Swinford first met in Spring 2013 at a Fellowship of Christian Athletes function for students from ACU, Hardin-Simmons University and McMurry University. Swinford had matriculated at McMurry, having rehabbed his knee strongly enough to earn a scholarship as a sprinter before transferring to HSU to finish his degree in fitness, recreation and sport management. But it wasn’t until a few months later that their relationship went to a higher level. Much higher.

In August, the two found themselves reunited a few miles west of Abilene at Butman Methodist Camp and Retreat Center. Swinford was there to complete his certification as a ropes course instructor. West, there as part of a team-building exercise planned by ACU women’s basketball head coach Julie Goodenough, was on the ropes, 30 feet above terra firma and firmly terrified. The daughter of a pole vault champion is scared of heights.

James Smith (Tanner's stepfather), Joann Davidson (Tanner's grandmother), Stephanie Smith (Tanner's mom) Tanner Whitney, Holli West (Whitney's mom) Greg West (Whitney's dad) Mackenzie West (Whitney's sister) Ben Hatcher (Whitney's grandfather) Ramona Hatcher (Whitney's grandmother) Wanda West (Whitney's grandmother), Marvin West (Whitney's grandfather)

FROM LEFT: James Smith (Tanner’s stepfather), Joann Davidson (Tanner’s grandmother), Stephanie Smith (Tanner’s mom), Tanner, Whitney, Holli West (Whitney’s mom), Greg West (Whitney’s dad), Mackenzie West (Whitney’s sister), Ben Hatcher (Whitney’s grandfather), Ramona Hatcher (Whitney’s grandmother), Wanda West (Whitney’ grandmother) and Marvin West (Whitney’s grandfather).

Depth, on the other hand, is a turn-on. As their crosstown, intercollegiate romance began the next month and blossomed in the following days and weeks, West was immediately impressed by Swinford’s character.

“I always have fun around him,” she said. “But I think the most attractive thing is his desire to become more like Christ every day.”

By the end of that fall semester of 2013, the two were an item. Swinford accompanied West’s family to Lubbock where the Wildcats were playing in a holiday tournament hosted by Texas Tech University. The weekend was like an early Christmas present, on and off the court. West made all eight of her free throws, including four in the final 20 seconds, as ACU earned a narrow victory over Jacksonville University then followed that up with a stunning upset of Tech the next day. Meanwhile, Swinford and West’s father, Greg, were exchanging a gift that keeps on giving.

“We’re both talkers,” said Swinford, “and we hit it off that weekend.”

It was a relationship each welcomed. Greg and his wife, Holli, have two girls, Whitney and younger sister Mackenzie, but no boys. Swinford has a father, but – for the last several years – no dad. His parents split up when he was in high school, and he has been estranged from his father ever since. Swinford is quick to say Greg has been careful not to overstep his role but has become a father figure anyway.

“A lot of people take it for granted when their dads text them encouragement before a game or a race. I never had that until Greg started sending me messages before my meets.”

One of the top collegiate vaulters in the 1980s at Southern Methodist University and then Texas A&M University, and now a vault coach, Greg West has reset the bar for Swinford on what a husband and father can be.

“He told me, ‘If you ever need anything, I’m here,’ ” Swinford said. “ ‘You and Whitney could break up tomorrow, and I wouldn’t take back anything I said.’ ”

None of this surprises Whitney West: “My dad is a big softie but doesn’t want anyone to know.” Oops.

Swinford had already bought the engagement ring when he flew down to visit with the family at their home in the small South Texas town of Portland in January of this year to ask for Whitney’s hand in marriage. Greg gave his blessing on one condition: Clear it with the coach.

“Whitney had told me she was getting baptized on Jan. 25,” Julie Goodenough said. “So when Tanner called to say he’d like me to be there, I told him our whole team had already planned to come. He said, ‘Well, I’m also going to ask her to marry me that day, and Greg said I need to make sure that’s OK with you.’ I laughed and told him he, of course, has my permission. I hope all of my players find someone like Tanner.”

As West and Swinford think about it now, having both big events on the same day makes perfect sense. Both had been baptized at earlier ages (West as a baby, Swinford while in middle school) but wanted to publicly profess their faith as adults. And what better metaphor for baptism and discipleship than a wedding and marriage?

Both the baptism and engagement apparently agreed with West. She made a splash in her first game after accepting Swinford’s proposal, burying a three-pointer with a minute left in the game to beat Houston Baptist University.

For someone who quit pole vaulting in high school because she didn’t like to find herself upside down, West’s world has been turned that way during her playing career at ACU.

By the time she finishes her senior season a year from now, West will have changed coaches (she was recruited by Goodenough’s predecessor, Shawna Lavender), positions (she’s played the point because it’s what her team has needed, though she’s better suited as a shooting guard), leagues (she was the 2013 Lone Star Conference Freshman of the Year before the Wildcats joined the Southland Conference), NCAA divisions, and soon last names.

As it was with her team’s move up in classification, so it shall be with West and Swinford: The II shall become I.

The wedding is set for Aug. 8 of this year at a pecan farm along the Frio River. If you think West’s feet will be frio, you’re nuts. She’s all in with Swinford. And this time when the question is popped, West will be ready.


VIA News: Follow construction on webcams

Want an eagle’s eye view of the various Vision in Action construction projects at Abilene Christian University?

You can follow along with the help of three webcams positioned to document progress.

This webcam (click on the image for a live view) follows the new Elmer Gray Stadium site as it prepares for grand opening on April 10 and the first track meet in the new facility: the second annual Wes Kittley Classic on April 11 featuring ACU, Texas Tech and TCU. In the distance you’ll see the new Track and Field Fieldhouse, to the left of the existing Soccer and Softball Fieldhouse. Demolition of the former Gray Stadium is scheduled to begin tomorrow:

Elmer Gray Stadium Webcam Screen Shot

This webcam (click on the image for a live view) shows initial work on the Onstead Science Center, which began with demolition of Walling Lecture Hall:

Onstead Webcam Screen Shot

This webcam (click on the image for a live view) follows the progress at the site for the new Halbert-Walling Research Center. Its footprint was made possible by recent demolition of Chambers Hall and the one-story Utility Building. In the background is historic Bennett Gymnasium, which is nearing the end of renovations to transform it into engineering and physics laboratories, and to the left is Phillips Education Building (formerly Burford Music Center):

Halbert-Walling Webcam Screen Shot

Watch a time-lapse video of the recent demolition of Chambers Hall by clicking on this image:

Time-lapse Demolition of Chambers Hall