EDITOR’S NOTE: This Saturday at 6 p.m., Abilene Christian University will play its last home football game at Shotwell Stadium. The historic venue will carry on as the place where Abilene and Abilene Cooper high schools play, but next fall ACU moves into new Wildcat Stadium for its first season of on-campus football in more than 50 years.
- SO LONG SHOTWELL: A son of Abilene’s reflections – by Lance Fleming
- SO LONG SHOTWELL: A view from the sideline – by Ron Hadfield
- SO LONG SHOTWELL: The greatest show in town – by Garner Roberts
- SO LONG SHOTWELL: Mud, sweat and tears – by Grant Boone
I was not born around these parts, and have no natural affinity for P.E. Shotwell Stadium, whose namesake was Prince Elmer Shotwell, also known as “Pete,” a Texas football-coaching legend.
Shotwell looks like other mostly concrete high school gridiron venues I have seen before in Texas. It also has a certain charm about it, and some engineering features not everyone has seen, like a restroom with a strategically placed window down the hall in the press box, allowing 99.9 percent privacy as well as a fine view of the game below. Say what? It’s hard to explain but one need not worry about answering the call of nature and missing a play.
I am one of the fortunate fellows invited to help staff the press box at home ACU football games, a privileged view of the action I don’t take for granted. It’s not really a box and not everyone present is a member of the press, but there is no cheering in this upper room, at least in the professional press boxes at Shotwell run through the years by ACU sports media icons Lance Fleming and his Hall of Fame predecessor, Garner Roberts, who help keep the statistics team running smoothly and media guests happy.
The Shotwell press box has no central air conditioning nor heat, so there are several games each season when we experience some combination of spring, summer, fall and winter, depending on the wind direction. That makes it a great place to get a snoot full of mountain cedar, the most pristine puffs of West Texas pollen one can inhale at those lofty heights each fall. It also is a fine place to have your ankles chewed on by mosquitoes with stingers long enough to penetrate two layers of socks.
But I’m not complaining. The fellowship and swapped stories are priceless, and the food serving as our compensation (mostly barbecue with some chicken fajitas thrown in for good measure) is mighty tasty. Oh, and there are those purple thumbprint cookies as they are called in these parts.
I was spoiled by a couple seasons of writing about some really fine college football when I first transferred to ACU as a junior in Fall 1976. That was the last Wildcat team with Wally Bullington as head coach, and he had a stable of good-enough-to-play-on-Sunday talent – Wilbert and Cle Montgomery, Johnny Perkins, Ove Johansson and Chuck Sitton – on his roster. They finished 9-2 and runner-up that season to mighty Texas A&I University, that era’s football-playing Babylonians of the Lone Star Conference. The Wildcats advanced to play in the Shrine Bowl in Pasadena (Texas, not California; rats) before Wilbert, Johnny, Ove and others headed to NFL training camps the next summer.
How good was the football? A&I was the only LSC team with more annual potential pro talent than ACU and only one team other than the Javelinas or Wildcats won the NAIA Division I national title from 1973-79. ACU ended A&I’s 42-game winning streak with a disputed 25-25 tie in 1977, and both programs had amazing pedigrees of producing pros – better than many universities much larger and more well known.
As sports editor of The Optimist in 1976-77 and editor the next two years, I liked to stand on the home sideline for a closer view of the action and an insight to help write the game story. It proved a great angle to catch these memories:
Johansson’s world-record 69-yard field goal on Oct. 16, 1976, which still stands as the best a mortal has ever kicked in game competition. I had experience as a fan with long-distance field goals, having watched my hometown Detroit Lions fall to the awful New Orleans Saints in 1969 on a last-second 63-yarder by Tom Dempsey, who was born with half a foot and only one hand. He booted that NFL record kick (six yards longer than the previous, which made it that much more shocking) wearing a special-made high-top shoe, sort of like a club or mallet into which he laced up his half-foot. Pro Bowl tackle Alex Karras of Detroit promised he would walk home to Michigan if the Lions lost to the lowly Saints in the road game. He didn’t, of course, but I have a soft spot in my heart for teams deflated by such mighty feet. East Texas State players trudged off the field after Johansson’s kick, hands on hips and heads bowed while the Wildcats celebrated at midfield and the crowd went wild. They may as well have loaded onto their bus and headed back to Commerce, knowing ACU only needed to reach its 41-yard line to be in scoring position, effectively the largest “red zone” known in the sport. They and their collective psyche were toast.
Wilbert Montgomery’s last collegiate season offered fleeting glimpses of the immense talent he possessed to run with a football. One opposing coach described his team’s effort to tackle No. 28 as “old men trying to catch a jackrabbit.” Wilbert broke Walter Payton’s career college touchdown scoring record the same day as Johansson’s field goal in 1976, yet it took him three seasons to double the amazing 36 TDs he scored in 1973 as a freshman on ACU’s national championship team. Targeted by defenses on every play, he suffered a deep thigh bruise in a game in Wichita Falls with Cameron University on Nov. 6, 1976. He recovered after his senior season, was drafted in the NFL’s fifth round and went on to a record-breaking career with the Philadelphia Eagles, and induction the same year (1996) as fellow Mississippian Payton to the College Football Hall of Fame. Montgomery was still hobbled by that thigh injury and did not play in the 1976 season-ending Shrine Bowl against Harding University, likely an answer to a lot of pre-game prayers among the Bison brethren in Searcy, Ark. The Wilbert-less Wildcats still beat ACU’s sister school handily and haven’t had a rematch since.
- A cold 1976 night in late October, I watched quarterback Jim Reese throw for what is still a school-record 564 yards in a 26-0 win over Angelo State University. It had rained heavily that week in Abilene, and what was left of the brown Bermuda grass in Shotwell was skimpy at best. It was a muddy quagmire in places, and I still have no idea how any of Reese’s receivers maintained enough traction to run routes. But they did, and perhaps were the only fellows on the field that night who knew in advance where they were headed.
I saw a Cameron University player leave the bench to trip Wildcat halfback Alex Davis as he was running free down the visiting team’s sideline Sept. 24, 1977, in Shotwell. The player, a drink in one hand and his helmet in another, stepped onto the field, stuck out his leg and felled Davis in clear view of one of the officials. They awarded Davis a 52-yard touchdown and ACU continued its 46-13 dismantling of the visiting Aggies.
- Kelly Kent, the aw-shucks, country-boy sophomore fullback of the 1977 national championship team, suffered an embarrassing moment in a home game one afternoon in Shotwell. Running with the ball toward the south end zone in front of his team’s bench, a would-be tackler reached for anything he could to stop The Cisco Kid, as Abilene Reporter-News sportswriting legend Bill Hart referred to Kent. The opponent came up with mostly air and a handful of the elastic waistband of Kelly’s athletic supporter. Undaunted, Kent continued downfield while that key piece of equipment unraveled for yards behind him. Once the play was over, Kent headed to the locker room with a trainer to look for replacement gear. The laughter from his teammates continued for most of the game.
Later that season, Kent ran for 200 yards in ACU’s national semifinal win over the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point in Shotwell. The visitors from up north had a first-team All-America quarterback, Reed Giordana, who had thrown for 10,000 yards and 74 touchdowns in his career. The poor fellow spent a good bit of the afternoon on his back, counting clouds after a sack or knock-down by Wildcat defenders like Ruben Mason, Ray Nunez, Harold Nutall, Glenn Labhart and others. Kent was named Offensive MVP of that game and the Apple Bowl which followed. Not a fan of air travel, he kept his mind off things by reading his Bible from his back row plane seat on the long return flight to Abilene. A little more than a year later, he died suddenly of a heart attack at the age of 21.
- The Wildcats won the national championship in 1977 with an 11-1-1 record, their tie taking place in Kingsville to No. 1-ranked Texas A&I and their only loss occurring at Homecoming in Shotwell the following week to longtime nemesis Angelo State. First-year ACU head coach Dewitt Jones righted the ship and led the Wildcats to the Apple Bowl and their title in the Kingdome in Seattle, Wash. I was on the sideline and it was a superb roller coaster ride of a season.
The food is always better in the press box but the on-the-field view will always be a fascinating angle from which to follow a game and gain the insights few fans get to see. I enjoyed the vista.
Many seasons have passed since the Wildcats’ heady days of the mid- to late-1970s when they were a small-college powerhouse. NCAA Division I and FCS are creating some growing pains for ACU football, but pro scouts still know to stop in Abilene each year for a look at the next Charcandrick West, Taylor Gabriel, Daryl Richardson, Bernard Scott, Clyde Gates, Mitchell Gale, Aston Whiteside, Tony Washington and others.
However, the sideline is no longer a place for a sportswriter who is pushing 60 (and pushing it really hard), with tight hamstrings, slowing reflexes and a distracting iPhone in his pocket. A fellow down there on Saturday without his head on a swivel could wake up in Hendrick Medical Center on Monday, or perhaps not at all.
I’ll take my spot for a media-row view in the last game in Shotwell this Saturday, and like my similar-age teammates there, look forward to an upstairs seat in Wildcat Stadium next September. It will have carpet, central air and heat, a loo without a view, and other amenities beyond anything experienced at the venerable stadium on East South 11th Street we’ve shared with local high schools since Eisenhower was president.
I’m convinced there are more memories to make, records to set, wins to describe, trophies to hoist. So make me a brisket and sausage sandwich, pour some sweet tea, login to the wifi and let’s get the 2017 edition of an on-campus, home-sweet-home football show on the road.
See ya, Shotwell. I’ll leave my can of bug spray on the counter and the bathroom window open, conveniences only a sportswriter in West Texas might appreciate.