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So long Shotwell: A son of Abilene's reflections

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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. 

For a son of Abilene, P.E. Shotwell Stadium has always held a special place in my heart.
It was never the best. It was never the biggest. It certainly didn’t boast many of the most modern amenities. But it was our stadium. It’s where we went on Friday nights to watch the Eagles or Cougars and then on Saturday to watch the Wildcats.
I don’t remember the first time I saw a game in the stadium, but I remember a lot of the games I watched in the 57-year-old venue.
I remember as a boy of 7 years old being in the stadium on Oct. 16, 1976, when Ove Johansson kicked a world-record 69-yard field goal and Wilbert Montgomery broke college football’s all-time rushing touchdown record with the 67th score of his remarkable ACU career. Of course, instead of watching the game, I was undoubtedly playing one of the many games of “touch football” being contested on one of the berms on the north or south end of the stadium.

A couple generations of sons of Wildcats have played touch football on the grassy berms of Shotwell Stadium.
A couple generations of sons of Wildcats have played touch football on the grassy berms of Shotwell Stadium, as Nick Boone and Rex Fleming demonstrated in 2012.
So I can say I was “at” the game when those two things happened, but I can’t say I remember “seeing” either one of those plays.
I remember just about one month later watching Abilene High play Abilene Cooper as the teams slogged through a 14-0 Cougar win in a driving snowstorm that had already piled several inches of snow on the field by the time the game started.
I was there in 1977 when the Wildcats beat the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point in the NAIA Division I semifinals to earn a bid to the Apple Bowl in Seattle, Wash., where they beat Southwestern Oklahoma State University to win the national championship.
I remember the night in 1981 when the Eagles snapped Cooper’s 15-year winning streak, thanks in large part to the “Pekowski Special,” a guard-around play that helped the Eagles get off to a fast start and an early lead they never relinquished in a 17-7 win that freed the north side of town from the bonds of that divisive spell the Cougars held over the Eagles.
I remember watching my favorite college team – the ACU Wildcats – win big game after big game at the stadium, all in front of huge crowds on bright, sunny days that seemed to last forever. I remember Kelly Kent and Chuck Sitton. Jim Reese and John Mayes. Wilbert and Cle. Anthony Thomas and Boo Jones. Kurt Freytag and Mike Funderburg. Mark Wilson and Bob Shipley. Loyal Proffitt and Rex Lamberti. Mark Jackson and Arthur Culpepper. Dan Remsberg and Dan Niederhofer. Greg and Grant Feasel. And so many others.
I remember the coaches who prowled those sidelines on Saturdays and ate almost daily at my father’s barbecue restaurants, first The Smoke Pit on Highway 351 (where the Allsup’s is now, just west of the Coca-Cola plant) and later, Danny’s Bar-B-Q in the old gas station on Ambler Avenue in front of Bill Agnew’s Superette.
I would see those men in his restaurant when I was there either after school or working there in the summer. Men like Wally Bullington and Dewitt Jones. Ted Sitton and Don Smith. Jack Kiser and Dr. Bob Strader. Don Harrison and Jerry Wilson.
Those players and coaches are part of the memories of my youth, and many of those memories occurred in the confines of Shotwell Stadium.
I was fortunate enough to work for the Abilene Reporter-News for 10 years from 1987-97, and for the last five of those I was a full-time sportswriter covering Abilene High and Cooper athletics. That meant that most Friday nights I was either at Shotwell Stadium or one of the other venues in West Texas where the only thing hotter than the hot chocolate was the head coaches’ seat after a loss.
I was fortunate to cover several great games in Shotwell – including Cooper’s first home playoff victory in decades – as well as players like Dominic Rhodes, John Lackey, Ahmad Brooks and Justin Snow, to name just a few from the Abilene ISD. There were great players from other teams as well, like Roy Williams from Odessa Permian, Cedric Benson from Midland Lee, and many others.
I was there in 1993 when Cooper hosted Permian on a night when the temperature plummeted about 40 degrees 30 minutes before kickoff, turning a brisk fall evening into a frigid winter night. The wind – howling out of the north at about 40 mph – actually blew a PAT attempt into its teeth back onto the field of play in the Panthers’ narrow win over Cooper.
That night in the press box – which has never been outfitted with heating or air conditioning and still only has one restroom for men and women – ­the sleet, wind and cold weather combined to keep the windows of the press box fogged over so badly that we could barely see the field. So who spent the game wiping the windows in the press box so we could see the field? Legendary former Brownwood head coach Gordon Wood, because why wouldn’t he?
Rex Fleming was a constant companion of his father in Shotwell and stadiums across Texas.
Rex Fleming was a constant companion of his father in Shotwell and stadiums across Texas.
I was hired at ACU in August 1998 as the new sports information director after the great Garner Roberts resigned as SID after 25 years in the role. As an ACU journalism student from 1987-92, I had covered plenty of ACU football games for The Optimist, and I still believe Garner thought I was more trouble than I was worth as a student.
Thank goodness he took pity on me when I got the job here and showed me the ropes. It took about two years before I felt like I was approaching knowing what I was doing. Some would probably still question, even after 19 years on the job, if I know what I’m doing.
There have been many great games and great players roll through Shotwell during my tenure in ACU Athletics, some that won’t soon be forgotten. The 2002 Wildcats won a share of the Lone Star Conference South Division title out of nowhere under the direction of then-head coach Gary Gaines.
Then Chris Thomsen rolled back into town in January 2005 and the program changed completely. With offensive coordinator Ken Collums calling the plays, quarterback Billy Malone at the controls and a plethora of big-play players at their disposal, the Wildcats let loose the fury of a here-to-fore unseen offensive attack on the Lone Star Conference.
Games where the Wildcats posted as many as 50 points were commonplace with the likes of Bernard Scott, Jerale Badon, Johnny Knox, Mitchell Gale, Clyde Gates, Taylor Gabriel, Daryl Richardson, Darrell Cantu-Harkless and others roaming the field for the Wildcats. No one will ever forget the November day in 2008 when the Wildcats put up 93 points in a 93-68 win over West Texas A&M University in the NCAA Division II playoffs, a game that still stands the test of time as, arguably, the greatest in ACU history.
ACU senior quarterback Mitchell Gale stops to visit with his young friend before the Wildcats’ – and Rex's – final home game of the 2012 season.
ACU senior quarterback Mitchell Gale stops to visit with his young friend before the Wildcats’ – and Rex’s – final home game of the 2012 season.
On a personal note, I’ll not soon forget two days in the life of Shotwell: Saturday, Nov. 27, 2010, when the Wildcats hosted the University of Central Missouri in the second round of the NCAA Division II playoffs. Just five days before, my then-8-year-old son, Rex Fleming, had been diagnosed with a golf-ball size brain tumor and was going to be undergoing surgery the next week to remove what we would later learn was a cancerous tumor.
I couldn’t stand sitting at home, so I made my way out to the stadium where I found my comfort zone for about three hours. I hadn’t been at the office at all during the week after we learned of Rex’s condition, so my trusty assistant at the time, Phillip Dowden, along with Garner Roberts and Ron Hadfield, ran the press box for me that day. I stood on the sidelines, not able to muster the courage to be in the press box or stands and answer the hundreds of questions about Rex I knew were headed my way.
But one moment I didn’t expect nearly sent me scurrying for the nearest place for a long, quiet cry. As he walked onto the field, my friend Chris Thomsen walked over to me, wrapped me in a tight bear hug, said a few words and walked away with tears streaming down his face. We lost that day to the Mules, 55-41, but for the only time in my ACU career, I couldn’t have cared less.
The second day was Nov. 3, 2012, when Collums – who had become ACU’s head coach in December 2011 after Thomsen left for an assistant coaching job at Arizona State University – asked Rex to be in the pre-game locker room, call the coin flip, call the first play and stand on the sidelines with him for as long as he wanted during ACU’s final home game of the season against the University of West Alabama.
Rex’s play call of choice – the deep ball – went for a 33-yard completion from Gale to Gabriel on the first play of the game, and the Wildcats went on to a 22-16 overtime win. That turned out to be the last game of any type Rex ever attended. Five days later, he suffered a seizure that put him into hospice care and 22 days after helping coach the Wildcats to the win over the Tigers, Rex went home, cured forever of cancer.
I greatly anticipate the first game at Wildcat Stadium and can’t wait to see my team run out onto the field of a beautiful new facility that will be the best in the Southland Conference and one of the best at the FCS level. We’ll have plenty of amenities, including heating and air conditioning, and more than one restroom in the press box.
ACU head coach Ken Collums had Rex call his team's first offensive play in the Nov. 3, ____, win over West Alabama.
ACU head coach Ken Collums had Rex call his team’s first offensive play in the Nov. 3, 2012, win over West Alabama.
But the memories I leave at Shotwell aren’t negative. I spent a good portion of my youth there watching thousands of young men play a game we love and numerous great men I’m blessed to call friends coach those games.
So as I leave Shotwell Saturday night, I’ll take a look at the berms on each end and remember the good times and great friendships forged on those grassy hills.I’ll also take a look over at the fair grounds, close my eyes and see the lights of the West Texas Fair and Rodeo twinkling again, just like they’ve done during every September home game most of my life.
I’ll take a look at the scoreboard on the north end of the stadium and remember seeing the numbers “93” and “68” on the board and wishing we could have scored 100 against the Buffs.
I’ll take a look down the sideline and think about the great men and players who have roamed the home sideline for the past 57 seasons and I’ll ask them to make sure their ghosts make the drive north on Judge Ely Boulevard and take up residence at our new digs.
Then I’ll squint really hard and see if I can still see my boy, Rex, down on the sideline or running around under the stands with his friends – Jaden Bullington, Nathan Watts, Connor Mullins and others – playing their own games of touch football.
And, finally, I’ll take one last look around the place, hopefully feel a cool early November breeze against my face and thank the old yard for being such a good home.
Farewell, Shotwell.
Grant Boone (’__), voice of the Wildcats, works on his WC with Rex Fleming.
Grant Boone (’91), radio/TV voice of the Wildcats, works on his WC with Rex Fleming.