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So long Shotwell: Mud, sweat and tears

A birds-eye view of Shotwell Stadium in 1961.
A birds-eye view of Shotwell Stadium in 1961.
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. 

Bill Locke was a Wildcat fullback.
Bill Locke was a Wildcat fullback.
There is nothing special about Shotwell Stadium. Never has been. It’s a pair of parallel concrete seating structures in a barren patch of a nondescript landscape. But the men who have played and coached football there for Abilene Christian University and the magic they’ve made? That is another story entirely.
ACU’s 57-year history at Shotwell began with a delay of game. After using Fair Park as their home field for a dozen years after World War II, the Wildcats were scheduled to host Lamar University (then called Lamar Tech) on Oct. 3, 1959, at the brand-new facility originally known as Public Schools Stadium. But a downpour that Saturday soaked the city and the stadium’s natural grass surface. So to keep the new sod from being trampled under the heavier foot of college-sized players, the game was moved to the old digs at Fair Park where the Wildcats lost to Lamar, 8-7, on what Optimist reporter Royce Caldwell called “a sea of mud.”
Three straight road games followed on the 1959 schedule, pushing the Wildcats’ debut at Shotwell back to a rather oxymoronic Homecoming date with Trinity University as alumni came home to a place they had never been. Playing what lineman and punter Thurman Neill called “good ole southern football” (“We punted, played it rugged on defense and watched for a break,” Neill said afterward), ACU turned back Trinity, 13-12, getting its tenure at Shotwell off on the right foot. Or feet, specifically those of Neill, who dropped two punts inside the Tigers’ 10-yard line and recovered a fumble in the end zone for a touchdown, and Bill Locke, who scored the other touchdown on a 7-yard run and whose extra point kick provided the winning margin.
ACU found its new home turf to its liking in those early years, going 17-6 at home from 1959 through 1964, including a perfect 5-0 record in 1963 when the Wildcats won their last eight games of the season. The overall win streak stretched to 10 into the second game of 1964 with a 17-11 victory over Texas A&M University-Commerce that saw running back Dennis “The Menace” Hagaman scurry around a soggy Shotwell for a season-high 126 yards, highlighted by a 50-yard touchdown burst and a 32-yard gallop on fourth down to help seal the deal.
That 1964 season was the first football campaign for the brand-new Southland Conference, which ACU co-founded after seven years as an independent. The Wildcats’ first Southland game at Shotwell was a 21-7 loss to Arkansas State University that also was noteworthy for the number of passing yards the home team accrued that day: zero. Six years later to the day, all-America ACU quarterback Jim Lindsey would set a conference record with 414 passing yards and earn a write-up in Sports Illustrated.
Wilbert Montgomery and Clint Longley helped the Wildcats win the 1973 NAIA Division I national championship.
Wilbert Montgomery (left) and Clint Longley helped the Wildcats win the 1973 NAIA Division I national championship.
For a town famously and historically dry – in more ways than one – the skies above Shotwell seemed frequently open when the Wildcats were there. In addition to the aforementioned deluges and drizzles, there was the game on Oct. 30, 1976, that Abilene Reporter-News reporter Art Lawler described as a mud pile. Jim Reese was in hog heaven as he threw for what remains an ACU-best 564 yards in a 26-0 rout of Angelo State University. Incredibly, Reese needed just 26 completions to reach that record total as Gary Stirman, Johnny Perkins and Wilbert Montgomery each had more than 100 receiving yards.
But that wasn’t the most memorable game ACU ever played at Shotwell. In fact, it wasn’t even the most memorable that month. The one right before it, a 17-0 Homecoming decision over Texas A&M-Commerce, featured not one, but two record-setting performances. Late in the first quarter, Ove Johansson kicked a 69-yard field goal, which 40 years later is still the longest in football history. In the second quarter, Montgomery passed Walter Payton as college football’s all-time touchdown leader.
The Purple and White’s head coach at the time, Wally Bullington, lost his first game patrolling Shotwell’s sidelines but not many more. A lineman and punter on the Wildcats’ undefeated team in 1950, Bullington took over the program in 1968 and brought with him his former teammate Ted Sitton as offensive coordinator. Together, they ushered the modern passing game into this corner of the college football world where teams generally ascribed to the old adage that only three things can happen when you throw the football, and two of them are bad.
Riding the rocket right arms of Lindsey, Clint Longley and Reese, Bullington won more games at Shotwell (35) than any other ACU head coach, including a perfect 6-0 home mark in 1973 when the Wildcats joined the Lone Star Conference and won the NAIA national championship. Bullington will put a headset back on to help me call ACU’s final game ever at Shotwell this Saturday against Northwestern State University, the school he beat in his first game as the Wildcats’ coach.
Rex Lamberti wrote a remarkable comeback story in his final season as a Wildcat in 1992, having sat out for ____ seasons.
Twenty-seven-year-old quarterback Rex Lamberti wrote a remarkable comeback story in his final season as a Wildcat.
In the spirit of ACU’s great track and field teams, Bullington passed the baton in 1977 to another former Wildcat player, Dewitt Jones. After going 11-2 at Shotwell as a tight end, Jones’ record in two seasons as head coach was 12-1. It included a 35-7 playoff victory over the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point on Dec. 3, 1977, that sent the Wildcats on to the NAIA national championship game in Seattle, which they won.
Sitton took over for Jones, and Wildcat quarterbacks continued to sling it around Shotwell as ACU and the Lone Star Conference moved from the NAIA ranks to NCAA Division II. Under Sitton’s tutelage, Loyal Proffitt was the LSC’s Freshman of the Year in 1981 and a four-year starter. And on Oct. 29, 1983, at Shotwell, he completed an ACU-record 35 passes and threw for 466 yards and three touchdowns in a 24-10 win over Stephen F. Austin State University, perhaps proving a Proffitt isn’t always without honor in his own hometown.
Odessa native Rex Lamberti took the reins of the ACU offense in 1985, and the Permian High School product brought his own brand of mojo to Shotwell Stadium, off and on, for nearly a decade. In his first two seasons as a starter, Lamberti threw 56 touchdown passes, a then-team record 32 of them coming in 1986. Proving you can go home again, Lamberti was coaxed out of retirement in 1993 by first-year head coach and former Wildcat player Dr. Bob Strader. At the age of 27, Lamberti led ACU to its first winning season since his last year in 1986 and earned all-America honors by tossing 28 more touchdowns to finish as the program’s all-time leader.
A standout tight end for ACU, Chris Thomsen late became head coach of the Wildcats' most dominating offenses in school history.
A standout tight end for ACU, Chris Thomsen later became head coach of some of the Wildcats’ most prolific teams in school history.
Eight of Lamberti’s scoring strikes in 1993 were caught by 24-year-old tight end Chris Thomsen, another jurassic classic Strader excavated that year. Thomsen had played three years at TCU then a couple of seasons in the Oakland A’s minor league system before returning to football at ACU and, like Lamberti, being named all-America. He stuck around Abilene as an assistant coach under Strader and Jack Kiser from 1994-99 and, after assistant positions at Wichita Falls High School and the University of Central Arkansas, Thomsen was named ACU head coach in 2005. Like Bullington with Sitton nearly 40 years before, Thomsen brought with him a secret weapon and quarterback guru in brother-in-law and UCA offensive coordinator Ken Collums. The pair would turn Shotwell Stadium artificial turf into a virtual video game screen.
In 2007, the Wildcats led the nation in scoring with 49.2 points per game and were second in yards per game. In 2008, they were tops in both categories and produced the first unbeaten regular season since 1950, capping it at Shotwell with a 47-17 rout of Midwestern State University.
What happened next remains nearly impossible to describe almost a decade later. A month after ACU whipped West Texas A&M University, 52-35, on the road, the archrivals met again Nov. 22 at Shotwell in a second round playoff game. With more than a half dozen future pros on the field in what looked like a small-college NFL combine, ACU scored 13 touchdowns in 15 possessions and won, 93-68, obliterating most every scoring record in NCAA history and even outscoring the Wildcat men’s basketball team, which needed two overtimes later that evening to reach 90. Billy Malone threw touchdown passes to six different receivers, leaving Shotwell as ACU’s all-time leader in touchdown passes with 114.
Few tacklers caught running back Bernard Scott during his record-setting career.
Few tacklers caught Bernard Scott during his career, which including winning the Harlon Hill Trophy as the best player in NCAA Division II.
Under Thomsen and Collums, the Wildcats’ final seven seasons in NCAA Division II produced six playoff appearances and one pro after another, including Danieal Manning, Bernard Scott, Johnny Knox, Clyde Gates, Daryl Richardson, Charcandrick West, Aston Whiteside, Taylor Gabriel and Mitchell Gale, who ended his ACU career as the school’s and the Lone Star Conference’s all-time leading passer with 12,109 yards.
Collums took over for Thomsen in 2012 and, facing hurdles no Wildcat sprinter – much less head football coach – had ever seen, continued to churn out record setting performances and quality young men.
Johnny Knox was a speedy, dynamic wide receiver who went on to star for the Chicago Bears in the NFL.
Johnny Knox was a dynamic wide receiver who went on to star for the Chicago Bears in the NFL.
In 2013, ACU began its four-year transition to Division I FCS (football championship subdivision, formerly I-AA) with a bang, pummeling Concordia (Ala.) College at Shotwell, 84-6, as John David Baker fired a program-best seven touchdown passes in his first career start.
ACU’s final game at Shotwell Saturday will be its last in Abilene of this tedious transition to Division I, meaning the debut at Wildcat Stadium on campus next September will be the first home game in which the Wildcats are finally eligible to make the FCS playoffs.
They say home is where the heart is. And while Shotwell hasn’t been much to look at or even remotely whispered to passersby or guests that it is the home of the Wildcats, it is for better or worse where 12 ACU head coaches, scores of assistants and hundreds of players have left their hearts. For that reason alone, a small piece of our hearts, along with a huge chunk of our history, will always be there.
Charcandrick West was a speedy, tough running back who led the NFL's Kansas City Chiefs to the 2015 NFL playoffs and continues to shine this season.
Charcandrick West was a speedy, tough running back for the Wildcats who led the NFL’s Kansas City Chiefs to the 2015 NFL playoffs and continues to shine this season.