I’ve been watching football since I was a young boy. For years, my Dad and I were all over small towns in West Texas and the Panhandle, in stadiums big and small. There was one Friday night where the officials didn’t show up.
I’ve been fortunate. Of the Top 10 crowds in Kyle Field history at Texas A&M, I’ve been to about half. I’ve seen games at Jones Stadium in Lubbock, Darrell K. Royal in Austin, Texas Stadium in Dallas, The Astrodome, and NRG in Houston. I’ve literally spent all day on a Saturday in Floyd Casey Stadium in Waco watching TAPPS private schools play a single site State Championship game(I still don’t think my wife has forgiven me for that one!) From crowds of over 100, 000 to a six man game where farmers pulled their pickups right next to the fence surrounding the field, and had a true tailgate, I’ve enjoyed the best football that the State of Texas has to offer. There’s one, though, that stands out above all the rest.
In a little town called Commerce, there is an average looking little stadium that holds around 15,000 or so. There’s not much that really draws the eye. It’s sort of like what is said about the Aggie Spirit of Texas A&M-College Station…..
“From the outside looking in, you cannot understand it. From the inside looking out, you cannot explain it.”
You stroll in, and these days, Memorial Stadium is a gem. Large, modern digital scoreboard. Beautiful artificial turf with that enormous Lion head. Stands on both sides(for those of us older alums, that is something else.) Very nice looking locker room facilities. All weather track surrounding the field.
It wasn’t always that way. There are many former students and players that remember the dusty cinder track, natural grass, and a scoreboard that looked like it belonged at an auxiliary middle school stadium. It belied the heart, soul, toughness and talent that made it into one of the most difficult stadiums for a road team to win at. It took a special man to make it all come together and hum like a well oiled machine, and Ernest Hawkins was that man. It boggles the mind to think of the level of success he would have achieved given the quality of facilities we have today.
I’ve said this many times before, but there is something magical about afternoon kickoffs here. From the familiar strains of the fight song and alma mater, the way the sun falls behind the home stands and casts that shadow, to the superb pregame and tailgate experience, it is a true first class experience.
There are two games from my time in Commerce that stand out. The first-it was the 1979 season, and Kingsville came to town(or as my colleague Billy Minor refers to them, the piggies!). The Javaelinas were a good football. I mean, really good. We were in for a tough battle. And what a battle it was. A true defensive struggle. The Blue Gang was masterful. Led by such talent as Brian Barnes, Curtis Ray, Jimmy Buster, Kennis Miles, Danny Kirk, Brian Jackson, and Anthony Freeman, there was none better this night. The defense just decided that the Piggies were not going to score. At all. Every yard was contested. They were perfect on this night.
And they had to be. Plagued by costly turnovers and penalties, the Lion offense sputtered all night. Wade Wilson, Cary Noiel and company showed flashes of brilliance, but just never could quite put it all together. After one particular series of downs in which the Lions fumbled inside the Kingsville 10 yard line, Coach Hawkins finally lost his cool. He said to Coach Boley Crawford….
“If we get down there again, I’m kicking the darned thing!!!”
To the average fan, it doesn’t seem like much, but for those of us who knew Coach Hawkins, that was like an erupting volcano.
Well as fate would have it, the Lions, with the running of Cary Noiel, were able to get down inside the Piggie 20 yard line one more time, and true to his word, Coach Hawkins called for the field goal.
And that was it. 3-0. Probably the hardest fought game I’ve ever seen. It was Lion Football.
The second, however was not as joyous. In 1980, the Lions had a real chance to win a National Championship. Having defeated top ranked Central Arkansas the week before, the semifinals, and Elon College, were coming to Commerce.
The Lions were in top form. Wade Wilson was at his peak. The offensive line was big and quick. The running game was anchored by Ted Sample and Cary Noiel. Ron Trammell provided speed and big play ability on the outside, and Randy Smith was an outstanding possession receiver. The defense returned many of the same people, and were as tough as nails. They took giving up a score personally.
Elon College had one of the most prolific rushers in the country. It promised to be a great game, but one that the Lions should have one.
Should have…..in contrast to the joy of other days and other success, like the 1979 A&I game mentioned above, this one of the most heartbreaking. Despite a great defensive performance, the Lion offense just never could get going. Bad breaks, turnovers, and just a general “off day” contributed to a 13-6 loss that just hurt. There is no other way to describe it other than pain and frustration. The Lions knew in their heart that they were the better team that day. Knowing it, however, and what the scoreboard shows at the end of the game, are two different things. It was a feeling of “we were almost there”. “If we had just…” . “If we had five more minutes…”. For those of us that were there then, both players and students, it was something in the back of your mind, and an ache that just never would go away……
That is, until this past December. On another beautiful, albeit, cold, Saturday afternoon, this time, the Lions did not come up short. A 31-17 victory erased all those bad feelings and frustrations. I had the fortune to catch up to Blake Cooper after Calling The Roll, and just taking it all in with my family. There were no words, just knowing smiles, and an embrace that said it all:
Joy. Heartache. The highest of highs and lowest of lows. This place has seen it all. So many great players, so many great moments.
At Home. In Commerce. In The House That Hawk Built.