70 years ago today, the East Texas State Lions took the field in front of 12,000 fans against regional rival North Texas State for the first game at Memorial Stadium on the campus of East Texas State University on a crisp fall evening. I wish I could tell you that our beloved Lions came out on top that night, but the Mean Green Eagles topped The Lions in their first game at the new stadium, a game in which the North Texas State, who would win the Lone Star Conference that year, asserted their dominance against a Lion team that would go 4-5-1 that year. That said, it was a rare loss at home statistically.
Before there was Memorial Stadium, College Field just east of the campus was where the Lions played their home games. However, East Texas State was becoming a national power, and a national power needed a new stadium. A facility with 10,000 west side seats, a modern press box, an olympic quality track and field set, 8 sets of powerful lights, and 2,000 east side seats completed this project that funded by the East Texas State Ex-Students Association and raised roughly half the money for the $300,000 needed to build the stadium. Side Note: To any and all of you snot nosed brats out there who might be reading this and responded to a certain facility being renamed by saying that “the alums did not matter in the input of naming or renaming buildings”, just remember THEIR MONEY PAID FOR IT.) Anyway, back to the story…..
The Stadium was dedicated that night before the game. Sam Rayburn, Speaker of the US House of Representatives and an ET alum was there, along with Walter Woodul, who had been the Lieutenant Governor of Texas from 1935-1939 and worked on projects to get current state Highway 24 as a route from Dallas to the Oklahoma border via Northeast Texas. A plaque was laid that day paying homage to the 60 plus East Texas State students who gave their lives during World War II.
It would not be long before the losses at home were a rare thing, in fact, it is that way right now. 72 percent of home games played have been won over the past 70 years.
I could talk about all of the improvements that have happened over the past 15 years. I could talk about a lot of things related to the hollowed ground, but Memorial Stadium is a special place to many of us. It is where I ran my first track meet in a large venue. It is where Russell witnsessed maybe the greatest defensive effort by a Lion team when they defeated rival and that year’s national champion, Texas A&I, 3-0. It is where on a bitterly cold day in late November of 1991, Billy Minor strapped up and bundled up and 3,000 dedicated Lion fans braved the 19 degree temperature to see the first NCAA postseason event hosted by our University as the Lions defeated Grand Valley State. Here are some of the most notable games in stadium history-
October 28, 1950-Lions win their first game at Memorial Stadium over Sam Houston State, 12-0.
November 7, 1953-Lions set a record for winning 26 straight games with a 39-0 win over Stephen F. Austin.
October 15, 1966-Ernest Hawkins defeats college football legend Gil Stienke and Texas A&I for Homecoming on a last second score to win 25-24. It was the first LSC title for Hawkins.
November 22, 1969-Led by QB Jim Dietz and the great Arthur James, East Texas State wins it’s 2nd LSC title in 4 seasons as Dietz hits George Daskalakes for a touchdown and then again for a 2 point conversion to defeat Stephen F. Austin, 36-35.
1972-Lions defeat # 1 Southwest Texas State 32-29, then host the NAIA National Semifinal Game, where they rout the new # 1 Central Oklahoma 54-0, and then defeat # 2 Carson-Newman for the NAIA Division I National Championship.
November 5, 1977-ET snaps rival Texas A&I’s 46 game winning streak by Tom Hay’s extra point with less than 2 minutes left in the game, defeating the Javelinas, 7-6.
November 3, 1979-The Lions hand Texas A&I their only loss of the season, a shocking 3-0 win over the eventual National Champion. (Note: Despite their dominance of the 1970’s against the LSC, A&I split the decade series 5-5 against ETSU, the best any LSC school did against A&I in that decade).
November 12, 1983-Ernest Hawkins clinches his 4th and final Lone Star Conference Championship with a 23-21 win over Stephen F. Austin.
October 23, 1988-Eddie Vowell’s Lions earn their top NCAA ranking in history by nabbing # 2 ranking by defeating Eastern New Mexico 28-13.
November 3, 1990-East Texas State clinches it’s first LSC titles in 7 years by defeating Angelo State 42-7 in Commerce.
September 14, 1991-The Lions snap another large win streak against another national powers as a goal line stand gives the Lions a win in front of one of the largest crowds in recent Memorial Stadium History by defeating # 2 Pittsburg State, 20-13.
November 23, 1991-On a windy and bitterly cold afternoon, The Lions defeat Grand Valley State in round one of the NCAA playoffs as Commerce hosts it’s first NCAA on campus event in school history.
September 4, 2014-Texas A&M-Commerce sets school, conference, and National records by defeating East Texas Baptist 98-20.
November 1, 2014-The Lions win their first LSC title in 24 years by defeating McMurry, 91-13.
October 10, 2015-In a battle of two ranked teams, ESPN comes to Commerce for their small college showcase as the Lions defeat Angelo State 38-35.
November 19, 2016-The Lions host their first National playoff game in 25 years by defeating Colorado-Mesa, 34-23.
November 4, 2017-An event that was a long time coming, the stadium is officially renamed “Ernest Hawkins Field at Memorial Stadium” after the legendary Coach Ernest Hawkins, just prior to the start of the game against Texas-Permian Basin. The Lions win 52-0, and the stadium has a new nickname, “The Hawk.”
December 9, 2017-The Lions punch their ticket to the National Championship game for the first time in exactly 45 years to the day they won the 1972 NAIA crown. It was the final home game for Coach Ernest Hawkins to witness, as he would pass away in January of 2018.
August 30, 2018-Preston Wheeler leads the Lions to a furious season opening comeback in 2 overtimes as the Lions defeat Texas A&M-Kingsville 36-35.
Since we last parted company at Memorial Stadium, the stadium has added some amazing features that make us proud, but we miss more than the bells and whistles. We miss the gentle and ever-present Blackland Prairie breeze. We miss the Oak and Hackberry tree lined walk to the stadium. We miss walking by Gee Lake before and after the games. We miss hearing the roll called after a win. We miss the way the sun sets on the west as the day ends, creating a beautiful sunset looking west to Dallas, and we miss being together as Lions.
Memorial Stadium, you unite us, you make us happy to see, you make us proud, and happy to be there. Happy 70th birthday, and here is to many more,