Gameday in Stillwater

Lewis Field circa 1945, courtesy of Stillwater History Museum at the Sheerar Photograph Collections.

Story by Roger Moore

It is 7 a.m. on a September Saturday. A bunch of young, pre-teen Stillwater boys and girls get up early and head toward the Oklahoma State University campus to help prepare for a college football game day.

Long before Boone Pickens Stadium, the Sherman Smith practice facility, or the Wes Watkins Technology Center along Hall of Fame Avenue there once was a rather large parking lot. Before sellout crowds of 60,000 and parking all over central Stillwater, there were two “major” parking lots, one to the south and one to the north. In between sat Lewis Stadium, an aging facility named in honor of former dean of veterinary medicine Lowery Laymon Lewis.

And long before the twenty-first-century overabundance of game-day staff, endless concession stands, and hours upon hours of tailgating there was simply a football game. In 2018, college football Saturday is an event, a destination, a rock-concert-like evening and often a national television audience on one of the many cable channels available.

At 8 a.m., in preparation for the usual 1 or 2:30 p.m. kickoff – with no television audience – our young Stillwater group arrived at the corner of Washington and Hall of Fame. They were issued orange or yellow vests and put under the tutelage of a few twenty-somethings or maybe even a high school senior. Strategically stationed throughout the parking lot the wait began. A few hardcore football fans might arrive around 9 or 9:30, pull their pick-up or van into a spot backwards, unload some provisions, and proceed to hang out and do something called “tailgating” long before their time. A few times an alcoholic beverage might be opened and consumed by those hardcore football fans, getting ready for OSU-Wichita State or their Cowboys against the mighty Huskers.

Conversations, depending on the traffic, led to “what are OSU’s chances today” or “man, sure doesn’t seem like a lot of people are going to show up today.” There were years, like 1976 with Terry Miller carrying the ball and Charlie Weatherbie quarterbacking, when traffic increased. If and when the north parking lot was full (the south side was reserved for those season ticket holders and alumni) many of the pre-teens were released. Some, to make some extra cash, headed across the street and helped unload trucks filled with ice. In September, usually, it was not so cold. Later in the year, however, the volunteers to unload the ice trucks decreased. For a little more cash, young folks could volunteer to walk up and down the steep cement stairs with a heavy load of soft drinks in tow, if there was energy left from that 7 a.m. alarm.

After a two-and-a-half-hour college football game – with no television timeouts and 65-62 final scores, games were much shorter in the 1970s – most of the aspiring young football players found the neighborhood kids for late afternoon game where all imagined being their favorite player. For some it might have been John Corker or Philip Dokes; others chose Miller or maybe even punter Cliff Parsley or kicker Abby Daigle. Never heard a Derel Gofourth or a Burt Jacobson, but hardcore football fans knew who they were. Those who did not volunteer for ice truck duty, found a way, even without a ticket sometimes, to get into the tiny East end zone seating. It was still Gallagher Hall and there was no luxury seating. There was, however, plenty of areas for a nerf football toss and a game of tackle-the-man-with-the-ball during halftime. When the game was over, it was a big lean over the railing as our favorites walked up the ramp. Maybe a nasty sweatband, an elbow pad, or, believe it or not, a mouthpiece from one of the Cowboys were tossed our way. It was not quite Antiques Roadshow, but some of that memorabilia stayed with me well into my 30s.

And then, on Sunday morning, it was all about the local newspaper for pictures, stories, and the recap of an active Saturday in Stillwater.

This September, as the Cowboys start another season at one of the best stadiums in the country, they also welcome thousands upon thousands of fans for tailgating. A football Saturday is a spectacle, a full day of entertainment. Parking lots have been replaced and a festival atmosphere overtakes the area around the stadium. From Hall of Fame to McElroy, from Knoblock to Duck, from Duck to Main, there are football fans and professional tailgaters everywhere. It is doubtful that Mr. Lewis, or anyone else in 1914, knew exactly what the Athletic Field and the area around it would turn into. For a bunch of kids who grew up on Hester or Knoblock in the 1970s, they too had no clue what college football game day would become.

College football on a Thursday night? 6:30 p.m. or 11 a.m. kickoffs on a Saturday? Cowboy football competing for conference championships and thousands or orange-clad fans showing up four hours before game time? Say what you will, September in Stillwater means non-conference football and large amounts of optimism. A bit different from four decades ago.