It was like going through an old trunk, hidden away in a dusty attic. The big steps leading to the entrance to historic Gregory Gymnasium had seen their travelers…folks trekking up them for everything from a Louis Armstrong concert to 50 or so years of basketball memories.
But underneath the steps, hidden between a stockade-type wooden door on the south end and a barred open window on the north, was a store room full of relics of Texas athletics history. And that is where our story begins.
Eighty years ago, Texas students had dared to dream.
The idea of a concrete stadium to replace the wooden bleachers at old Clark Field actually had been stirred the year before, when Athletics Director L. Theo Bellmont had held a meeting with 30 student leaders at the University cafeteria. That prompted a general meeting of the entire student body, and from there the idea went to the Board of Regents.
The cause was two-fold. First, it was to built a facility the likes of which had not been seen in this part of the country. And second, it was to honor the 198,293 Texans who served in what was then called "The Great War" — World War I. It was especially dedicated to the 5,280 Texans (many of whom are recognized on the big plaque at the north end) who died in that war.
It would be named Texas Memorial Stadium, to honor all Texans, not just those who went to The University of Texas. And it would be the students who would lead the effort. The first phase of the $500,000 subscription goal was the campus drive.
On a hillside east of Waller Creek between 20th and 23rd Streets, on a 13 acre tract, they set the stakes. Dynamite blasted away the rock; horse-drawn equipment hauled the dirt away. A 27,000 seat stadium was their goal, and they vowed to finish it by Thanksgiving, 1924.
Excavation began the first of April. Seven months later, on November 6, 1924, Texas played Baylor in the very first game, before a crowd of 13,500. Just as they had planned, the stadium would be dedicated a few weeks later, when a record 33,000, including folks in bleachers at the north and south end, watched Texas beat Texas A&M, 7-0.
The original construction included just the east and west stands, and though it has been remodeled several times, that core of the stadium remains. Extensions, supports, upper decks, stadium suites have all been part of the metamorphosis. When the current construction was planned in the mid-1990s, Darrell Royal agreed to allow his name to be added to the stadium name. But it was only with the expressed stipulation that "Texas Memorial Stadium" would always remain as a tribute to those Texans who have served in all wars.
But while the historic meaning of the stadium hasn't changed, there have been a few changes and additions that were completely necessary. When the most recent construction was undertaken, there was an odd requirement that had to be met before any of it could be done.
The modern facilities of any stadium required more restrooms, and the current planners were all for that. But they had to spend $1.5 million first. The basic stadium sewer system, built for the times in 1924, could handle only so much. So you could add restrooms and toilets, but you couldn't count on the flush to go anywhere.
So there was that moment in the 1990s, when the sewer lines had been replaced, that athletics department employees were dispatched to the restrooms throughout the stadium, and they all flushed simultaneously on cue to make sure the repairs were adequate.
That done, the builders went about the business of revamping the stadium to accommodate the needs of the 21st century.
In the new era, Mack Brown and his Longhorns have done their part to add to the legacy. The victory over Rice last Saturday ran the record since Brown came in 1998 to 34-3, and Texas has now won 25 of its last 26 home games, as the stadium has turned orange, and has turned into one of the toughest places for a visiting team. The only era close was the Royal run in the late 1960s until 1976, when the Longhorns won a school record 42 straight at home.
We are taught that construction, whether it is of a football legacy or a building or a stadium, happens one brick at a time. And that was the irony of the store room under the old steps.
I had heard stories from my Dad, who played baseball and tennis at Texas in early 1920s, about that fund drive. He talked of how the students rallied, and started the fire that eventually ignited the alumni and the state to build the stadium.
And there, in an old flat file cabinet, were the yellowed 3-by-5 cards labeled "student contributions."
There was one girl who had made a pledge and donated to a blood drive to fulfill it. But when I got to the "L's," I felt like the kid in grandma's attic. "W. E. Little," it read. And the amount was $10.
This column, however, is not about him, although I am sure that $10 in 1924 was a heckuva a lot of money to a college kid playing two sports and trying to get an education.
It is instead, about all of those whose vision, and dedication, made the stadium possible. Millions, probably closer to billions, of people have sat in seats on this hillside for a very long time.
And what matters here are the myriad of things they celebrate. It is about college life, and all the remembrances of it. It is about men who fought, and those who died, so that we could be free. It is about a Dad and Mom and their sons and daughters who have spent an Autumn afternoon or evening together.
In that space, it is not about winning or losing, although there are certainly lessons to be learned from both.
Maybe, after all, that is the message. It is the lesson we learn, and the joy we share, in the midst of a game, played in an arena because young people dare, and dared, to dream.