Battle of LSC giants could draw record ACU home crowd
Sixty-one years ago.
Harry S. Truman was president. World War II ended the year before. "It's a Wonderful Life" was a new film. And it was the last time Abilene Christian University played a home football game without Leao McDaniel in the stands.
Despite spending some time in the hospital this week, Leao, 86, intends to be there Saturday when his beloved Wildcats play in their biggest home game in more than 20 years.
"Lord willing, I'll be there," he said. "I eat, breathe and sleep purple and white. If I can't make it ... well ... I'm not sure what I'll do."
It's no surprise that ACU's super-fan is excited about this week's matchup with West Texas A&M. Both teams are nationally ranked (No. 6 for WT, No. 12 for ACU). Both teams played against each other on national television last year (ACU won), and then again in the playoffs (West Texas won). And Saturday's game at Shotwell Stadium could decide which team wins the Lone Star Conference championship, a crown WT has held for the last two seasons. ACU hasn't won one since sharing it with Texas A&M-Kingsville in 1977. ACU lost its first game of the season, so every game for the rest of the year is, essentially, a must-win.
Oh, and Saturday's matchup is ACU's homecoming game. And members of the ACU team that won the 1977 NAIA Division I national championship will serve as honorary team captains.
"I think it all happened to fall just right," coach Chris Thomsen said. "For this to be two nationally ranked teams and a big rivalry game, to be able to hook it up in front of all the alumni and everyone that's going to be there Saturday is pretty neat."
Leao, a 1947 graduate of Abilene Christian College, has been around his fair share of great teams. He thinks this year's Wildcats rank right up there.
"This is one of the best," he said. "I saw the undefeated team that won the Refrigerator Bowl (in Evansville, Ind. in 1950) and that team was a whole lot like this team."
Leao isn't the only one excited about the weekend.
One indication of the game's draw: nearly a dozen separate threads discussing the contest were active on popular NCAA Division II football Web site d2messageboard.com Wednesday -- with more sure to come.
"It's something we've worked really hard for since January," senior offensive lineman Nathan Young said. "We've had this game circled since we got beat by them (in the first round of the Division II playoffs) last year. We talk about one game at a time, one game at a time ... but in the back of our minds, it was always this game."
ACU and WT both boast prolific offenses. The Buffaloes are ranked No. 1 in the LSC in both scoring offense (46.3 points per game) and total offense (525.6 yards per game), while the Wildcats are No. 2 in the LSC in scoring offense (44) and third in total offense (515.4).
With so much surrounding the game, ACU has been encouraging fans to buy their tickets before Saturday. The school began selling tickets Monday, and ACU director of athletics Jared Mosley said that sales have been brisk.
"We're fielding a lot of calls every day," he said. "We've almost sold all of our reserve seats for the game at the 50-yard line and I anticipate those will be sold out long before kickoff.
"We've even got WT fans calling to reserve their tickets ahead of time, and we sent them an allotment of tickets to sell there, too."
ACU has been offering discounted tickets for group sales to various businesses this week and Mosley said the school has also worked with local radio stations to produce a commercial promoting the game. Those stations are giving tickets away as prizes this week.
"We're just trying to find the quickest way to get word out in anticipation of this week's game," he said. "We didn't want to rush and do too much too early if it didn't wind up being as big as it wound up being. But we've had a really good response so far and anticipate a really good turnout this weekend."
While there are plans to do an exact attendance count this weekend, ACU isn't believed to have ever kept an official count at any home game. The school does have an estimated count for every contest, however, and the largest home crowd ACU has ever had was the estimated 15,000 that saw freshman running back Wilbert Montgomery and the Wildcats defeat Howard Payne 42-14 on Nov. 17, 1973.
Shotwell seats about 15,000, but that number can be inflated easily if fans are seated in the end zone bleachers -- and even more if they are allowed to sit on the grass berms at either end of the field.
If early indications are accurate, bringing a blanket may not be a bad idea for those arriving late.
"We're opening the gates at noon and I'd say, especially if you don't have your tickets already, you ought to show up at least an hour before (the 2 p.m. kickoff)," Mosley said. "I think we'll be pushing the record for sure this weekend if WT fans turn out. And our homecoming crowd, I anticipate, will be a little bigger than normal, so we'll come really close to packing Shotwell this weekend."
Expect one of the thousands to be Leao.
If he has anything to say about it, he'll be sitting in his usual perch right near the top of section W5.
"God's been good to me and I've got to know so many good people. And, fortunately I'm still blessed to be here," he said. "I've done a lot of things in my time, I've made quite a few friends and I hope I've been a loyal fan.
"I think I have."