Nov. 7, 2008
Bill Little, Texas Media Relations
The names are etched in history, their stories are part of the fiber. And this weekend, The University of Texas honors the past, celebrates the present, and looks respectfully forward to the future.
It began as a dream, this concrete structure on the banks of Waller Creek, on the east side of what was then called "the Forty Acres." The University of Texas was young then. The students began a campaign to raise money for a new stadium, the stated goal was to honor those Texans who had been killed in World War I - "The Great War" as they called it, the war to end all wars. Sadly, we know now that didn't happen.
Time and again since, America has gone to war to fight for freedom, in order to achieve peace. The stadium was first commissioned as an official veterans' monument when it was finished in 1924, and a large plaque including the names of the Texans who died in World War I was erected atop the north end when it was finished in 1926.
When the north end was about to be knocked down to make way for the stadium reconstruction, the plaque was removed, and the stadium at that time was de-commissioned. Friday, at a ceremony held in the stadium corridor above the Veterans Memorial Plaza at the northwest corner of the stadium, the commission was re-instated.
The events of the day, and of this weekend, are a reminder that universities are not made of brick and mortar, and stadiums are more than concrete and grass. Both are about people. Texas Memorial Stadium, as it was originally called before Coach Darrell Royal's name was included as a part of it, stands in tribute to all those American men and women who have served The United States in all foreign conflicts.
Early Longhorn heroes such as Louis Jordan and Pete Edmond died in World War I. General K. L. Berry was a prisoner of war during the Bataan Death March, and Keifer Marshall was a Marine who survived the Battle of Iwo Jima. There were other Longhorn players who fought and served with distinction - among them quarterbacks Mike Cotten and John Genung, who served in the Marine Corps and Navy in Vietnam, and, of course, fullback Ahmard Hall of the 2005 Longhorn National Champions, who was a Marine in Kosovo and Afghanistan.
When the Longhorns played at Hawaii in 1995, their visit coincided with the 50th anniversary of the surrender of Japan, which marked the end of World War II. The contrast of the young football players, and the aging servicemen who had come in reunion was striking. And I will never forget the wreath that was tossed into the sea, where the brave had died at Pearl Harbor.
The old soldier had said it: "Soon, we will all be gone. Then, who will be left to tell our story?"
The answer is there, in the memorial plaza, in the wisp of the wind at twilight. During the ceremony Friday, UT Athletics Director DeLoss Dodds announced that the Plaza will officially be known as the Frank Denius Veterans Memorial Plaza, so named for longtime fan and supporter Frank Denius.
Denius, who three weeks ago joined Gen. Colin Powell as a recipient of the Patriot Award as given by the Congressional Medal of Honor Society, was one of the 10 most decorated veterans from the European Theater during World War II. He also serves as chairman of the stadium Veterans Committee, which oversees the relationship between the veterans and the stadium to maintain appropriate recognition for the original stated purpose of the stadium.
Mack Brown has been a huge supporter of the U.S. Military since his coming to Texas in 1998. Beginning with 9/11 and continuing through this season, the Longhorn team has been led onto the field each game by players carrying American flags. This season, that assignment has gone to defensive tackles Aaron Lewis and Roy Miller, whose dads both serve in the military.
Among the members of the committee is Marine (Res.) Lt. Col. David Little, who is the member of the committee who most recently served in combat. When he returned from duty in Iraq, he was standing on the photo deck during a fighter jet flyover at the stadium.
As the roar of the engines passed, a nearby reporter joked, "Hey David, how often did you here that in Iraq?"
To which David replied solemnly, "every day."
When Mack asked a group of Marines to speak to the team prior to the game against Texas Tech in Lubbock, that was the message which came burning through: "Those who stand in harm's way for us do not get a day off."
Friday's commissioning service was a reminder of the old soldier's question aboard the ship in Hawaii. On stage were Purple Heart recipients who had fought in every conflict in which America has been involved dating back through World War II. Surrounding the crowd were soldiers from Ft. Hood, and members of ROTC units at The University.
Often, the language of sport gets blurred with reality. "It's gonna be a war," folks used to say of a football game. Not really. In a lot of ways, it is not even a "battle." Football is a game of individual accountability played as a team concept. To be sure, there is a balance needed between the importance of a game, and the responsibility of life.
That is why the restoration of the dedication of Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium is so important. Because on this day, brick and mortar do give way to matters of the human spirit.
Frank Denius has understood that for most of his more than 80 years of living. He has been the ultimate Longhorn fan, and yet he is also the consummate American.
It is fitting that the Memorial Plaza bears his name, because no one person better reflects all that the project means. His generosity is significant, but his dedication to duty and to country goes far beyond that.
He has seen the beaches of Normandy, in war and in peace. And he knows that each generation must pay its own price for freedom.
History will remember the sacrifices of those before and since the creation of the stadium. And it will stand sentinel as younger generations are reminded of who they were, what they did.