One time, someone asked me what my favorite month was. I thought for a moment and answered, “September.” ” Why?” I was asked and replied, “Because October and November follow.” Perhaps a strange answer, but nevertheless a truthful one. I could go into much more detail in my answer, but a part of it is the fact that it is football season, and with this comes a plethora of memories for untold numbers of people…perhaps including you. Here, I will share one such story, but first some history of football itself.  

One hundred fifty-four years ago this month, November 6, 1869, what is regarded as the first intercollegiate football game took place at New Brunswick, New Jersey. One hundred ten years ago this week, November 1, 1913, the first air war in college football took place at West Point, New York. And, as an extra, forty-six years ago this month, November 17, 1977, two young college students met for the first time.  

On that cold and windy fall day in 1869, teams from the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University) and Rutgers met on the field of battle with about one hundred spectators looking on. The only uniforms worn were scarlet scarves that the Rutgers players wore wrapped around their heads. Players kicked the ball down the field and scored by sending it between two goal posts. Whichever team scored six goals first was the winner. In this game, Rutgers won 6 to 4. Even though this contest was more like soccer than modern American football, it did represent a pivotal moment in the evolvement of what would become a truly American sport. 

In the 1880s, Yale coach and former player Walter Camp took the lead in the conception and establishment of the basic football system of rules that we know today. Camp, more than any other individual, is considered the father of American football. He fought for football’s survival amid a political environment where those wishing for a world without risk wanted football regulated out of existence over violence and safety issues. Fortunately, Camp had an ally in President Theodore Roosevelt, whose love and advocacy for freedom, responsibility, AND football may have ensured the latter’s survival.  

In the fall of 1913, Army was one of the best teams in the country and a national championship contender. It was scheduled to play a little-known Catholic school in the Midwest named Notre Dame. Led by quarterback “Gus” Dorais and end Knute Rockne, the Irish creatively designed and executed a consistent passing attack with their strong running game, confusing the Army team and defeating them in a 35-14 victory. It is worth noting that a West Point cadet on Army’s team, Dwight Eisenhower, watched this game from the sidelines but didn’t play due to injury. While this contest wasn’t the birth of the forward pass, it was the first time in which a team used it regularly throughout a game. This dimension of football transformed the sport, not only by adding excitement to the game but also helping to reduce injuries and practically eliminating deaths. 

American football is more than just a sport. For over a century and a half it has provided a source of school spirit and pride for schools and colleges and is often a link between generations of students, faculty and players who can re-connect with classmates and other friends during homecoming games and other annual events. It also has been a link, or at least a common part, of a special relationship between people – sometimes two people…. 

In November 1977, the Oklahoma State University Cowboys, the “Pokes,” were winding down a less-than-stellar football season. They went 4-7 for the season and 2-5 in conference play. Even with two-time All-American running back Terry Miller, who finished second in the 1977 Heisman Trophy to winner Earl Campbell, it wasn’t enough for Coach Jim Stanley and the Pokes to overcome Big 8 powerhouses Oklahoma, Nebraska, and Colorado or four other teams. But football wasn’t much on the mind of a young couple at the time. They met on the 17th and went out for a Coke and a visit. 

On several occasions for over forty-five years, that couple returned to their college alma mater to retrace fond memories of those early days and to cheer for their Pokes, come rain or shine, hot or cold, win or lose, snuggling under a blanket and/or crowding under an umbrella to stay warm and dry. Maybe some of you can relate…?  

 As they arrived in the city limits on the afternoon of October 6 (their wedding anniversary), they passed by some of the old familiar landmarks. Not many were still there, mind you, but just enough that old memories began to rekindle, and 1977 and 1978 slowly came into focus. The traffic was heavy as would be expected with a Friday night kickoff just several hours away. The walk to the stadium was a mix of the familiar and the new, especially the newly renovated stadium. What was once Lewis Field is now Boone Pickens Stadium. 

It is a beautiful facility befitting to the Cowboys and its history. Not only is it pleasing to the eye, but its seating capacity was increased considerably in the renovation. It was truly good to be back. Though it had been only four or five years since their last visit, it always seems longer between visits as time goes on.

Once inside and settled in, they marveled at the perfect weather conditions for football. No better weather could be asked for, be prayed for. The home team was playing the defending conference champions, and as such were the underdog. No problem – that will make the victory even sweeter. The game was a good one, close all the way. The OSU fight song was ever so familiar and inspiring…and the OSU hymn so beautiful still brought a tear to the eye. 

The good thing about a Friday game is that it provided all of Saturday to spend “rollicking” around the campus, taking in the new and reflecting on the old. All the campus holds memories, but some places hold special ones. There was Willard Hall and the Agriculture building. Wandering the hallways of the latter, nothing was familiar outside of the office and classroom locations. The framed collages of forestry summer camps once lining the walls were gone, but hopefully displayed or at least preserved somewhere safe. 

From there, on further west to Kerr-Drummond residence hall, and this was the edge of the familiar from the old days.  Wilham (North and South – constructed in 1966) was torn down in 2005 and replaced with some modern apartments. Five years of memories are all that remain of the old towers. It wasn’t the same anymore, and it shouldn’t be. Kerr-Drummond will likely be gone by the next visit. 

Back east to Willard Hall and the place where the journey began so many years ago. Constructed during World War II, it was a residence hall for about 50 years until it was renovated into a college. It was also where the young man and young lady met. Of course, the inside is all different now, but they estimated where her room had been and where they first met and where the first of many kisses was shared. Upon exiting the south doors onto the huge patio once enjoyed by thousands of students, they strolled across the lawn to Theta Pond. 

Theta Pond is not just a pond. It is a park adorned with Cypress trees and fountains with walkways and benches and flowers. This is where most of their walks and talks took place in those days…and where their first pictures were taken. Today its every bit as beautiful as it was all those years ago…maybe even more so. Looking back through the lens of time sometimes has a way of revealing a level of beauty not seen ever before.

En route to the student union came memories of the beautiful sea of shrubbery and flowers with the iconic Edmund Lowe Library towering to the north. They could still hear the hourly chimes, though they weren’t chiming anymore, or at least not on that day. One of the most beautiful features of the OSU campus is the architecture of the older buildings. Most of them were constructed from the late 1930s through the early 1950s. The student union, constructed in 1951, is a typical example of this. Of course, the inside barely resembles that of the 1970s with the food court and the absence of the retail shops and bowling alley downstairs. However, even in its modern state, it still retains its vital and iconic role in campus life. 

Then, on to more of the campus, always more thankful than ever that benches are a part of campus features. Before, they were more for decoration. Now, they seemed more like necessities. Reflecting on the old and familiar took them back – and for a short time they were young again, full of optimism and hope for the future. In marveling at the new, they were filled with a pride to still be a part of this magnificent institution, a part of the legacy and future that is Oklahoma State University. 

On the way north out of Stillwater, one more stop was in order. Forty-five years ago, on a cold, blustery April evening, the young man proposed to the young lady on a dock overlooking Boomer Lake. No, the dock is no longer there, but they remember where it was. In driving by, the memory of those moments returned in vivid detail. Thanks to the impetus of the cold, biting Oklahoma wind blowing across the lake, he quickly popped the question; more quickly, she said yes, and even more quickly, they hurried to the car. Not exactly as planned, but it still turned out as planned….

Americana in the Fall Interior Image
The Olsons at Boone Pickens Stadium In 2019

As Stillwater and OSU grew dimmer and out of sight in the rear-view mirror, I was more thankful and grateful than ever that I was so fortunate to have invested five years of my life there, and, above all, to have met my future wife, Denise on a cool crisp evening at Willard Hall in November 1977. For over 40 years, we have kept our OSU memories alive and growing, and our OSU legacy will always be a part of our family in all the days and years to come. And, by the way, the Pokes won their game on that October day in 2023.

Such is the story of two young people who became a couple, now enjoying retirement, grandchildren, and all the senior citizen discounts they are entitled to. Perhaps this story is in some ways representative of countless other stories in which college football played some part in the lives of millions of Americans. Win or lose on the gridiron – the teams, the students, the alumni, and all those who’ve shared in this slide of Americana in the fall for the past 154 years have all been winners in the fruit it has borne.

By Jeff Olson

Featured image: Arnold Friberg’s painting of America’s first college football game, between Rutgers and the College of New Jersey (1869) (Source: Wikimedia)

Author Jeff Olson Hot Springs Village

Jeff Olson, Author

Click here to read Jeff’s previous article titled, “The Service Flag and Gold Star Mothers.”

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The Olsons at Boone Pickens Stadium In 2019