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Tom Landry Hall of Fame Stadium comes alive

For most of their adult lives attending Friday night football games at Mission High School was a family tradition for Joe and Maria Montemayor. Herself a Mission High graduate, Maria said the couple’s four children are also MHS graduates and all three daughters, Marizol, Lauri and Melinda were cheerleaders.


But about three years ago Maria, 71, said her legs started giving out on her.


“She had her good days and bad days,” said Joe, 78. “If she was having a good day and it happened to be a Friday game day we would go. Otherwise,” Joe finished the sentence shaking his head, no.


The couple said Maria’s inability to climb into the bleachers meant they had to stay in their Perkins Street home within earshot of the games they couldn’t attend. All that changed Friday night with the opening of the new Tom Landry Hall of Fame Stadium with wheel chair accessible ramps on each end of the stadium and its entire first deck dedicated to persons with disabilities.


“So this is perfect,” Joe said Friday, Nov. 17 overlooking the field from his seat near  the 50 yard line just prior to the first game in the stadium. The couple said from now on they’ll be attending most home games.


“Well, as long as our health allows,” Joe said.


Also enjoying last week’s game was 21-year-old Zoe J. Alaniz. Three years ago Alaniz was attending Veterans Memorial High School when he confided to his grandmother, Maria E. Salinas, his hopes of becoming a sports broadcaster were dimmed because being wheel-chair bound he couldn’t even make it into the press box at Mission High School. That prompted Salinas, herself a former star Mission CISD athlete, threatened to sue the school district unless something was done to bring the aging stadium, originally built in 1976, up to current Americans with Disabilities Act standards. Friday night’s opening of the Tom Landry Hall of Fame Stadium was the culmination of Salinas’ efforts on behalf of her grandson.


Now a South Texas College student, Alaniz enjoyed VIP status and a seat in the press box during the stadium’s first game.


“It’s amazing,” Alaniz said of the new stadium. “It’s two years in the making and it’s a little bit late, obviously, but better late than never.”


Mission CISD Superintendent Dr. Ricardo López described the excitement in the air prior to the stadium’s first game as “palpable.”


Progress Times’ sports photographer Luciano Guerra arrived a half hour prior to the gate’s 6 p.m. opening so he could set up a camera atop the visitor’s side bleachers and capture in time-lapse photography of the stadium’s home side filling up with fans. His 90-minute effort has been reduced to 45 seconds and is available on the paper’s Facebook page.


At the Stadium’s front, a KRGV Channel 5 News producer was using a flashlight to illuminate the face of Tom Landry’s 12-foot tall statue. Sportscaster Joel Villanueva was about to go live covering the stadium’s long-awaited opening.


Rick Rivera, the district’s assistant superintendent for operations was asked how he felt about the stadium’s grand opening as he dealt with getting a cleanup of an order of cheeze nachos that covered one of the stair landing decks leading to the stands after a woman and a young girl had collided with each other moments earlier.


“It’s great for the community and the district,” Rivera said. “It’s what brings the community together.”


Prior to the game’s start Laura Gomez was setting up a dessert table for her employer, “Let’s be Sweet,” in the VIP lounge. Asked what she thought of the new stadium she said, “It’s fancy. I like it.”


Veterans Memorial High School assistant freshmen football team coach Isaac Guerrero described the new stadium as “top notch.”  Guerrero, who was filming the game, said the stadium’s amenities rivaled those of Weslaco High School’s Bobby Lackey Stadium, which he said was considered one of the premier stadiums in the Rio Grande Valley.


Carla Benevides, 14, a Cantu Junior High School eighth grader who said she has attended every Patriots game this season said after seeing the stadium it was worth the wait.


“It’s really big and nice and new and beautiful and everything,” she said, smiling broadly, surrounded by classmates and friends.


Ed Gilpin, father to Patriot’s coach David and grandfather to team quarterback, Landry, said it was an exciting night as he entered the stadium gates. And after taking his seat in the last row just under the press box he said he was even more impressed.


“The sound system, the music, the view: this is enjoyable,” he said raising his voice to speak over the stadium’s state of the art sound system that was, at the moment, blaring country music.  “This is wonderful.”


It was a bittersweet experience for Dale McNallen as he sat in the VIP Lounge adjoining the 70-foot high press box looking over the football field below him. McNallen was project superintendent for the stadium’s builder, Holchemont Ltd., a McAllen-based construction company.


Asked if seeing the stadium being put to use gave him a sense of pride McNallen said, “Yes, very much so,” his eyes welling nearly to tears. “It came out very well.”


Adding to his emotions was the knowledge it was his last project with Holchemont. McNallen said he has taken a new job and was leaving the Valley he’s called home since birth in McAllen and was moving to Tyler, Texas.


Prior to Friday’s game McNallen said he was both “excited and nervous” adding he just hoped “everything goes according to plan.” Asked what could possibly go wrong McNallen replied, “Nothing,” with a smile.


Rain, school testing days, changes in plans and a hurricane pushed the opening day of the stadium back from its original completion date of Aug. 21. Friday’s playoff game between the VMHS Patriots and Brownsville Lobos was the first and only game in the stadium this year.


And despite the best efforts of everyone involved there were a few glitches Friday. A line of vehicles had to make U-turns in cramped quarters just in front of the stadium and exit east the way they’d come in. Some ticket holders entered the stadium thinking they had purchased a reserved seat, one of 700 with backs and arm rests. Others arrived thinking it was general admission, first come, first served seating. One woman having climbed the dozen stairs from the handicapped deck to the regular seating deck turned toward the press box and could be overhead to say, “Man, look at those chairs. Forget the bleachers.”


In the end there was no evidence of disputes over seating in the stadium but MCISD Athletic Director Leticia “Letty” Ibarra said there were a few details to iron out prior to next season.


Despite the stadium’s delayed opening Superintendent López and Board of Trustees President Patricia O’Caña-Olivarez both said it will soon be a distant memory.


“I’m just overjoyed to see fans smiling from ear to ear,” López said from the VIP Lounge during Friday’s game. “It just warms my heart to see the warmth that’s here today and to know that for years to come it’s going to carry forward. And it doesn’t matter who built the building or when it was finished, it just matters that people come and understand that this is where we celebrate all the hard work from our coaches, our teachers down to our players.”


“For me it’s historic to be a part of something like this,” O’Caña-Olivarez said Friday as she and family members and other board members enjoyed the game from the VIP lounge. “I know with all the struggles we’ve had to bring it to fruition we’re excited to be able to open it up to the public. I’ve gone down there, walked around and everyone’s having an amazing experience and I don’t think anyone’s thinking about the headaches, it’s finally that outcome and what we’ve accomplished. It’s been well worth the headache.”

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