Courtesy Sam Peshek
Prairie View A&M University's Blackshear Stadium was in rough shape for as long as Roy Perry can remember. The wooden benches he sat on as an engineering student in 1978 to watch Panthers football games had not changed much from when the team was in its heyday and won five black college titles between 1953-1964.
Perry graduated in 1978 dreaming improvements would someday be made, but after an historic 80-game losing streak from 1989-1998, they never came. Even when the Panthers program broke the skid of losing seasons in 2007, won a Southwestern Athletic Conference championship in 2009 and made sweeping building improvements campus wide, some fans had to watch games played on a field in disrepair from behind a perimeter fence because the 6,000-seat stadium was at capacity.
Perry said Blackshear's appearance never meshed well with the overall beauty of the campus. "It wasn't much of anything," Perry said. "Kids played in better stadiums at their high schools." Perry, who now serves as chairman of the Prairie View A&M Foundation, said he watched with joy on Jan. 23 as the tiny stadium was demolished with a few swings of an excavator arm. With Blackshear gone, the university will finally get what Perry felt the school deserved more than 30 years ago in a $60 million, 15,000-seat football stadium and sports complex, which will open for its first game in September 2016.
The movement to build a new stadium gained momentum in 2009 after Perry and other alumni helped raise $30 million to start the Prairie View A&M Foundation. Shortly after, Prairie View A&M President George Wright said, Perry started beating the drum to raise funds for a new stadium, and the Texas A&M System Board of regents responded.
Wright said the school worked closely with System Vice Chancellor for Business Affairs Phillip Ray and System Chancellor John Sharp to work out the funding nuances and make it a reality. At a November meeting, regents approved the school's plan to build the complex, which will include an artificial field, a 55,000-square-foot athletic field house, suites that already have a waiting list, sky boxes, press boxes and room for a 15,000-seat expansion. "I am so happy that our system staff, led by Phillip Ray, found a way to do this for Prairie View," Sharp said in a statement. "Prairie View A&M University is the most beautiful university in the state, and now they will have a stadium to match it."
The sounds of snapping wood from the Blackshear demolition did not make nearly as much noise as Kyle Field's west side when it collapsed to begin the second phase of its own $485 million renovation one month earlier.
Although the Kyle Field project is eight times more expensive than Prairie View's project, Perry took it as a vote of confidence from system officials in his alma mater. "It was reaffirmation that the system believed in Prairie View and they were willing to invest in Prairie View," Perry said. When Wright first became president of Prairie View in 2003, he said the football team's record and its facilities were how people knew the school.
The Panthers were five years away from the 80-game losing skid, but still had not put together a winning season. "Because of the losing streak, people would say, 'Why do you want to be president there? They are a loser," Wright said. "They're talking about a game that's played on Saturdays, but you couldn't shake them."
The PVAMU Foundation is halfway to a $10 million fundraising goal for the stadium project, but Wright said the new stadium will mean much more to the school than a nice place to play football and entertain more fans. Wright said plenty of people pass by the campus driving down U.S. 290 to and from Houston, but the new stadium will give them reason to stop and take a look around. He hopes it will be a draw to campus the same way people stop to take pictures in front of Kyle Field on Texas A&M's campus.
Wright said the new stadium will offer a much better first impression of the school. The Panthers will play the 2015 season at the Waller school district stadium not far from the Prairie View A&M campus. The new complex will be called "Panther Stadium" unless a donor seeks the naming rights. Wright and Perry are already looking forward to the first game in the new stadium and how the project will change the perception of the university.
Wright envisions stepping off a plane at the Houston airport and seeing a Prairie View A&M shirt on the same shelf as University of Texas or Texas A&M shirts. "I don't think we've cracked into that area yet, but I want folks to be able to identify it the same way," Wright said. Ten years down the road, Perry expects the student, alumni and neighborhood fan bases to turn out for every game the same way they did for homecoming games at Blackshear. When the stadium needs to expand to 30,000 seats, Perry's dream will be fully realized. "The stadium is more than just football," Perry said. "The stadium provides a beacon."