Legacy in the Heart of Fair Park

The Cotton Bowl celebrates ninety years of playing host to history in Dallas. 



This article originally appeared in the Fall/Winter 2019 issue of VisitDallas The Magazine. To see the entire issue and read other features, click here. 

Tell the story of college football. Texas high school football. The Dallas Cowboys, the World Cup, music, baseball, wrestling, rodeo, politics, religion and even hockey. Tell the story of the grandest state fair of them all.

None of those stories and countless more can be told without the Cotton Bowl, the historic cement stadium which has stood in Fair Park for just shy of nine decades. The gates were officially opened on October 26, 1930, with Southern Methodist University defeating Indiana, 27–0, in the shiny new digs.

Actually, the Cotton Bowl wasn't the first stadium on the grounds. Nine years earlier, with a capacity of 15,000, Fair Park Football Stadium was built. The wooden structure was knocked down before construction of the new one, which originally seated 46,000 and cost $328,200, or roughly $5 million in today's dollars. Its playing surface was 24 feet below the original ground level because of the cut-and-fill building process.

Out of necessity, Fair Park Stadium, its original name, was used for all kinds of events besides football, from the Cavalcade of History, an outdoor play with 250 actors, to a re-election speech by Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1936. The same year, a local oil and real estate tycoon, J. Curtis Sanford, was among those SMU fans who traveled via a one hundred-car train to see the Mustangs play in the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif. On the return voyage, he reportedly said, "We need to have one of those in Dallas."

Hopalong Cassidy at the Cotton Bowl in October 1952

Thus, the Cotton Bowl was born. The name was inspired by the hope that the game and the stadium, its name changed accordingly, would become one of the premier sporting events and venues in the Cotton Belt. Sanford financed the New Year's Day bowl game those first four years and lost a significant amount of money, many in the media referred to the game itself as "Sanford's Folly." Just 17,000 showed up for the inaugural game despite nearby Texas Christian University and its All-American quarterback "Slingin' Sammy" Baugh defeating Marquette, 16–6.

The 1940s brought two monumental changes to the Cotton Bowl: one to the game, the second to the structure itself. Sanford struck a deal with the Southwest Conference, then consisting of Texas A&M, Texas, TCU, Rice, SMU, Baylor and Arkansas, that its annual champion would play a highly ranked opponent in the Cotton Bowl. The 1941 contest between Texas A&M and Fordham sold out that year and every January thereafter.

Later in the decade, the stadium was expanded twice - first, adding 21,431 seats via a second deck on the west side in 1948, and then another eight thousand-plus tier opposite, new locker rooms and a three-story press box the following year. As to why multiple renovations were needed, the answer resides on a plaque at the main entrance to this very day: The Cotton Bowl: The House that Doak Built.

Ewell Doak Walker II might just be the most celebrated college football player of all time: A three-time All-American for SMU, the first junior to win the Heisman Trophy - he was a national phenomenon almost impossible to explain in today's world. During the 1948 season alone, Walker, handsome and humble, graced the cover of fifty national magazines, including Life, the most prominent publication of the time, which featured a four-page spread of him not only playing football but standing alongside his future wife, Norma, in western attire. As his mother, Emma, once said, "All of this because one blue-eyed boy could run with the football."

There was seemingly nothing the 5-foot-11, 170-pound gridiron genius couldn't do: run, catch, pass, kick, punt, return kickoffs and punts - nearly four thousand yards of total offense and 303 points in three seasons for the Mustangs.

While SMU played its home games at Fair Park rather than on campus because of Walker's popularity, the team also played in back-to-back Cotton Bowls, tying Penn State and defeating Oregon with Walker earning MVP honors on both occasions, fitting considering January 1 was his birthday.

When Walker was racing around the Dallas grass, not only were the eyes of the spectators upon him, the eyes and ears of the nation were eagerly watching and listening. This is when the Cotton Bowl really solidified its reputation as one of the premier venues in the country, and certainly the place to be seen in the city.

Speaking of which, there is no tougher ticket annually than the Texas vs. Oklahoma game, which kicks off every October in the midst of The State Fair of Texas. The rivalry - whether it's the Red River Shootout, Red River Rivalry or Red River Showdown, the most recent moniker - is the calendar's most anticipated day in both states, visuals of the Texas Star Ferris wheel and the 55-foot Big Tex statue staples of the television broadcast. Located almost the same distance from the Austin and Norman, Okla., campuses, the Cotton Bowl has hosted the heated matchup since 1932.

As bigger-than-life as the game has always been, it's become even more so the last few decades, which forced yet another expansion of the Cotton Bowl - this one coming in 2008 with the addition of nearly 24,000 seats by completing the second deck to include the end zones. That brought the official capacity to 92,100 although more than 96,000 have attended multiple Texas–OU games since the expansion. The schools' current deal runs through 2025, and Sooners head coach Lincoln Riley said just last year, "You can't take it out of the Cotton Bowl, I don't think."

Cotton Bowl Prep Showcase at Cotton Bowl Stadium in September 2016

College football has indeed dominated the Fair Park landscape the last century, but it has also hosted hundreds of high school games, including a bevy of state championships, and multiple representations in the pro game. The Dallas Texans of the NFL played at the Cotton Bowl in 1952, and an AFL team of the same name returned eight years later, winning the league title in 1962. However, they moved to Kansas City that offseason and became the Chiefs. The main reason for the departure was another team who was sharing the same home address, the Dallas Cowboys.

Both Dallas franchises debuted in 1960, and while the area was obsessed with football, there was limited interest, and/or familiarity, in the pro game. The Cowboys mailed out 200,000 letters in hopes of securing a solid base of loyalists at the Cotton Bowl. There were 2,165 charter season-ticket holders. They didn't win a game that season and barely 3,000 fans showed up for the home finale, prompting a visiting reporter to joke, "There aren't enough Texans here to defend the Alamo."

Dave Sherer played at SMU in the late-1950s with "Dandy Don" Meredith, who much like Walker was such a popular draw that the team played its home games at the Cotton Bowl with not an empty seat in the house. The two were once again teammates on that 1960 Cowboys team.

"When we were at SMU, walking on that field at the Cotton Bowl, you felt like there was nothing more important taking place in sports, you couldn't make out a single face in the stands, there were just people everywhere," Sherer says. "Then we're on that same sideline [with the Cowboys], and you could find your family and friends within seconds, wave to them. There was no one there."

Eventually, the Cowboys started winning and fans responded accordingly, selling out the majority of home games from 1966–71 when they moved to Texas Stadium. In 2010, the Cotton Bowl lost the Cotton Bowl Classic when the game moved to the new AT&T Stadium.

As for the future of the Cotton Bowl, the city already has $50 million set aside for future renovations and an additional fundraising program underway.

Looking back over the decades, few venues have witnessed more legends, from Tom Landry to Billy Graham to Elvis to Bruce Springsteen to Doak Walker to Pele.

Tell the story of Dallas, its history, its pomp and pageantry, its culture and passion, its teams and celebrations. That story can't be told without the Cotton Bowl.