It was impossible to wipe the smile off Joel Cantalamessa’s face Saturday.
“I’ve dreamed about this day for so long, and I can’t believe it’s finally here,” said the Colorado State University alumnus and passionate CSU Rams supporter from Parker. “I just can’t believe it.”
Cantalamessa’s sentiment was common before, during and after the inaugural football game at CSU’s on-campus stadium Aug. 26. Fans came from everywhere – some traveled thousands of miles, while thousands of others had a journey of a few hundred steps across campus — to witness a piece of university history that, remarkably, was better than anyone ever imagined.
Prior to the game, thousands of fans tailgated on campus for the first time in 49 years, soaking up the warmth of a blazing August sun and a campus many of them had not seen in decades. Students enjoyed the dawn of a new era in pregame fun as the Flobots entertained and the Lory Student Center offered a variety of food options. Nearer the stadium, Post Paradise shared their special musical style with alumni and others tailgating nearby as part of the Stadium Sessions.
The Rams celebrated their new home on the field with a resounding 58-27 romp over Oregon State, riding the arm of quarterback Nick Stevens and the strength of a defense that forced five turnovers in a dominating win.
“It was an awesome day to be a CSU Ram,” said third-year coach Mike Bobo.
First kickoff of the season
And before the Rams dazzled – they had the national stage to themselves on CBS Sports Network with the first kickoff of the 2017 season – former CSU student Mandy Harvey, a contestant on America’s Got Talent who is also deaf, dazzled in her own special way with a wondrous rendition of the national anthem. The Military Appreciation Day ceremonies were punctuated by the presence of a field-sized American flag and a breathtaking flyover by F-16s. Dry eyes were rare during the memorable performance.
There was a bit of the old with the new. A tradition silenced for nearly a century reawakened as the Old Main Bell once again rang out to celebrate the victory.
And CSU’s marching band capped a long day of superb performances by playing the CSU fight song with the elated players.
Outside, students returned to their residence halls, fans departed by car, bike, foot or mass transit, and a general feeling of pride and accomplishment settled over the campus and community. The primary mission of building the stadium – bringing alumni to campus to see for themselves the impact of nearly $1.5 billion in campus building projects – was accomplished.
On the map
Prior to the game, alumnus Matt Brown, brother Spencer, and their father walked around campus, admiring the new residence halls and the Chemistry Research and Biology Buildings. Matt made the trip from Florida to be part of the special day.
“This university has done a phenomenal job putting themselves on the map,” he said. “The amount of growth is phenomenal. I’m just very proud to be a former student and alum. Sports is one thing, but the academic part is even bigger in my mind.”
Older fans – some of whom were skeptical about the need to replace aging Hughes Stadium – were equally impressed.
Norma Andersen was sitting with her friend, Lorraine Shuler. Andersen graduated in 1960 with a degree in piano performance and later earned a BA in French and a master’s in education, while Schuler was one of CSU’s first two graduates in vocal performance in 1960.
Shuler, whose brother played football on the 1954 and ’55 Colorado A&M teams, started attending games in 1954 at old Colorado Field on campus. Andersen, whose father played quarterback for the Rams in the 1920s for legendary coach Harry Hughes before becoming head wrestling coach, has an even longer Rams history: Her first games at Colorado Field were in the 1940s.
Shuler had been a fan of Hughes Stadium but was glad to see how the students packed the stands on the stadium’s east side. And she marveled at the growth of the campus she loves.
“I think the new stadium is fabulous,” she said. “One of the good things is it brings people back to campus. It’s a whole new campus – I didn’t even recognize all of the new buildings.”
The game also attracted scores of former CSU football players, whose accomplishments helped pave the way for the new stadium. Those coached by Sonny Lubick – the university’s most successful and popular coach – were even treated to a pregame introduction of the man for whom Sonny Lubick Field at CSU Stadium is named.
Former Rams player Zak West brought his wife, Jennifer, and 6-year-old son from their home in Nashville to witness the historic day. They toured the stunning new Iris & Michael Smith Alumni Center on Friday night during an open house, then walked campus Saturday prior to the game.
“This stadium is such a game changer for CSU,” he said. “I had goosebumps when the players ran onto the field, knowing I played a part in making that happen. The excitement here is unbelievable. This is such a cool day!”
Few of the largest opening day crowd in school history – 37,853 – had a better story than alumnus John Gerhardt. He was a freshman when CSU played its final games at Colorado Field, then joined fellow students in protesting Hughes Stadium because they wanted football to remain on campus.
“I never really cared for Hughes, but we still went to the games, because it was our team,” he said, noting that he had attended both the first and last games at Hughes. “The new stadium is great, and I think it’s going to be wonderful for our campus. It will bring alumni back.”