Maybe the nine words on the oversized poster the Lanier football team ran through before the final Chili Bowl said it best: “Don’t cry because it’s over. Smile because it happened.”
What “happened” for 67 years was an annual game between two inner-city high schools, Lanier and Fox Tech, that became as uniquely San Antonio as the Alamo, River Walk and Fiesta.
Unfortunately, there won’t be a 68th Chili Bowl.
The city’s oldest football rivalry passed into history shortly before 10 p.m. Saturday at Alamo Stadium, with Lanier claiming a 30-14 victory that denied Tech a playoff spot in District 28-4A.
The final Chili Bowl also marked the last football game for Tech, which will start making the transition to a magnet school next year.
Denny Peel, the Buffaloes’ head coach the past 15 years, choked back tears as he reflected on the finality of the moment after the game.
“It’s been a hell of a ride,” Peel said. “It hurts a lot. I love these kids and I’m blessed to have coached them for 15 years. They’re hurting right now, but they’ll be better tomorrow. Hopefully, as they get older, they’ll cherish this moment and remember what a great tradition the Chili Bowl was.”
A crowd of 16,077, including Mayor Julian Castro, gathered at venerable Alamo Stadium to bid a moving farewell to a game that transcended sports.
How many regular-season games matching two 3-6 teams would draw that many people?
“This is the saddest day in the history of San Antonio football,” said former NFL place-kicker Tony Franklin, who was in the press box providing color commentary for one of the radio broadcasts of the game. “There’s no other regular-season game in the state that can match the Chili Bowl in color, pageantry and history. This is pure San Antonio.”
Yes, the Chili Bowl was pure San Antonio. That’s why we’ll miss it so much.
While the Tech-Lanier football rivalry was intense, it was never bitter or got out of hand. The predominantly Hispanic communities understood they shared a common bond and honored it with mutual respect.
“Everybody knows everybody,” Lanier head coach Don Gatian said. “Some of my kids have parents who went to Tech, and I’m sure there are some Tech kids who have family members who went to Lanier. It’s a family affair.
“Coach Peel and I respect each other. We always said we were friends for 51 weeks out of the year and didn’t like each other very much for one. He gave me a hug after the game. This game tonight probably will be remembered forever.”
Although Lanier won the last one, Tech took the series 41-21-5. The first Chili Bowl was played in 1942, a year after Japan’s bombing of Pearl Harbor plunged the United States into World War II. The game had been played for 66 consecutive seasons since a one-year hiatus in 1943.
“Before we went out on the field, I told my players that they never would play in another game like this one,” Gatian said. “I told them they would remember it for the rest of their lives.”
Fans start gathering at Alamo Stadium as early as 9 a.m. Saturday for the 7 p.m. kickoff. By 5 p.m., the parking lots were full.
“I got here at 1, and there were 150 to 200 cars already lined up, waiting for the parking lot to open,” said Jimmy Trevino, a 1975 Burbank graduate who has been a parking-lot attendant at the stadium for 10 years. “We didn’t open the parking lots until 2. That’s just the kind of passion these fans have for the Chili Bowl. It’s awesome.”
Buford Tanniehill, who has sold tickets at Alamo Stadium since 1970, said fans began lining up to buy tickets at 9 a.m. And tickets didn’t go on sale until 5:30.
“There were some people who wanted to stay here overnight Friday, but they weren’t allowed to,” Tanniehill said.
Standing a few feet from Tanniehill was Irma Delgado Aguilar, a 2003 Tech graduate, who went to the game at the behest of her mother. Cipriana Gutierrez, Tech Class of ’88, couldn’t attend the game because she’s in the hospital.
“She really wanted to be here for the last Chili Bowl, but she couldn’t,” Aguilar said. “She told me to come.”
Edison graduates Maribell Del Moral and Dee Dee Wiedner were at the stadium by 4:30, soaking in the nostalgia that enveloped the Tech side. Del Moral’s son, Ricardo Salas, was a junior on the Buffaloes’ varsity.
“This is the epitome of old high school football in San Antonio, the pride of the West Side,” Wiedner said. “It’s an honor to be at the last Chili Bowl. No other game can compare to this one.”
Del Moral expressed sadness as she reflected on the San Antonio Independent School District’s decision to end the football program at Tech.
“It’s a part of San Antonio history and they’re taking it away, no matter what they say,” Del Moral said.
The crowd included a good number of fans from other city high schools. Some said they attended the Chili Bowl regularly, and others simply wanted to be part of history.
Joseph Cervantes, a 1977 Burbank graduate, and his wife, Rose, a Harlandale grad, were among those arriving at the stadium more than two hours before kickoff.
“It’s the Chili Bowl,” Cervantes said. “It’s a tradition.”
Cervantes’ sister, Carmen Garza, a Burbank alum, said the Chili Bowl “started all the other rivalries in the city.”
Matthew Reyes graduated from Burbank in 1984, but his mother, Irene Mendoza, is a Tech graduate. Reyes and his wife, Toni, a Highlands alum, and their son, Chris, a freshman at O’Connor, were near the front of the Tech line waiting to get into the stadium.
“We’re here because the Chili Bowl is the best rivalry in the city,” Toni Reyes said. “And it’s part of history.”
Longtime Lanier booster Alex Gonzales expressed mixed feelings.
“It’s a bittersweet experience because Tech won’t be playing football anymore,” he said. “But at the same time, I’m excited for the wonderful program Tech is going to put in place with its magnet program.
Tech will convert to a “special purpose” school with a magnet program for health and law careers.
The most poignant moment of the night came after the game when Lanier players walked to their Tech counterparts, many of whom were crying, and consoled them. After handshakes and some hugs, the Voks and Buffs formed one big huddle and yelled “Brothers” before splitting up.
Such was the spirit of a rivalry that defined all that’s good with high school sports.
I miss it already.