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Troy Aikman comes to his hometown’s rescue

Dallas Cowboys, Fox Sports icon tells Henryetta that he’ll hold a music festival with Blake Shelton headlining to benefit the city’s schools.

HENRYETTA, Okla. — Troy Aikman came to his beloved hometown Friday with big news.

The Pro Football Hall of Famer and Fox Sports broadcaster is bringing Blake Shelton and a star-spangled lineup of country music to town next summer for a one-day music festival.

All proceeds from “Troy Aikman’s Highway to Henryetta,” slated for June 11, will provide much-needed funding for the local school district and bolster community initiatives.

Aikman, 54, who quarterbacked the varsity football team in 1981-83, delivered his news flash at a Friday afternoon pep rally before the Henryetta Knights loaded onto buses for a game 50 miles away in Haskell.

Anyone who has ever watched Friday Night Lights knows the importance of small-town, game-day pep rallies. That’s why he chose it for the big reveal.

Henryetta lies about 60 miles south of Tulsa and 90 miles east of Oklahoma City. It’s a 3½-hour straight shot north from Dallas.

Aikman said he hopes to draw 10,000 to 15,000 daytrippers from those metro areas to hear Shelton and a host of Red Dirt musicians who play that Oklahoma genre of folk, rock, country, bluegrass, blues, Western swing and honky-tonk with a few Mexican influences thrown in.

Country happens to be Aikman’s favorite music.

Aikman moved to a farm in Henryetta from Southern California with his family when he was 12 and “quickly fell in love with the country way of life and the simple beauty of the town,” he said in an interview.

Lifelong resident and Henryetta Mayor Jennifer Munholland said she’s “totally blown away” by Aikman’s largesse.

“We’re Small Town America. This is something that Henryetta has never seen,” the 49-year-old Munholland said. “Making it even more instrumental is that Troy Aikman is the one doing it.”

When people ask him where he’s from, the Dallas resident never hesitates to say he’s from Henryetta.

“For him to always reference us as his hometown means more than you can imagine,” Munholland said. “Although he’s done great things — went to UCLA, went to Dallas, went to Fox Sports — he still maintains his ties here and lets it be known that he’ll do whatever it takes to keep Henryetta strong.”

Aikman first proposed the music festival idea to Munholland over lunch at a local Mexican restaurant five months ago.

She said she did her darnedest to keep the plans under wraps — a tall task in a town of about 5,400 where everyone is into each other’s business.

“I didn’t want to let the cat out of the bag until Troy got to announce it,” said Munholland, who has known Aikman since she was in grade school.

When word began to leak out that Henryetta’s most famous hometown hero was flying in on his private jet for more than just a routine visit, people in town thought it was a joke.

Troy Aikman steps off his private plane after arriving on Friday in Okmulgee, Okla. Aikman, a Pro Football Hall of Famer and FOX Sports broadcaster who quarterbacked Henryetta High from 1981-83, announced plans for a music festival, “Troy Aikman’s Highway to Henryetta,” that will feature Blake Shelton and some of country music's top acts during the school’s regular pep rally. All proceeds from the music festival will benefit educational and community initiatives in Henryetta, Okla.
Troy Aikman steps off his private plane after arriving on Friday in Okmulgee, Okla. Aikman, a Pro Football Hall of Famer and FOX Sports broadcaster who quarterbacked Henryetta High from 1981-83, announced plans for a music festival, “Troy Aikman’s Highway to Henryetta,” that will feature Blake Shelton and some of country music's top acts during the school’s regular pep rally. All proceeds from the music festival will benefit educational and community initiatives in Henryetta, Okla. (Smiley N. Pool / Staff Photographer)

But when camera crews began to show up Friday morning, it was clear that something big was afoot.

When Aikman strode to microphones at center court of the high school’s gymnasium at 1800 Troy Aikman Ave., he didn’t disappoint.

“We’ve decided that we are going to have a music festival,” he told the students and faculty. “It’s not going to be just any old music festival. We’re going all out. It’s going to be top-notch — first class in every single way.”

When he announced that Blake Shelton had agreed to headline the event, the gymnasium reacted as if the Knights had just won the state championship.

The former UCLA Bruins and Dallas Cowboys superstar is known for his philanthropic endeavors at his college alma mater and in North Texas, where he has been a strong supporter of Children’s Medical Center Dallas and United Way of Metropolitan Dallas. He chaired United Way’s annual campaign in 2017-18, which raised more than $60 million.

His focus now is on helping Henryetta, which, like so many small towns, has been hard hit by the pandemic and economic setbacks, he said.

It’s seen its population shrink by more than 10% during the past two decades.

“I am proud of how its people, many of the same folks who lived there when I did, have coped,” Aikman said.

The festival is “a nod to their resilience.”

He told the students at the pep rally that he mistakenly thought his boyhood dream of becoming a professional athlete had been dashed by the family’s move from glitzy Southern California to a farm in Henryetta. “I’d never been around a cow, ridden a horse, slopped a pig or any of those chores, but that was the life that I then had.”

In short order, he realized he’d found his home.

“Not only did Henryetta not keep me from fulfilling my boyhood dream, it helped me fulfill that dream,” he said. “A lot of the values that I carry with me to this day are because of my time that I spent here in Henryetta, Oklahoma. I learned about the value of hard work.”

The festival will be produced by Dallas-based Tony Fay Public Relations, in conjunction with C3 Presents, the Austin-based concert promoter of the Austin City Limits Music Festival, Lollapalooza Chicago and other large-scale events.

The ticket prices and how the proceeds from the concert will be distributed in Henryetta will be announced later, Fay said.

The festival will be at the picturesque Nichols Park, just south of town, which covers more than 300 acres with a lake in the middle.

Aikman enticed Shelton, his longtime friend, fellow Oklahoman and popular singing coach on NBC’s The Voice, to be the marquee entertainer by sending him a text message.

Aikman said he got an “I’m in” response five minutes later.

“I’m thrilled to join my buddy Troy Aikman for the first ‘Highway to Henryetta,’ a great idea that benefits some fantastic people,” Shelton said in a prepared statement. “I always look forward to playing in my home state, and I’m looking forward to supporting Troy’s hometown in the process. It’s going to be a lot of fun.”

Blake Shelton will headline the fundraiser on June 11.
Blake Shelton will headline the fundraiser on June 11.(Erika Goldring / Getty Images for Ryman Hospitality Properties Inc)

Cheryl Hall, Business columnist. Cheryl, a journalism graduate of SMU, has covered business for more than 45 years and gets her phone calls returned. She's won numerous awards including several Katies from the Press Club of Dallas and a lifetime distinguished achievement award from the Society of American Business Editors and writers.

cherylhall@dallasnews.com /cheryl.hall.5015 CherylHall_DMN Cheryl_Hall_ LinkedIn IconCheryl Hall
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