As the Texas high school football playoffs enter championship weekend, one ex-player provides a first person portrait of Friday Night Lights.
In August 2012, Allen (Texas) High School made international news when it opened a $60 million stadium complete with a high-def video screen, reserved seating and space for corporate sponsors. Less newsworthy, but just as well chronicled, were the typical condemnations: that the state values football over education and that Texans, when faced with a choice, prefer teenage combat to teenage drama, teenage debate, teenage journalism or pretty much any extracurricular activity that does not involve an outside linebacker and the real possibility of a ruptured teenage spleen.
Then on Dec. 22, the school made news yet again when its football team, the Eagles, won the Class 5A Division 1 title by defeating Houston Lamar, 35-21, before a Cowboys Stadium crowd of 48,379, a total that fell just 5,600 short of the attendance at a recent NFL game and thus confirmed to any disciple that Texas prep football is tops in the land.
Seen through whichever prism—that Texans are bloodthirsty rubes who like nothing better than to watch 17 year-old boys crash into each other, or that Texans are gridiron purists who demand only the best on behalf of their sons—both events upheld a belief so thoroughly ingrained in the national consciousness that it has achieved the status of gospel truth: that for good or ill, Texas high school football is a provincial obsession, a passion so knitted to Lone Star life that no self-respecting native would ever ignore the lights of you-know-what-night in favor of a book or a movie, unless that book or movie were Friday Night Lights . . . forgetting, for a moment, that neither portrays Texas high-school football as a particularly pleasant exercise, what with the emphasis on playing through the pain, sacrificing algebra for a shot at state, leveraging touchdowns into sexual conquests, working hard so that your estranged dad can derive vicarious pleasure from your assortment of scores, and generally conforming to all the stereotypes that non-natives simultaneously perpetuate, mock and cash in on.
Indeed, in an age when current events are often twisted into competing displays of confirmation bias, the pricey Eagle Stadium and the packed Cowboys Stadium gave both the attackers and the defenders additional ammo for their partisan claims, all while uniting them in one conviction: that in reality, Texas high school football is as big as the myth suggests.
Even the 2012 title-game telecast, whose successor will feature the same Allen Eagles vs. the Pearland Oilers at AT&T (formerly Cowboys) Stadium this Saturday, exploited the myth to which it contributed by opening with a quasi-biblical monolog: “They say in the state of Texas that boys are born to play football,” intoned erstwhile NFL quarterback Vince Young, a 2002 graduate of Houston Madison, “that growing up here, it means everything.”
Watching at home, I thought, “Well, I grew up here. I grew up playing football in Texas.” And while playing high school football I understood that it really did mean a lot. It meant a letter jacket. It meant girls. It meant parties, pep rallies and a chance each week to turn a single moment into the lifetime reminder that coaches were always talking about.
It also meant stories, the kind you tell your teammates right before kickoff – We’re gonna beat these guys! – and the kind you tell your wife, your kids or even your readers much later. But no, it didn’t mean everything. And it sure didn’t mean what people think it means: that I, and others like me, took part in the truth of the storybook legend.
The football reached its high point and finally began to descend, toward the turf of Forester Field. Eyeing its trajectory, I promptly determined that the ball would soon be mine, an interception—ball oskie! Timing my leap perfectly, I went up with my hands thrust high, palms and fingers precisely fitted to shape of a ball. Moments later, just as my feet hit the turf, I noticed that something was missing—namely, the ball. Turning back, I glanced at the receiver, who, as luck would have it, had been tackled by one of my less acquisitive teammates, and saw to my dismay that he was cradling the ball, a prize that only moments before had had my name on it.
I slapped my helmet. “You caught that ball?”
Laughing, the receiver answered, “I did.”
“Dude,” I replied. “Great catch. And this is a great game.”
“Yeah,” shrugged the future NFL star. “Too bad nobody’s here to see it.”
Not much has changed, really. Despite the fact that TV and movies uniformly portray Texas high school football as a quasi-religious institution headed by elders in coaching shorts and peopled by adherents whose sins are magnified or absolved by the on-field performance of their sons, the truth is this: In urban areas like the one where I played ball, the stands are often a patchwork of emptiness interrupted by the stubborn adversaries of chronic disinterest, mostly moms and girlfriends who compensate for the silence by screaming over loudly at the boys between the lines. Down on the field, the players do their duty to the narrative, making plays that otherwise give weight and action to nouns and verbs, but the mythos that ought to inform the narration is outside the city limits.
Indeed, the fact is that Texas high school football, as seen on TV, is played primarily in small or mid-sized towns, often those with just one high school, and in affluent suburbs where residents add to their to-do lists the hiring of private trainers who can turn 150 pounds of freshman into 210 pounds of senior bad-ass who makes Third-Team All-State. Suburban schools like Allen and Katy, which on Saturday will defend its Class 5A Division II crown against suburban Cedar Hill, draw thousands of fans to stadiums built specifically for their teams, a home-field advantage bolstered by youth leagues that identify gifted players and cultivate their talents accordingly. By running the schemes that the high schoolers run, youth teams prepare each player for a future in the varsity uniform, and so the focus of a suburb—or much of it—is fixed on a series of Friday nights.
Ditto many, though not all, of the rural towns. From the Piney Woods of East Texas to the Llano Estacado of West Texas, Friday nights can serve as social occasions and points of civic pride, their rewards marking the culmination not only of a week of coffee shop talk but also a year of anticipation and labor, with all the booster club meetings and cakewalk fundraisers in the time in between.
Meanwhile, back in the city, spectacular catches go mostly unwitnessed, subject as they are to fan bases whose passion stands in contrast to the cinematic obsession that is said to distinguish a shared psychic landscape. It is a landscape that outsiders seem to insist on, a property that Texans are supposed to own. Texans are supposed to feel what the outsiders believe, that Texas high school football is a single, unified experience that every player, no matter his location or era, shares with fraternal peers, as if suiting up inside the Lone Star borders has given us a solidarity of perception and a kinship of kind. They expect us to endorse the creed, to support their faith in our presumed fidelity. Steeped on the folklore of Friday Night Lights, plus the reality of pro and college rosters stocked with Texas talent, they seem convinced that each Texas high school football player enjoys the over sized attention of every local resident, carrying upon his teenage shoulders a ponderous burden of vicarious joys and municipal dreams. Those same residents, they seem to believe, are happy to oblige, indulging a legend that satisfies the outsiders only by squaring with truth.
But the truth is many sided, and not all sides have room for myth.
“My take is that the myth of Texas high school football way, way, way takes precedence over the reality of it,” says Mike Rhyner, of Dallas sports talk radio station KTCK 1310 AM.
People think every high school game in the state is played in front of absolutely jam packed stadiums full of absolutely rabid fans, but that simply is not the case.
I used to live near Franklin Field (in Dallas) and sometimes on a Friday night I’d wander down there to watch a game. Usually, if the schools were from that area, they’d do pretty well. But if the schools weren’t from that area, there’d be nobody there. I mean nobody. If people aren’t connected in some way with the game – a kid in the band, a girl in the drill team – they’re just not there. Nobody cares about this football stuff.
Attendance figures are hard to come by, but other observers agree that urban turnout often falls short of the Lone Star legend.
“Over the course of more than 30 years as a sportswriter, I’ve covered or written about a lot of high-school football. Everything from small towns in the middle of nowhere to Odessa Permian to urban schools,” Dallas Morning News sports columnist Kevin Sherrington writes in an email.
The difference in fan loyalty is significant. In Temple and Stephenville, season tickets to high-school football games were sometimes mentioned in wills. A good game at Hillcrest’s home field probably draws a couple thousand. We’ve attended junior varsity games where there were more players on the visiting team than fans. That’s certainly not unusual in DISD.
Danny Davis, who covers high-school sports for the Austin American-Statesman, offers an empathetic view:
I think it’s unfair to expect large crowds at inner-city football games because one of the things that attracts people to the ‘Friday Night Lights’ is the sense of community and when you live in a city with multiple high schools, that sense of community is lost. Success also has an impact on the attendance numbers because, even in those multi-school cities, the successful schools tend to see good crowds. The struggling programs? It’s not hard to find a good seat at their games.
It certainly wasn’t hard to find a good seat at Forester Field that night. In response to the receiver’s remark, I glanced at the bleachers and saw mostly bleachers, not the people who, if for no other reason than to witness the acrobatic receptions of a future All-Pro, should have been bolted to the edges. Problem was, my school, like the future All-Pro’s, stood in a blue-collar section of Dallas, and for that reason alone, ours were games attractive primarily to people who wished to see the award-winning band before heading to the parking lot at the start of the third quarter, at which time, more often than not, we were comfortably behind.
We played in a district full of talented teams. One would send 11 seniors to Division 1 programs, and three of those players would earn spots on NFL rosters. Another team had a player who boasted an NFL body already, 6-foot-five inches of muscle and 240 pounds of mean. One Friday night, while waiting to field a punt, I saw him approaching in the way a heat-seeking missile approaches its target, so in an act of self-preservation I signaled for a fair catch, caught the ball and immediately started running. Sure, I got flagged for delay of game, just as I had expected, but having been unsure that he’d come to a humane and lawful stop, I had at least survived the return. As it turned out, my fears had been well founded. The following year, a D1 program would dismiss the same player after he beat the Canadian bacon out of a pizza-delivery guy. But the point is, people should’ve watched that summabitch play football while they still could.
He was that good. But the people didn’t come, and now he’s just a story.
The story— like a creation myth, it was always there.
Even as we suited up for our first freshman practice, we knew the tale of Texas high school football, how the undersized sons of tough-as-nails roughnecks had tapped their inner Mojo to beat far more talented teams, how the dutiful boys of North Texas farmers had milked the cows long before sunup just so they could practice the option in the afternoons, how the sturdy kids of crosstown peasants had lifted cinder blocks and milk jugs since the age of eight just so they could kick our asses at the age of 16, but mostly how the sport we played should forever trump all other concerns.
In the hierarchy of needs, the legend said, football came just below God and right beside Jesus. Or maybe vice versa. Whichever, we knew it ranked high. But the truth is that we never believed it. We never believed that it mattered as much as the legend instructed. We never even talked about it. The words “Texas high-school football” never left our mouths. It didn’t seem to apply to us. We practiced hard, mostly, and played hard, usually, and without exception we wanted to win. And we enjoyed it. Playing football was a lot of fun, even if it hurt like hell. But as an article of faith, Texas high-school football seemed like somebody else’s property.
As the seasons turned, we’d play the parts that history and expectation had assigned to us. We’d study our playbooks, run our wind sprints and entertain the idea of winning district, even against long odds. Having played the state’s No. 1-ranked teams to a 0-0 tie and a 7-0 loss in consecutive weeks, we were once called —and I quote—“the best winless team in the state.”
But even then, we understood a central truth: that we were not playing Texas high school football so much as we were playing high school football in Texas, and there was a difference. At the start of each season we’d thumb through Dave Campbell’s Texas Football, an annual magazine that provides forecasts for every team in the state, and read with awe and wonder the prospects for the Permians and Planos, teams that played in the same state but somehow in a completely different universe. Their players seemed like celebrities, accessible to us commoners only through the properties of a two-dimensional page, and the teams seemed like assemblies of superstars whose jock straps we couldn’t carry. We’d read about them as we would the Cowboys, as collections of otherworldly players for whom football was the key to life. And then we’d put down the magazine and go do our homework. Or not. Either way, the story went on—with or without us.
Post-football I stayed with the story, and while covering urban games for a city paper I saw that little had changed. Band members outnumbered fans. Drill teams made the noise. At one game, a future pro displayed his brilliance to a smattering of claps. Meantime, in the suburban chapter, fans had honored their place in the story with bodies the turnstiles counted and spirit the narrative craved.
Of course the story wouldn’t end with urban and suburban games. Years later I attended a six man game in remote West Texas. There I expected a bounty of backwater passion. Instead I counted more cows in the pasture than fans in the stands. Granted, one team had traveled 101.5 miles from a town of just 533 residents, but you’d have thought that the halftime show, in which fans competed via musical chairs for strawberry pound cake with a cream cheese glaze, might have enticed a few more folks from the boonies. But the fact remained that bovine turnout, such as it was, had eclipsed the fandom that should’ve been a birthright, at least according to script.
Some time later I spent time with a Class 2A team in Central Texas. Three weeks remained in the season, and with a pair of wins the team could clinch a playoff spot. Going in, I had expected a civic expression of playoff fever, where team colors would adorn every light post and the team would anchor every conversation. What I got was regular-season routine. True, the coaches were all business; they’d say things their TV counterparts would have said, coachspeak on the order of “Boys, someday you’ll wish you could do this all over again, but you can’t! So do it now! No regrets!”
By contrast, the players displayed the usual assortment of high-school attitudes, from the tenacity of the too-short quarterback to the meh of the lineman who cared more about music than pass protection. Meanwhile, at variance with their mediated counterparts, the townsfolk talked less about the team than about cattle prices and armyworms, and for the duration of my stay the light posts remained the color of light posts, all silver and rust.
On a Friday afternoon in November, about three hours before the season finale, we boarded a school bus and took to a farm-to-market road. The team had lost the two previous games, but with a win tonight, coupled with an unlikely but not-impossible scenario involving four other teams, it could still sneak into the playoffs. And so as the bus motored northward to the nearby town, I took a look around. Some players were joking and laughing, seemingly unconcerned that kickoff–and with it, the impending final gun—slowly approached from the north. Others napped or listened to music, each in a private diversion from the responsibilities to come. Still others talked strategy with coaches, some using dry-erase boards to share a situational gospel with others who truly believed, while some just stared out the window at the world passing by, in a place between departure and arrival.
Kickoff began the countdown, just as a story initiates its end. At the same time, I stood on the sideline and watched the steady unveiling of this Cubist display, a form like all such forms that indulged a wide array of viewpoints, from the fact-based takes of journalism to the wishful thinking of folklore, from the tarnished truths of experience to the selective truths of observation, from the fractured understanding of a shared reality to the one-sided grasp of a dividable idea, not least that Texas high school football somehow transcended other iterations of the sport.
Yet as I stood beside the action, I saw no specific identifiers of a Lone Star cachet. I saw not a single player so thoroughly Texan that no other place could have spawned him. It was just high school football, exclusive to a time that neither God nor the government would ever restore to those who had left it behind. As the game went on, players became the embodiments of the usual designs—the indirect dreams of unfulfilled dads; the tuitional visions of underpaid moms; the schemes of ambitious assistants—even as they surrendered their bodies to the quick physics of the season’s last game.
Bodies bent and twisted to the quickest of strange demands, the players straining against pain and exhaustion to turn a moment’s measure into a thing they’d always keep. Heat discolored the coolness with rising clouds of vapor, a signal that the player was trying hard. The third quarter ended and the fourth began, with desperation dueling fatigue for command of what remained. Players ramped up the violence, turning each play into a battle inside the war. Cut by groans and threats, the percussive thump of savage impact turned brutality into a drumbeat, irregular, almost primitive, and rendering frivolous the brassy numbers of competing bands.
Down on the sideline, I tasted adrenaline the way others tasted Coke. I felt the need and the presence, as if I were a man in a factional church. I felt the power, but it had nowhere to go. I had no place to put it, no way to make it work. Time had turned me into a witness, just another observer consigned to a sideline that might as well have been a see-through screen. Meanwhile, with wounded ankles wrapped in beige tape, a few players had met with the same sad barrier. The end had found a premature route through the twist of bone and tendon, and suddenly the conjured masculinity of a heartbroken boy proved a feeble defense to tears. I felt for them. I too had suffered a season-ending injury, and to this day, hobbled by a past that no wishful thinking could change, I still suffered the damage. All I could do—all anyone could do—was to pay attention and watch. And what we were watching did not belong to a state. It belonged to a bigger place and time.