October 15, 2008

Football way of life in Texas

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Just after becoming the football coach at El Campo (Texas) High School in 1992, Bob Gillis brought his family to First United Methodist Church in the 10,945-person town nestled between Houston and Victoria. Following the service, an elderly woman approached Gillis.

"I want to wish you the best of luck," she said before walking away, stopping and turning back toward Gillis. "But, coach, we do want to win around here."

Art imitates life
Movies like Friday Night Lights and Varsity Blues give a fairly accurate portrayal of high school football in Texas. Teammates develop life long friendships and the entire community gets behind their teams.
Welcome to the Lone Star State, where residents devote themselves to a higher being and to high school football.

Whether one believes the platitude about everything being bigger in Texas, the high school football scene operates on a grand scale - and practically around the clock. Coaches grind through hours that would make an investment banker ponder a career move.

"From the small towns to the large communities, (high school football is) a tradition in Texas, and there's a lot of emphasis placed on it," said Joe Martin, assistant executive director of the Texas High School Coaches Association. "It brings communities together, and it brings our state together."

Locals follow the high school team as a college town roots for its storied institution. Two days after a game, James Owen, a senior running back at Burleson High School, went for a jog around his neighborhood. During the run, a person he had never met slowed down in their car to congratulate him on his Friday night performance.

Perhaps rabid Texas football fandom is best displayed during the state title games that fill professional stadiums. The five most highly attended playoff games in Texas history each exceeded 45,000 people.

Martin, then the coach at Garland High School, guided his team to the 1999 state championship game at Houston's Astrodome. Garland, a suburb northeast of Dallas, had hoped to play in the Dallas Cowboys' Texas Stadium but lost a coin flip resulting in the game being played near Katy High School. Regardless, a crowd of 42,000 watched Martin's team defeat Katy.

"It was awesome," Martin said. "In Texas you grow up hoping one day that that's the stage you're going to be on, and you work all your life to try and get there."

Friday night regular-season games represent a special platform as well. Allen High School, which is in north Dallas, packs Allen Eagle Stadium with 14,000 to 15,000 people. Regular-season games are televised on tape delay, so fans are encouraged to attend. However, several radio crews Martin said two to three stations covered the teams he coached at Garland and Allen do provide an outlet for those listening at home.

Preparation begins well before the Friday night games. Fans wash their cars, and then decorate them with shoe polish and ribbons for good luck. Caravans typically arrive a couple of hours prior to kickoff to secure good seats.

"It's crazy," Allen coach Tom Westerberg said. "It's kind of a college atmosphere."

The Friday night show serves as the climax to an arduous week of preparation. Texas allows coaches to teach "athletic" or specialized gym periods, which include conditioning, weights and football technique.

During the season, Maverick Smith, an El Campo running back named after his deceased uncle, goes through a grueling football schedule. He attends 7:30 a.m. defensive scheme meetings, works out at noon during the athletic period and practices in full pads for two hours after school.

Even Saturday serves as a work day for Texas players. They come to school mid-morning for about three hours to review the previous night's game, lift weights as a means of alleviating soreness and hear the initial scouting report of the next opponent. Burleson High, located 20 minutes south of Dallas, also uses this time to award its helmet stickers.

The schedule eases up during the offseason, but not much. According to state rules, 4A and 5A football teams can conduct spring training. From mid-April to mid-May, coaches monitor 18 full-pads practices in 30 days. The players lift all year, sometimes twice a day. Seven-on-seven play, a passing game with no tackling, takes place from the end of the school year until the end of July and has its own state tournament at Texas A&M's Kyle Field.

Though both Smith and Owen are multisport athletes, many gifted Texas players only participate in football so they do not miss out on the year-round training.

Daily grind
Texas 5A football coaches do not teach a full course load, and looking at their schedule it is easy to see why. Lufkin coach John Outlaw has to prepare his team each week for the likes of Lee, Longview, Mesquite, and North Shore among others.
Head coaches adopt a similarly narrow focus. On the 5A level, head coaches in Texas do not teach other subjects but are full-time employees and have offices on campus.

Martin said they work 85 to 100 hours a week during the season. The Allen coaches arrive by 7:30 a.m. Saturday to review the Friday night game film and spend five to six hours on Sunday preparing for the next opponent. State rules allow coaches to supervise the summer strength and conditioning program, which runs from the end of school until the fourth Thursday of July. Such time demands can put a strain on a head coach's family.

"You've got to have the right wife that understands," Martin said. "Coaches typically spend more time with other kids than they do with their own."

The game itself, though, allows coaches to spend time with their children. Martin's kids joined him on the sidelines during the game. Gillis' two daughters were on the drill team, and his son played for him on the football squad.

"Our kids kind of grew up around the field house," Gillis said.

The players form their own kind of family with their teammates, which is not surprising considering the long hours they log with each other. Owen cited the closeness of the team as the most accurate part about Friday Night Lights and Varsity Blues. The Burleson players, who must stay on campus after school on Friday, watch a pregame movie together. Smith has remained buddies with 10 of his teammates since the first grade. High school players attend junior high and junior varsity games, break bread during Thursday night team dinners and hang out together on the weekends.

That football family assumes a regal status at school. On Fridays teachers and classmates (including those they do not know) pepper them with questions about the team's readiness and exhort them to "go get 'em!" During Smith's first varsity scrimmage, a defender hit him in the leg, and he twisted sideways before landing on his feet and scoring a touchdown. Throughout school hallways and classrooms, that acrobatic play earned him a level of acclaim.

"Everybody was talking about it for weeks," Smith said.

And that play happened during a practice.

Elaborate pep rallies serve as another source of in-school excitement. During Burleson's hour-long rally after Friday's first period, the band plays while the players walk in one by one through dimmed lights and a tunnel of cheerleaders. The drama club then puts on a skit often involving mascots.

Because of the bright spotlight focused upon high school football in Texas, it seemingly has become a 24-7 grind, but the players do receive a day off on Sunday. How do they spend their lone day of freedom?

"(I) go to church," Owen said.

And then he watches the Cowboys play.

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