“Turning around again heading north on Grandview back into those plains, there is a feeling of driving into the fathomless end of the earth. And then it rises out of nowhere, two enormous flanks of concrete with a sunken field in between. Gazing into that stadium, looking up into those rows that can seat 20,000, you wonder what it must be like on a Friday night, when the lights are on and the heart and soul of the town pours out over that field, across those endless plains.”
SAN ANTONIO, Texas – To us novices, us foreigners from out of state, who have experienced little to nothing of Texas high school football, we have just the romantic tales and vivid descriptions of Pulitzer prize-winning author H.G. Bissinger and his gritty story of Friday Night Lights.
This, however, was my fourth visit to the
Lone Star State
to once again capture the flavor and heart and soul of the game no better captured or displayed than in these endless plains.
This clearly was a distant and different setting than the West Texas town of Odessa, where Bissinger made home for the 1988 Permian high school season.
This, though large and vacant, was the Alamodome, air conditioned and comfy, a monstrous can’t-miss structure smack dab in the center of the most touristy region of San Antonio.
This was the 11th annual Texas Football Classic put on by largely by legendary Dave Campbell and his Texas Football empire, celebrating his 50 years of publishing the state bible for gridiron fans.
The three-day event featured five games and 10 more Texas schools, pushing that total to more than 70 since 1999 that have combined for almost 100 state championship appearances and 68 all-time state titles.
It didn’t come close to approaching the 39,633 fans it drew in 2006 or the 164 media members it demanded in 2002.
But it was memorable nevertheless, and here, in no particularly order are the 10 most vivid or telling moments for this foreigner from California.
Speaking of Bissinger, the biggest storyline here was the return after 20 seasons of Permian coach Gary Gaines, a jewel of a man and an icon of a figure among coaches throughout the state.
There was, however, no magic Mojo in these Panthers, who committed six turnovers and had two interceptions returned for touchdowns in a 33-14 loss to Duncanville.
Looking a little shell-shocked and grim, Gaines was making his way off the field when out of nowhere four little tikes, probably ages 3-10, all ran up his pant leg and gave little giant hugs. They all wore matching black t-shirts with “Gaines’ Grand Boy (or Girl)” on the back. All skipped and danced. And all chattered incessantly in unison about important issues of the day like the band song selections and funny scoreboard replays and breakfast cereal, all which required some response from grandpa.
I couldn’t imagine a better remedy from a stinging defeat.
The break Duncanville junior linebacker Stephon Lanigan made on Permian quarterback Steve Pipes pass in the flat was un-coachable. It was reactive and athletic and he intercepted the pass and sprinted the other directions 91 yards for a touchdown, utterly turning this tight battle Duncanville’s way.
It may also prove to be a symbolic play in the turnaround of Duncanville’s program.
Known for its basketball prowess, the Panthers made the playoffs for the first time in four years last season. With turnaround king Jeff Dicus as their coach, a strong offensive scheme, huge linemen and athletic and fast skill players, it won’t be long until
will emerge as a regular state or even national power.
“We’re capable of going all the way as long as we stay focused and practice hard,” Lanigan said.
Dicus, boasting a barrel chest and robust personality, flailed his fists at the strong showing of Duncanville supporters afterward. Clearly, this was a landmark win over a legendary coach and program.
“This just goes to show what happens when people believe,” he said.
It’s easy to believe in Dicus. He turned around programs at three different schools, the last being at Lake Travis in Austin, helping them win a state title in 2007. He left those cozy confines of an upscale community with loads of resource, for the largely urban community of Duncanville, a suburb of Dallas.
Graceful in Defeat
I’m sure Gaines has led many seminars about the veer offense or the 3-4 defense or overseeing a program, but he should offer a clinic in dealing with defeat. His disappointment was palpable yet the first words out of his mouth to reporters was: “are you all on deadline? Because if not, then I just need to address my team for 5-10 minutes.”
He excused himself and 5-10 minutes later he addressed the three reporters, two from his local paper. The first thing he did was put the blame on himself, deflecting harsh criticism of his team. He didn’t back away from a questionable fourth-down decision to go for it at his own 29 late in the first half.
“That wasn’t a smart call. … I’ll take the blame for that. That cost us three points.”
He gave credit to his bigger and faster and well-coached opponent, didn’t hide his disappointment but kept levity looking at the future. “Sometimes you need to get your tail whipped. I hope it’s a good lesson,” he said.
Flat Back Fever
Watching Utah-bound receiver Terrell Reese of Brenham reach back with one hand, catch the 9-yard out from Ty Schlomann and fall flat on his back with a defender all over him reminded us of Barnum and Bailey. It reminded his teammates of someone closer to home. Well, formerly of home.
“When I went to the sidelines everyone was slapping my helmet saying ‘Way to go T.O.’ “
The 6-foot-2, 193-pound Reese wears No. 81 and his idol is Terrell Owens. He finished with eight catches for 118 yards and three touchdowns.
With an absolutely swarming fast defense, electric sophomore back Troy Green and Reese as one of three or four receiving threats, Brenham looks like a legitimate 4A state title contender.
The jumbotron at the Alamodome is second to none, clear and vivid. More so, the operators had cameras in the stands capturing high school life at its best. There was also instant replay of every single play, only occasionally skipping ones with controversial calls so to not rile up the patrons.
Beyond the entertainment, anyone notice the actual final scores for the event – especially on Saturday? Eerily similar.
Besides Boerne-Champion’s thrilling 28-24 win over Midlothian on Friday, check out these scores: Floresville 36, Fox Tech 13; Brenham 37, Mayde Creek (Katy) 14; Duncanville 33, Permian 14; Steele (Cibolo) 35, East Central (San Antonio) 14.
Twilight Zone theme music here.
In my favorite scoreboard moment, watching the expression of Champion junior receiver David Massey following the replay of his improbable game-winning 37-yard touchdown grab in the final minute against Midlothian was fantastic. You could feel the lad’s pride beam out his eyeballs.
OK, I’ll say it. Steele junior running back Malcolm Brown is going to play on Sundays.
Hate to put that burden on kids, but we said the same thing two years ago watching then Mater Dei (Santa Ana, Calif.) junior Matt Barkley fling passes all over Orange County. Obviously it hasn’t jinxed him after being named the first true freshman to earn the starting nod at USC last week.
Beyond wowing with skills and talent beyond his years, like Barkley, what is more impressive is Brown’s demeanor. After touchdowns on Saturday, he scored three, he calmly handed the ball the referee and jogged slowly to the sideline much like another famous (NFL) Texas running back – the most prolific of all-time.
Physically, Brown can get around edge with burner speed and he sheds arm tacklers easily with a chiseled 6-foot, 215-pound frame. Plus he cuts on a dime.
Asked about if Brown seems any different since a season-ending leg injury last year, Steele coach Mike Jinks said: “Yes, he’s bigger and faster.”
The most impressive winning teams: 1. Brenham; 2. Steele; 3. Duncanville; 4. Champion; 5, Floresville.
Most impressive skill offensive players: 1. Brown (Steele); 2. Reese (Brenham); 3. WR Eddie Johnson (Midlothian); 4. WR Derrick Agbajori (Midlothian); 5. RB Chris Johnson (East Central).
Best plays: 1. Johnson’s 75-yard catch-and-run followed by a tough 2-point grab that gave Midlo a short-lived 24-21 lead late against Champion; 2. Lanigan’s interception return; 3. Reese’s one-hand grab; 4. Permian linebacker Brennan Welch somehow shed a big blocker, dove and with one paw to trip up running back Zay Handy who looked surely to be going in for a TD on a 13-yard screen pass (Duncanville had to settle for a field goal); 5.
The post-game Gaines interview with two other reporters was intimate and priceless. Though some coaches loathe the experience after a bitter defeat, some, like Gaines, try to find some good, like therapy, a place to vent or search for some meaning.
It had been a long and enduring process to get to this moment and for his boys to fall flat on their respective faces was a serious setback.
In his smooth, subdued, deliberate drawl, Gaines was just about talked out searching for superlatives and answers, when, like a gardener finding just the right tool for a prickly field, he picked out a perfect story to finish, to ease the pain from this far-from-perfect performance.
He said after another particularly poor performance from one of his teams over the last four decades, a parent approached and asked if he’d ever farmed cotton.
“No, I told him, I’ve been a coach all my life. He said he had been held out of bud before and tonight coach, you got held out too. Now you got to replant. … So, that’s what we’re going to do – replant.”
Me too. Everytime I come to Texas to watch high school football it's like starting over again. There's so much rich tradition and history I've never been exposed to. But any game in Texas - Thursday, Saturday or even Friday night - is truly a once-in-a-high school sports-journalists' dream.
Whatever game in whatever state, I must recall Bissinger's words:
Odessa is the setting for this book, but it could be anyplace in this vast land where, on a Friday night, a set of spindly stadium lights rises to the heavens to so powerfully, and so briefly, ignite the darkness.
E-mail Mitch Stephens at email@example.com.