With the upcoming publication of Dave Campbell’s Texas Football magazine, dubbed to have the most expansive high school football coverage in the state, I feel like it’s as good as time as any to dive into various offseason topics. Today’s topic deals will be a celebration of small-town football.
Now don’t get me wrong; I am in no way making the case that small town high school football is equal to the suburban or urban schools around the state. It is undeniable that large district schools are superior in talent, facilities, training, and arguably coaching as well. However, there are some areas where I think the rural schools have them beat. And this piece is meant to highlight those areas.
First and foremost, the community aspect of small-town high school football in Texas cannot be replaced. It is the place where legend is born. It is where Hollywood goes when they think of Texas football, and many of their small community ideas were perpetuated on films such as Varsity Blues, or shows like Friday Night Lights. I have lived in the DFW area for a few years now, and I have yet to see the same community involvement in suburbia that is portrayed on the television, or lived out in the hometown in which I grew up. No business is “closed for the game.” You can rest assured that on Friday nights in the DFW area that all twenty Michaels, Kohls, Best Buys will be open across the metroplex.
In contrast, in small town Texas, the majority of the citizens are involved from an early age. Just like in the movies, the town is full of streamers bearing the school colors, on light poles, traffic signs, and on businesses. On gamedays, whether in all the schools or around town, everyone wears the school colors. People were seriously looked at differently if you were not wearing black and gold on a gameday in my town. You were judged accordingly. People just seem to take it more seriously in rural communities. Case in point, similar to the way it was portrayed in Varsity Blues, we too had dozens of people sit on lawn chairs and truck beds to watch practice. Honestly, it used to perplex some of us players. People would be sitting there just to watch us run and do conditioning drills at 8:30 AM, with no football even in sight. Also just like the movies, the community rallied around the team. The best were the perks you received when you were a player. On Thursday nights our dinners were catered. On Friday afternoon, all players got all they could eat Hard Eight BBQ for $1, and the boosters ponied up for charter buses and the Hilton when we played our playoff game in Midland. Whether you’re a player, band member, cheerleader, or fan, there was a great sense of unity that is unmatched in bigger cities. Because it’s not just the school that’s being represented in a game, often times it’s the town, county, and community on display as well.
Second, I believe the talent is vastly underrated in small towns. It’s true that usually you will not see a Division I player in most stadiums, but when there have been those types of talent, they have made their mark in a big way. Look at the past fifteen years in the Big 12 alone as evidence. Colt McCoy and James Washington were record setters at their respective schools. They both lit up the scoreboard on Saturdays and were arguably the best players on their teams. And even more overlooked is the impact that small town Texas guys have had on coaching in recent years. Art Briles, from tiny Rule, Texas, on the field orchestrated one of best rebuilding jobs in college football history. Today another small-town Texas boy is carrying that torch, Lincoln Riley, one of the hottest coaches in all of football is from Muleshoe. The list could go on of other small-town players who’ve made a huge impact, but these are some of the most notable.
Last, the games seem to be more intense when its town against town rather than just school against school. I think that is probably something that is missing in bigger cities. I’ve often wondered if a player could have the same pride when putting on a jersey for a school that is one of six in a suburb, playing in a stadium that is shared by all of them. Whereas in smaller towns there are no escapes. If you want to play football you have play for the public school in your town. There are no private schools or charter schools to turn to, and transferring schools is out of the question and would mean uprooting an entire family. There’s something special about playing a game with teammates you’ve known your entire life against opponents who have known each other their entire lives. And over time intense rivalries develop. I spent my childhood learning about a nefarious clock operator from Ballinger that stopped the clock for his Bearkats, allowing them to beat us in the Mid 90s. Then there’s the stories of kids from Llano throwing batteries and vandalizing our bus in the 1970s. Things get even better when you play the schools a few counties over in either direction. Because at that point you’re not just playing for your town and school, but also for your subculture. Local teams are out there that represent cowboys, cedar choppers, cotton farmers, roughnecks, and even Germans.
There is a lot of pride riding on the games, but it makes sense when you put it in perspective. Nobody really moves to small towns anymore, so what happens is the same family names will appear and reappear on the football program every single year. Thus, it goes without saying that legacy also plays a big role. I can speak from personal experience. My father graduated from Brady. My mother graduated from Brady. All of my aunts and uncles from both sides graduated from Brady. All 3 of my older brothers graduated from Brady. As a matter of fact, from 1995-2009 I had a family member involved in Friday night lights in some capacity every single year. That’s my legacy and many other small-town kids as well; watching homegrown boys play against a rival all while representing their school, town, community, and family all at once.
If you go to a high school football game in a small town hoping to see Division I athletes on a consistent basis, you will be disappointed. But clearly, there is more than meets the eyes when you are watching highlights or checking scores on Saturday morning. It’s not just undersized kids enjoying their high school glory days. Indeed, I hope that people realize it’s much more than that. It’s the pride and passion found in smaller communities that has helped perpetuate the well-deserved reputation Texas has when it comes to ‘Friday Night Lights.’