With interviews and stories of celebrated players, including past and present NFL stars, as well as legendary coaches and dynastic teams from across Texas, The Republic of Football captures the standout moments in Friday night lights.
Anywhere football is played, Texas is the force to reckon with. Its powerhouse programs produce the best football players in America. In The Republic of Football, Chad S. Conine vividly captures Texas’s impact on the game with action-filled stories about legendary high school players, coaches, and teams from around the state and across seven decades.
Drawing on dozens of interviews, Conine offers rare glimpses of the early days of some of football’s biggest stars. He reveals that some players took time to achieve greatness—LaDainian Tomlinson wasn’t even the featured running back on his high school team until a breakthrough game in his senior season vaulted him to the highest level of the sport—while others, like Colt McCoy, showed their first flashes of brilliance in middle school. In telling these and many other stories of players and coaches, including Hayden Fry, Spike Dykes, Bob McQueen, Lovie Smith, Art Briles, Lawrence Elkins, Warren McVea, Ray Rhodes, Dat Nguyen, Zach Thomas, Drew Brees, and Adrian Peterson, Conine spotlights the decisive moments when players caught fire and teams such as Celina, Southlake Carroll, and Converse Judson turned into Texas dynasties. Packed with never-before-told anecdotes, as well as fresh takes on the games everyone remembers, The Republic of Football is a must-read for all fans of Friday night lights.
- 1. Hamlin (1984): The Tie That Doomed the Pied Pipers
- 2. Odessa (1946): Hayden Fry Leads the Bronchos
- 3. Snyder (1952): Grant Teaff’s First Lessons
- 4. Brownwood (1960s): Gordon Wood’s Legacy Begins
- 5. San Antonio (1963): The One They Call “The Game”
- 6. Lubbock (1968): The Estacado Matadors’ Phenomenal Debut
- 7. Mexia (1968): Blackcats Roll with the Changes
- 8. Celina (1974): The Birth of the 10-1 Defense
- 9. Big Sandy (1974): The Wildcats Kiss Their Sisters
- 10. Temple (1975): Bob McQueen Adds It Up
- 11. Midland (1983): Lee Rebels Pull Off Historic Double
- 12. Daingerfield (1983): The Tigers’ Amazing Shutout Streak
- 13. Corpus Christi (1985): Calallen Builds a Winner
- 14. West Orange (1986–1987): Kevin Smith Leads Stark to Title
- 15. Idalou (1988): South Plains Superman
- 16. White Deer (1988): Bucks Ride Swinging Gate to Glory
- 17. Rockport-Fulton (1992): Dat Nguyen’s Pirates Raid Homecoming
- 18. Converse (1992–1993): Judson Rockets Blast Off
- 19. Tyler (1994): John Tyler’s Lions Knew How to Finish
- 20. Sealy (1994): Tigers’ Dynasty Rises Up
- 21. Galena Park (1994): North Shore Lays Its Foundation
- 22. Wortham (1996): The Bulldogs Grow into Champions
- 23. Waco (1996): University’s LT Runs into Spotlight
- 24. Austin (1996): Westlake Breaks Through
- 25. New Braunfels (1997): Father and Son Build a Winner
- 26. Katy (1997): Tigers Pound Their Way to a Title
- 27. Mart (1999): “Cosby Show” Panthers Thrive in Prime Time
- 28. Everman (2001–2002): Bulldogs Unleash Dominant Streak
- 29. Ennis (2001): Harrells’ Lions Come Roaring Back
- 30. Palestine (2002): The Call That Changed Adrian Peterson’s Path
- 31. Georgetown (2002): Mason Crosby Kicks His Way to the Top
- 32. Southlake (2002): The Carroll Dragons’ Ascent
- 33. Tuscola (2003): McCoys Lead Jim Ned to the Brink
- 34. Crawford (2004): Pirates Put the President On Hold
- 35. Abilene (2004): Wylie Wins First Crown on Final Play
- 36. Highland Park (2005): Scots Prevail in Epic Battle
- 37. Copperas Cove (2007): RG3, Bulldawgs Come Alive
- 38. Brenham (2009): Cubs Advance with Improbable Rally
- 39. Aledo (2008–2011): Johnathan Gray Runs into the Record Book
- 40. Fort Worth (1983–1984): Trimble Tech’s Glory Days
- 41. Denton (2002): Ryan Raiders Swipe Semifinal Victory from Ennis
- Further Reading
I remember being nervous as hell as I walked through my high school’s wide main corridor on an August morning in 1993.
As a sixteen-year-old sophomore, I already knew I wanted to be a sportswriter. I was pumped to have been named the sports editor of the Midway Panther Post. I was excited because the beginning of football season loomed, only days away. But mostly I was trying to suppress that anxious feeling in my gut as I walked down the main hall, through the cafeteria, and into the gym. I had my first assignment: introduce myself to the head football coach, Kent Bachtel, and tell him I would be covering the football team that fall.
It turned out I had nothing to worry about.
Bachtel couldn’t have been better suited or more willing to help me along my chosen career path. I know of a couple of coaches who would’ve nodded politely and told me they could try to help, but they were actually very busy. Not Coach Bachtel. He enthusiastically shook my hand and we figured out a game plan. I would come to his office on Saturday mornings after the team had met to watch film and I would interview the coach about the previous night’s game.
I would write down a few questions, but mostly we would have an openended conversation about football. More than two decades later, when I began working on this book, I used pretty much the same formula.
When I went to college, I talked the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal’s sports editor, Doug Hensley, into sending me out to high school football games on Friday nights. I had a bulky Toshiba laptop that would connect to the Internet by using a dial-up service called Juno, which was just e-mail. That was about a million communication revolutions ago. Of course, my older sportswriter friends would say I had it easy, since I never had to lug around a “Trash-80” (the TRS-80 was an early personal computer made by Tandy–Radio Shack). Anyway, when the football game ended, there would be a mad dash to write a game story and find a phone line to connect to and send the story via e-mail. I would find myself at the Springlake-Earth coach’s house or behind the counter of a Blockbuster Video after begging the clerk to let me use the analog fax line. Desperate times called for desperate measures, but it was a thrill to be learning to be a sportswriter through the trials of covering high school football in West Texas.
Since that time, I’ve spent every Friday night during football season at football stadiums from the Panhandle and South Plains to Dallas–Fort Worth to Central Texas and wherever the playoff wind blows. Plenty of Saturday afternoons and nights, too. I’ve seen a few thrillers, one of which is included in these pages. I’ve also seen lots of duds. The duds aren’t so bad, really. When it’s 42–0 at halftime, I bang out the requisite number of paragraphs while the two marching bands fill up the twenty-eight minutes between the second and third quarters. Many times, I’m happy to file my game story and then meet up with friends for a beer. An ordinary ending to an ordinary night.
I’ll admit, there are even times when spending Friday night at a high school football field is a tiny bit of drudgery. Just like everything else in life, it’s not always magical. High school football can be the very definition of ordinary American life.
When it’s special, it’s electric. And that’s the theme throughout these fortyone chapters.
I attempted to capture as many angles as possible from as many points of the high school football experience as I could. LaDainian Tomlinson’s breakthrough game, the first nondistrict game of his senior season, came on a sweltering Thursday night when the Waco University Trojans kicked off the season against Austin LBJ. Colt McCoy showed his first flash of brilliance in his first seventh-grade game. Robert Griffin woke up one Saturday morning, the playoffs looming a week away, and found himself struggling to walk. There are stories of dynasties that won multiple state titles, and there are stories of teams whose dreams died hard early in the playoffs.
Collectively, the stories give proof to a couple of bold statements. Anywhere football is played, Texas has influence. It leads the nation in producing college and NFL stars, and has for decades. Its powerhouse programs, which combine progressive ideas with traditional fundamentals, set the tone for how to build a winner. The evidence couldn’t be contained in a dozen volumes, and I certainly didn’t set out to write a comprehensive account. I was able to talk football and tell some of the stories passed along to me by Hayden Fry, Spike Dykes, Bob McQueen, Lovie Smith, Art Briles, Lawrence Elkins, Warren McVea, Ray Rhodes, Dat Nguyen, Zach Thomas, Drew Brees, Johnathan Gray, and many others.
While interviewing, researching, and writing, I camped out in the moments that we crave as fans. The phrase “Friday night lights” has become ubiquitous in relation to Texas high school football. But I’m here to tell you that the game is at its absolute best on sunny, crisp Saturday afternoons in December: that time of year when the teams on both sidelines believe it’s their destiny and birthright to move on to the next round. The fans in the stands cheer their heads off, partly to stay warm but mostly because they want the ride to continue forever, or at least right up until Christmas.
While traveling to NFL training camps for this project, I found myself in a hotel room in Chicago in late July. While preparing to drive to Detroit to interview Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford, I discovered a YouTube video with thirteen minutes of highlights of a Highland Park versus Stephenville game from the mid-2000s. The sound track was simply the crowd at the game. Listening to those fans scream and those Stephenville fans shake their propanetank-filled-with-ball-bearings noise contraptions for dear life, I was transported from that hotel room back to Texas in December, where football is as rich and electric as it ever gets.
I knew right then that that was the game Stafford and I would talk about the next day. That game and so many others like it are the reason I’ll never stop covering high school football.
Those are the moments featured in this book.
“[A] satisfying tour of some of Friday night’s most renowned games in places like Odessa, Brownwood, Palestine, Crawford, Mart, Temple and Waco . . . [Chad Conine] also relates in fascinating detail the back stories of the Texans who made them happen. ”
“This is a wonderful, well-written book, full of compelling details and stories. A ‘must read’ for any Texas football fan.”
Dave Campbell, Dave Campbell’s Texas Football
“An incredible collection of accounts of legendary Texas high school football programs. If you like Texas high school football, you will love Chad Conine’s book—well written and full of great stories and memories.”
Graham Harrell, Texas High School Football Hall of Fame inductee and former Ennis High School and Texas Tech University quarterback
“For the devotee of Texas high school football, everything is here—legendary coaches and celebrated players, colorful history, high Friday night drama, and solid, thoughtful insight into the role the game has played in Texas culture. In virtually every chapter the reader is introduced to a young player who, in later years, became a household name in sports.”
Carlton Stowers, author of Where Dreams Die Hard: A Small American Town and Its Six-Man Football Team and Staubach: Portrait of the Brightest Star