Football defines West Texas towns
The day in December 1998 that former president Bill Clinton was impeached by the House of Representatives, it was barely represented on the front page of the Reporter-Telegram newspaper in Midland.
It didn't matter that the leader of the free world had been impeached for the first time in more than 130 years; what mattered was that the Midland Lee High School Rebels football team won the school's first state championship, beginning a run of three straight state titles.
The coverage of the title game at Texas Stadium in Irving dominated the front page, while the news of Clinton's impeachment did not even receive a full-fledged story -- just a teaser box with a photo above the mast head, pointing readers inside the paper.
To those who are not from West Texas, the front page probably was a bit of a shock and only added to the stereotype of the area and its passion for high school football. But it also showed the importance and grip high school football holds in the city, and many more cities and towns like Midland across West Texas.
"Football is almost first here," said Zach Starnes, who is a safety for this season's version of the Rebels.
All about Friday nights
Draw a line on a Texas map starting at Wichita Falls along the Red River, continue south to just east of Abilene, through San Angelo, and finally track it almost due south to the Rio Grande River, and anywhere west of that line is considered West Texas.
It's a land where sport utility vehicles -- and that's the big Chevy Suburbans and Ford Excursions -- and pick-up trucks are the vehicles of choice. A land where conservative politics is the norm and President George W. Bush's approval ratings are still high, and where a short road trip is considered 100 miles -- one way.
But it's what happens on Friday nights that best defines communities in West Texas.
From the smallest farming towns of the South Plains around Lubbock that barely field squads in six-man football to the large Class 5A schools of the Permian Basin, life revolves around football in the fall.
Even in football-mad Texas, those living east of that imaginary line sometimes question why West Texans are so passionate and even wonder if they are simply crazy.
"Crazy? No. Passionate. Yes," said Justin Tubb, who played football at tiny Lenorah Grady High School in rural Martin County.
"I have relatives in Pennsylvania, and they don't even understand when I talk about 15,000 people at a high school football game," said Amarillo High School coach Brad Thiessen. "But they envy it. Coaches wish they had the opportunity to be a part of it."
Towns virtually shut down on Friday night, whether the team is good or bad, and the success or failures of a team dominate conversations at local coffee shops and other businesses.
The conversations start on Saturday and continue all week until the next game, and the local media designate ample amounts of time and space covering the sport. Players are heroes to younger students in town and are reminded by older fans how important their success is to a town.
"It's a neat atmosphere when you have that kind of expectations from a community," Thiessen said.
One thing I've found that you can't replace is that Friday night feeling. That feeling that you have when everybody in the whole town is there, all just waiting. The feeling you get in the cool November weather and the feeling you get when you walk on the field. You can't replace that.
-- Former Lenorah Grady High player Justin Tubb
West Texas football, specifically Class 5A Permian's (Odessa) program, was the subject of H.G. "Buzz" Bissinger's best-selling book "Friday Night Lights," which is the inspiration for the current television show. That book and show could be based on any sports-mad town in the country, but when it comes down to it, it was only West Texas that could have provided that type of backdrop.
In the process, the book, movie and television show only added to the lore of West Texas football, which already was filled with legends and legendary players long before Bissinger's book hit the shelves.
The stories of great players and great teams are passed down from generation to generation, and are not reflected only in a town's welcoming sign, where its football success may be posted. Football is a reflection of the way of life in West Texas, which can be tough, but it's that toughness, idealism and ruggedness that define the area, which also equates to football.
West Texas' passion has been backed up by success through the years. Permian owns six state titles, and for much of the 1970s and '80s it was the standard bearer for high school football in Texas when it came to offseason conditioning and in-season success; meanwhile, Brownwood owns seven titles. And nearly every decade from 1930 on, at least one West Texas town has won a state championship, with the latest being the panhandle town of Canadian in 2007.
"That's our lifestyle," said Midland High senior tailback Darius Miller. "It's just football, football, football. You feel the rush and you know that you are representing the people you are not only playing beside, but the people in the stands from the school and your family. [Fans] are not really crazy, they are just big football fans."
Ain't nothin' like a Friday night in Midland, Texas
Those who play it, coach it, cover it and watch it have a hard time explaining to those outside of West Texas why it matters so much.
The area's general isolation is a major reason. Excluding the sprawling and growing metropolis of El Paso, there is no city in West Texas with more than 300,000 people. Dotted across a landscape larger than many states in the Northeast are a number of small towns and cities that in many cases are 50 miles apart -- and sometimes 100 or more miles apart.
And the centerpiece of the towns is the school, because many of the town's economies are based on the boom and bust nature of oil, farming and ranching.
The school is sometimes a city's or county's largest employer, and it is the gathering place for nearly everyone in those communities. Even in the larger cities, the happenings at the local school district will dominate news, and that has bled over to the football team through the years.
"Oil may go up and down and cotton may go up and down, but the schools and football will always be there," said Abilene High coach Steve Warren. "More than anything else, it gives the community something to rally around."
Football is so important that head football coaches are typically some of the highest-paid public employees in a city or town. The four Class 5A head coaches in Midland and Odessa earn on average just over $95,000 per year.
Those salaries are behind only the superintendent and high school principals, and in many cases the football coach can carry as much or more power than any of those school executives, especially in smaller towns.
That type of money also reflects how much communities are willing to put into making sure their football programs are successful.
"Our job is not just to win football games, but to create young men that need to be good citizens," said Thiessen, who coached Class A Stratford to a state title in 2000. "But you're not going to be doing that very long if you don't win."
Those salaries are only the tip, because many school districts have stadiums that seat anywhere from 1,500 to 15,000, and many have state-of-the-art artificial turf and other facilities. The stadium at Class 3A Monahans has a seating capacity of 6,000, and the school recently purchased artificial turf.
Midland's Grande Communications Stadium was financed through bonds as part of a sales-tax increase in the city, and it seats 15,000 people. The stadium is host to numerous playoff games as well as home games for Lee and Midland High Schools.
On most Friday nights, those stadiums are filled to near capacity with not only parents and family but also longtime fans who have followed the programs for decades. It's almost a college-like atmosphere, with active booster clubs and traditions that date back decades, such as Permian's "Mojo" chant.
West Texas football has maintained its level of popularity even in this age of the 24-hour news cycle, cable television and the Internet.
"You have sports writers and TV people that are covering the school and interviewing the kids, and that's important," said former Permian coach Gary Gaines, who is now the athletic director for the Lubbock Independent School District. "That's just part of the uniqueness."
Down the road
Other sports have gained some inroads in West Texas' larger schools, such as soccer, but even in the larger Class 5A schools, football still dominates athletic life. Even athletes who don't play football still attend the games on Friday night because it's something to do and shows the deep sense of school spirit that permeates nearly every community.
"During this time of year, it seems like the whole student body and community are really tied in to the football season," said current Permian coach Darren Allman, a 1987 Permian grad. "It's kind of the central focus outside of the school day what's going on on Friday night."
The question remains: Will football maintain its level of popularity? The sport has seen its share of tough times in West Texas, and no large school team from the area has won a state championship in nearly a decade. Playoff success has been tough when facing the sometimes bigger and faster teams of the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex.
But one area where Metroplex schools will never match West Texas teams is how a community rallies and supports its players. Yes, there are some overzealous fans in West Texas, but in the end it's the constant support from little towns and cities across the vast expanses of the area that make it unique.
Some may call it a way of life, but it might just be more than that.
"One thing I've found that you can't replace is that Friday night feeling," Tubb said. "That feeling that you have when everybody in the whole town is there, all just waiting. The feeling you get in the cool November weather and the feeling you get when you walk on the field. You can't replace that."
Len Hayward is the sports editor of the Reporter-Telegram in Midland, Texas.
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