Football provides outlet for sons of military personnel serving overseas
The Copperas Cove Bulldawgs will travel up to Corsicana on Friday night to face Klein Oak to decide the Region II football champion in Texas' Class 5A Division II playoff bracket.
And if the Bulldawgs arrive back home in Central Texas around midnight, that will about fit with senior nose tackle Ken Hughes Jr.'s weekly routine of visiting by phone with his father in Iraq.
"He'll call and tell me good job, be all excited, tell his Army friends," Hughes said. His father, a captain, has been deployed since November 2007 and isn't scheduled home until next spring.
Hughes is just one of many football players at Copperas Cove (12-1) and nearby Killeen (9-4), each still alive in the fourth week of Texas' playoffs, who have parents either deployed or otherwise assigned overseas on military-related assignments.
"My dad trusts me to be the man of the house," said Hughes, who has a sister and younger brother at home along with his mother. "I make sure everything is taken care of, do what my mother tells me to do."
Football, he says, makes his father's deployment go faster.
The cities of Copperas Cove (31,000) and Killeen (103,000, home to three high schools) are located on opposite sides of Fort Hood, the largest active duty armored post in the U.S. military. It covers 340 square miles and is home to the 1st Cavalry, 4th Infantry Division and III Corps.
"The first few months are the hardest," said David Kelly Jr., a senior defensive tackle for the Killeen Kangaroos whose father, a military contractor, has also been gone for 13 months. "Then, it's sort of like a cycle and you have to do it."
Kelly's mother, Seanta, said David Jr. sometimes tests her authority. "Hey, just because it's just me doesn't mean you can take advantage," she said. "But for the most part, he is the greatest kid in the world. I'm really blessed to have him."
Deployment of a parent is just one of the challenges facing military children. According to a national support group called the Military Child Education Coalition, the average child in a military family will move six to nine times during K-12. That includes multiple moves during high school, often with a move as a senior.
Robert Ott, deputy superintendent of the Copperas Cove school district, graduated from Copperas Cove High while his father was in the military.
"Copperas Cove and Killeen schools are second to none in dealing with military families," Ott said. The schools' best resource is Fort Hood itself, he said, which works extensively with area schools and even alerts them to upcoming deployments.
Jack Welch is in his 15th season as Copperas Cove's head football coach, having left a position on the staff of Louisiana Tech to move into high school coaching. Welch said he and his staff aren't told the status of players' parents.
"We have to ask," said Welch, who took the Bulldawgs to the Class 4A Division I championship game each of the past two seasons. He said efforts to build a strong bond within the team and community include calling all of the players' parents once a week and having each family visited twice a year by staff members.
And he said children from military families aren't necessarily "yes, sir" and "no, sir" at school.
"You'd think being a military town, there'd be stronger discipline; it's just the opposite," Welch said. "The parents are deployed a lot. They're gone a lot. So [the kids] are being raised by one parent, sometimes no parent.
"Kind of like a preacher's kid. I was a preacher's kid. Sometimes you're a little rebellious."
But since the parents are usually strict, Welch added, discipline from the coach's office is supported at home.
"I think they really demand some discipline," said Killeen head coach Sam Jones, who been part of the program since 1994.
When Killeen opened the playoffs with a 34-21 victory over Austin Crockett, it marked the Roos' first post-season victory in seven years. That meant double the excitement for Tonya Haskins. She has two sons on the team -- junior defensive back Marcellus Lee and sophomore running back Jaquail Haskins. Her husband, Staff Sergeant Djuan Haskins, has been deployed since last April and is scheduled to return in May.
She attends all of the home games and has made special arrangements for Saturday playoff trips since she attends school down in Austin on weekends. She'll be in Austin on Saturday afternoon, too, this time to watch Killeen face district rival Lake Travis (No. 5 in ESPN RISE's Fab 50). When they met in District 25-4A play, Lake Travis won, 50-9.
Killeen senior right tackle Craig Watts Jr., whose father is a Master Sergeant currently in Germany, is glad to get another shot at Lake Travis.
"We went in there a little bit nervous," Watts said. "We were all pumped up to play and got a little shell-shocked."
Last week, Copperas Cove advanced with 55-48 victory over Houston Cypress Ridge when junior quarterback Nic Greene, who has subbed for injured classmate Cody Vaughn throughout the playoffs, threw a 40-yard touchdown pass to senior wide receiver Josh Boyce with nine seconds to play.
Boyce couldn't pass along the news after the game in person to his father, who has been in Bosnia. But Boyce's father was scheduled to return Thursday and make it to Friday night's game against Klein Oak.
"Cut it pretty close," Boyce said with a smile.
Jeff Miller is a freelance writer and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.