What Football Means to Texas
I looked out the window of the 737 on a cold, dark, December night, searching for any glimpse that I could muster of a football field. For much of my time obsessing over the sport, I had been led to believe that football is religion in Texas. Now I love football in the Golden State and I feel that it is represented well in my hometown, but I have been led to believe through popular media that the sport that I love is so much bigger in the Lone Star State. Last June, I drove across the country in search of my great-grandfather's photo in the archives of the Baseball Hall of Fame. Emboldened by that rare accomplishment, I had been bitten by the traveling bug. What else in the world should I see? Life is so very short and offers so many opportunities! So I set my sights on the UIL football state championships in Arlington, Texas.
So all season long, I learned more and more about the sacred entity that is high school football in Texas. And it was just my luck that the three games that I had wanted to see each featured a storyline that I yearned for. There was the perennial champion with the small-town vibe in Aledo, the first-timer's exuberance in Vandegrift and the grudge match between mighty North Shore and long-overdue Duncanville. But these are just the tips of the iceberg. What does football mean to Texas? Is it really treated as a religion? The only way to find out is to go to the Lone Star State.
I flew in on a Thursday night, knowing that I would land just as the 49ers began the second quarter of their matchup against the Seattle Seahawks. Unfortunately for me, fate would come calling time and again. In a twist of fate, I went through three rental car companies before settling on Avis. But even at Avis, I stressed and was praying to my LORD and Savior when they approved me. I then ended up going to the wrong hotel before finding the right one. From there, I went to the local watering hole, intended on drowning a busy day in a Bud Light. And it was good. Upon seeing me with all my Niner gear, one of the bartenders asked me if I had lost a bet. I simply told him no, I was a true Faithful, raising a bottle to sweet, sweet victory over the hated Seahawks!
I look forward to tomorrow as it promises to be filled with wonder and excitement while visiting the cities of Austin and Waco. But if it's one thing that I've learned on this trip, expect the unexpected.
This was always supposed to be a big travel day. I had planned on driving down to Waco and Austin, all the while visiting a slew of high school and college stadiums as well as some historical monuments. Unfortunately, I didn't factor in the traffic. I never do and soon I was whittling away at my list, figuring out what I could afford to not see and what I refused to leave the Lone Star State without seeing on this trip.
In the end, it ended up becoming a Friday Night Lights theme as each location that I visited was featured in the critically acclaimed television show. I drove to the State Capitol, which is really a big monument to the great state of Texas. I was in awe of the grandeur of each of their statues and the pillars which held up the rotunda. I then traveled to the University of Texas to see Darrell K Royal Stadium. While I never came close to going inside, it was still pretty neat to at least touch the bricks that held the great stadium together, imagining the legends that played there and the great crowds roaring their approval Saturday after glorious Saturday.
Lastly, I traveled to Pflugerville, home of the Panthers. I had heard that Friday Night Lights had filmed its pilot there and I was dying to see it. At first, I saw a much larger stadium with a familiar name, the Pfield. So I parked my car in the empty parking lot and began taking pictures behind the locked gate. When I had finished, I noticed that a woman was staring at me, wondering what I was doing. After a short discussion, she pointed me in the right direction. Across the street! I looked and there it was. Much smaller in scale compared to the Pfield but ever so dear to my heart.
The woman was nice enough to let me in the Pfield and it was there that she told me its brief history. After the success of the television show, the Pfield had been built to host various high school varsity teams. In fact, it also played host to some playoff games, including some precursors to ones that I plan on seeing tomorrow. I looked at the field and was in awe. Here before my very eyes was Texas high school football in all its glory. The 20-yard jumbotron across the field practically drew me in as my eyes gazed at its grandiosity. I was drawn to the way that it completed the structure while standing out on its own.
I then traveled across the street to Kuempel Field, home of the fictional Dillon Panthers. After wandering around, I noticed an open gate and waltzed right in. Even in broad daylight with people on the field, I wasn't worried. My dream was being realized and nothing was going to stop me from going to the middle of the field, getting in a three-point stance and firing away. And so I did that and embraced every second that I spent there.
When I got back into my car, it occurred to me that those two stadiums resemble so much of how America sees football through the eyes of the media. On one side of the street, sits a small, unassuming stadium which NBC decided would be the perfect setting for big-time Texas high school football. On the other side of the street is what big-time Texas football is in real life. The stands are much taller and nowhere near unassuming with big, bold letters spelling out the name of the field and the venue serving as more of a corporate entity than anything else. In fact, a soccer game was scheduled on the Pfield later that day.
From there, I drove back to Dallas, intent on going to the Cowboys Christmas Extravaganza. However, traffic and technical difficulties kept me from going to the event, but I was still able to see the exterior of the Cowboys practice facility. I roamed the field outside the Ford Center, looking with a child-like wonder upon the massive Christmas tree and the ginormous gift boxes lying at its base. I watched the children run on the thin layer of turf beneath their feet and was amused by their enthusiasm.
While I wasn't much of a sports fan as a child, if I was, I would have loved to play on a field near my beloved 49ers' practice facility. Standing in the middle of The Star District, I was in awe of the Cowboys' owner, Jerry Jones, who had planned for this shopping and corporate center to be not only a hub of all-things-Cowboy but also a celebration of football. In many ways, this little corner of town is a direct reflection of how Texas views football, as a religion.
I'm an avid jogger. Three times a week, I get up before the crack of dawn and run the streets of Santa Clara, winding my way around the local university and through its assortment of athletic fields. Decades ago, it used to have a football team and even had a high school team call its field "home". After Bellarmine's football team left Santa Clara University's campus, they still couldn't play their home games on their own campus because it was too close to the train tracks, so they traveled to San Jose City College where they continue to play their home varsity games to this very day.
This sort of attitude to a home stadium is typical in California prep football. Football field are just venues used for general use. Gigantic stadiums that serve as monuments to the team are few and far between in the Golden State. In a state so dense as California, it's difficult to find the special kind of magic that prep football in Texas has claimed to have perfected. Armed with this knowledge, and yearning to see the magic with my own eyes, I searched for teams in Texas that resembled my perfect vision of town and team melding together in perfect harmony.
It took very little time for the small town of Aledo to pop up on my search. A town of just over 5,000 with a student population which nearly matches the size of the town, it is Americana at its finest. In the days leading up to my trip, I learned that there would be a send-off party for the Bearcats on the morning of their state championship game versus College Station. I had to be there!
And so I woke up much earlier than I normally do on a Saturday morning and I drove the 40-minute drive just west of Fort Worth. I arrived at Bearcat Stadium just as the team buses were pulling out of the parking lot. I saw the crowd wishing their team good fortune and the fire trucks shooting a stream of water over the buses as the sun slowly rose in the East.
After the buses rolled away, I noticed that someone opened a gate to Bearcat Stadium. Seeing an opportunity, I walked in, let the attendant know that I was a tourist and, after his approval, began taking pictures. I was in awe of its grandeur with the stands standing just across from one another like perfectly set bricks. But what truly put the stadium together was the lone endzone section with the simple set of bleachers and ticket booth encompassed by a wall of bricks and a massive jumbotron standing directly across the field, standing out for all to see. It was quickly becoming apparent to me that the jumbotron is a staple in all levels of Texas football. Since it was still dark outside, the stadium's lights were on, shining brightly with all the gusto and bravado that was on full display as the fans with their beloved Bearcats good luck in the state championship. I left the field with my heart full but yearning for more.
Just a few hours later, I pulled into the parking lot adjacent to AT&T Stadium, home of the Dallas Cowboys. For years, I'd considered this the Mecca of high school football as Texas usually holds it state championships in that magnificent stadium. To me, the stadium represented the Cowboys' past, present and future. The roof still had that hole where God could watch His favorite team play, but it had some upgrades including a retractable roof and the world's largest jumbotron hanging from the rafters, a glorious 25,000 square feet of pixels shining bright for tens of thousands to see. Simply put, it was glorious.
The first game of the three-game circus pitted Aledo against College Station. I didn't know much about College Station but knew just enough about Aledo to be rooting for them. Hungry for their record 11th state title, the Bearcats jumped to a 52-0 lead with surprising ease.
In all respects, the game was becoming more than a little boring until College Station made things interesting in the middle of the fourth quarter. Aledo's punt was blocked and returned for a touchdown, instantly turning the College Station crowd into a frenzied hub of hysteria, despite the 52-7 deficit. I was perplexed. Didn't they know that the game was lost?
After Aledo's 52-14 demolition, the next game came within the next hour: DeSoto vs Vandegrift. While DeSoto had been a power for years, Vandegrift was enjoying its first state title game appearance. As a spectator, I found myself pulling for the Vandegrift Vipers. Unlike the previous game, this one began in a defensive struggle, with neither team being able to score the entire first quarter.
The floodgates opened up in the second quarter as the teams traded leads. After the Vipers forced a fumble and kicked a field goal to go up the scoring barrage, the Eagles responded with two touchdown drives as Vandegrift struggled in vain to keep up. At halftime, DeSoto was ahead 21-10. Though the Vipers brought the game to within four in the third quarter, by the final period it was all DeSoto as their defense stepped up and their offense poured it on, winning the game 42-17. David d0esn't always beat Goliath, but it is the heart of the underdog that stays with fans for a lifetime.
The last game of the day was one of the most highly anticipated in the national high school football season. In three of the past four years, Duncanville had played and lost to North Shore in the state championship, all close games and always drawing crowds upwards of 40,000. In 2022, the two squads were again undefeated and ranked among the top ten best programs in America.
As I watched the highlights of their respective semifinal games the week before, I had been particularly impressed with North Shore's running game, which featured a cadre of powerful runningbacks who could score at any moment. I even researched their recent rivalry in the days leading up to their latest game and was drawn to Duncanville's drive to win state for their coach who had over 300 wins but no ring to his name. In three of the past four years, Duncanville had been so very close, only to see the door slam shut in their faces time and again. Maybe this was the year that they finally overcame their nemesis?
The Panthers took control of the game from the start, scoring two touchdowns on successive drives and looked like they weren't going to slow down anytime soon. But then North Shore came back to tie the game at 14 apiece. The teams traded scores in the minutes before halftime to make the score 21-all. The Panthers scored a touchdown to open the second half and their defense took over the game from there, stopping the Mustangs' tremendous ground game again and again.
While all of this was going on, I was constantly moving around the stadium. I wanted to take in every aspect of Texas high school football that I possibly could that night. For a couple of series, I sat high above the endzone, just below the nosebleeds. In other moments, I was watching the game with the standing-room-only crowd, wanting to catch the game with fans who really knew the game and wanted the championship the most.
There were more than 40,000 people in attendance that night. More than 40,000 sets of eyes watching the last high school football game in America. Every one of those individuals were either glued to their seats or standing like a statue, having found theri perfect spot. But like a fly on a wall, I roamed around the room with the field below and the giant television screen shining ever so bright. There was never a bad spot to watch the game.
I was standing alongside them as North Shore drove down the field one last time, their quarterback making minced meat of Duncanville's defense and constantly drawing facemask penalties. After a Panthers defender ripped the Mustangs' quarterback's helmet right off of his head, a pall came over the crowd. They had seen it happen before. Just when they felt like they had the game won, North Shore always seemed to find a way to win.
But Duncanville stayed true to themselves and eventually stopped North Shore's quarterback just short. In California, we don't have instant replay for high school football. But from my rudimentary understanding, in Texas, with jumbotron's flooding the marketplace, instant replay is quite popular. I watched that gorgeous 60-yard long television screen as it showed the play again and again. Before the referee could even finish his sentence, the crowd roared its approval. The game was over and they had finally done it. The Duncanville Panthers were state champions for the first time since 1998 and their beloved coach finally had his first title.
After watching so much football the previous day, I still had a strong desire to learn more about some of the greatest structures dedicated to the sport in the great state of Texas. First on the agenda for my last scheduled day in Texas was AT&T Stadium, the very venue that I had just spent the previous day exploring. We began the tour in an area that was roped off the day before, at the very top in the Dr. Pepper section overlooking the field from one of the end zones. Players from an unknown level of the sport meandered on the field below, kicking around footballs seemingly at random and warming up for an unknown event. I assumed that they were preparing for an All Star game.
From there we went down to the Cotton Bowl office, a room dedicated to the history and future of the New Years Classic. the Cowboys have had a long history with the Cotton Bowl, having called it their first home for more than a decade. Jerry Jones, the Cowboys owner, played there when he played for the University of Arkansas and loved the experience so much that he decided that he wanted his new stadium to host the Cotton Bowl. AT&T Stadium has hosted the Cotton Bowl since 2010.
To me, this room represents so much of what football in Texas is all about. the past and the present constantly melding together in a big pot of delicious pigskin stew. The legends of the game represent the meat, sometimes charred a little too much but still giving the stew its own unique flavor. Then theres the newer generation, the carrots, onions and potatoes, a blend of new-age and old-school thinking which constantly battles against one another, and giving the pot even more flavor. And then there's the broth and the heat, which pour over the various food groups and makes it into one delicious meal.
As our tour guide quizzed us, I kept on answering correctly, the lone 49er fan in a group full of Cowboy loyalists who kept on answering all the Cowboys related questions. I immediately noticed the irony and gave a little smirk in my head. For decades, the 49ers and Cowboys have been bitter enemies, vying for the title and glory. And here I was, the antithesis of the Cowboys organization answering questions about the Cowboys history with ease before a group of Cowboy fans could even think of the answer.
The group then entered the freight elevator to go to the tunnel where we witnessed the inner workings of the cathedral of the gridiron. We toured the lockerrooms of both the players and the cheerleaders and were granted a surprise when our tourguide allowed us on teh field. Going into the tour, it was understood that such an event was frowned upon as this was a blackout date due to previously scheduled activities. But we were able to sneak onto the field, lining up inand the back of the endzone and took in our surroundings. My eyes immediately turned upward to the grand jumbotron hanging just above my head.
There before my very eyes, was all the glory that the state of Texas could muster for the gridiron. This view is the reason why I refer that venue as the Mecca of high school football. We eventually went through the Miller Lite section where the players' tunnel resides. Right above the tunnel is a giant star. For years, I had seen epic videos from NFL Films with some of the game's greatest players coming onto the field with that giant star shining right above them. I went through that section and onto the field, adjacent to where we had just been minutes before. I took it all in one last time, breathing in all the glow and grandiour that football in Texas has to offer.
At the conclusion of the tour, I explored the Cowboys' Pro Shop. Since I work in the 49ers' Team Store, I wanted to scout the competition. I must say, it was impressive! The layout of the store stretched to three stories with the new items on the bottom two floors and a giant staircase that led to the items on sale with a field goal post which embraced the stair case. At Levi's Stadium, we have a more traditional layout with a single story main store and smaller stores decorating the stadium. While our stores are nice, they differ in their approach in their tributes to the game.
After leaving the Mecca of high school football and a quick lunch, I went to the Cowboys' training facility, affectionately known as the Star. Opened in 2016, it's much more than just a football facility. Its a shopping district with some of the most exclusive brands and best tasting restaurants one can find in a strip mall. Topped off with corporate offices that include Dr. Pepper, the Star District is quickly becoming an iconic institution in Frisco, Texas.
Overall, the tour was a success as it served as part museum and part sight-seeing. As I've said before, I already knew a great deal about the Cowboys' history. But what surprised me was how much more about their history I knew than the two tour guides that guided me through their offices and dwellings. From my perspective, I did an incredible job to stifle too many smart-alecky answers from tumbling out of my mouth. Still, they were gracious and pleasantly surprised that I knew so much about their beloved organization.
As I roamed the halls and stood on their practice field, I realized that this was another monument to football in the Lone Star State. But it's not just another monument. No, this is a tribute to how the sport melds everything together. and how it draws entire communities together every weekend. Is this what it means for a sport to be considered a religion?
As my last scheduled hours in Texas came to a close, I pondered all that I had taken in while I made last-second stops at Highland Park High School, the JFK assassination site and the Howdy Homemade Ice Cream. There was just something there in the city of Dallas that kept on drawing my attention. An aura about the way that people viewed football in the Lone Star State that I couldn't quite put my finger on.
I continued to think deeply of the subject as I promptly missed my flight. After blinking back tears for a second, I realized that this was an opportunity to further explore the state's obsession with the sport. After a whole lot of hub-bub with changed flights, hotels and transportation for the night, I had the rest of the evening to myself. So I went to the local watering hole, wearing my gold 49ers jacket with pride. After the security guard checked me out, he commented on my attire and stated that "there's like 1,000 Cowboy fans inside". I smirked, sensing the opportunity.
But once inside, I realized that they were more focused on the game playing on the numerous televisions. At the time, the Cowboys had clinched a playoff spot but they were fighting for a higher seed. That night, the Commanders and the Giants, two teams vying for similar playoff spots, played each other. Contrary to the guard's comment, there was nowhere near 1,000 Cowboys fans, let alone people, in that establishment. But as I sat at the bar, I noticed how the fans interacted with the game. It was no different than any where else in America. Football fans cheer and groan, no matter the game.
I forgot who they were cheering for, but I realized at this moment that while Texas has a lot of cathedrals to the sport, that's all that they are. Maybe decades ago, football grasped the state in a different way, but today soccer is slowly creeping into their social institution.
However, there is still a certain magic that encompasses football in the state of Texas and it all begins in high school. Upon reflection, I realize now that witnessing Aledo's send-off was a glimpse into how Texans view the sport. While it may not be a religious experience as it once was, football still has a strong hold on the Lone Star State.