So since I’m not from Dallas, and I love high school football, I have decided, this year, to root for the Thomas Jefferson Patriots, and I’m hoping at least a few of you without Dallas ties and high school allegiances will join me.
Now, I’m not doing this to embarrass the group of student athletes who are giving their best. If Â you will, I’d like to explain why I love high school football, and why I have a soft spot for the underdog.
Several years ago, I found myself working for a small town paper in Leonard, Texas, population 1,800-ish. When I arrived, the team was in the middle of what would become a 26 game losing streak – a tie for third longest in Texas high school football history, I believe. Â At first, I will admit, I dragged my heels and groused about giving up every Friday to both photograph and write up the game, when the Tigers racked up loss after loss, after loss.
But then I got to know the players. I saw their heart. I heard the townspeople in the stands heckling these 15, 16, 17, 18-year-old boys, and I cringed. These kids? They played for the love of the game. Anybody who still respectfully lines up in front of their fans at the end of a losing game and sings the school fight song, even as people boo, well, they’re not playing because there’s some great end game with a giant NFL paycheck at the end.
They didn’t win a game that entire year. But then, next year, when people least expected it, the Leonard Tigers won a game. I remember it vividly. The sausage-on-a-stick, Dr Pepper-scented air had just taken on that slight chill in the evening. By the end of the first quarter, the team was ahead. That was not Â so unusual – the team had frequently pulled ahead by a field goal, only to squander that small advantage later.
But by the half, they had a sizable lead. A trill ran through the stands while the band played that had nothing to do with the chosen “Fiddler on the Roof” UIL program they were working on. “These boys just might win us a football game,” an old timer said, munching on a corny dog cooked by the opposing team’s band boosters. “Just might,” his friend said laconically before reciting glory stats from his football years. Ahead by a touchdown? That was interesting.
Then, by the third, they were actually shellacking the other team. When the final minute ticked off into seconds, there was not a dry eye on the visitors side of that dilapidated 2A football field. Magically, those hecklers became true believers. When the clock ran out, I watched a big, burly football player collapse in tears, sobbing on the 20 yard line. Others walked around dazed before stopping right in front of the scoreboard, looking for all the world as if they believed if they took their eyes away for a minute, the score would be reversed and they’d still have that losing record. Â That night, when they lined up in front of the fans to sing the fight song, nobody could really get it out past the lumps in the throats. But nobody booed, either.
Improbably, that team that had such an unwanted statistic attached to it went on to wind up in a playoff situation for a trip to state. But even if they hadn’t, that one Friday night will forever, to me, Â be what is the best thing about high school football. Â Teams with 26 game losing streaks one day win a game. Teams with 34 game streaks will, too.
So Thomas Jefferson Patriots, good luck tonight. And fellow FrontBurnervians, thank you for indulging me.