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Thank God it's Friday

That's high school football night in Texas, where the sport is as big as the state itself

  Click for larger image Austin Power: Westlake tore onto the field for its showdown with the unbeaten Rangers. Darren Carroll

By Jack McCallum

Fred Akers doesn't take in many games at the University of Texas, where he was coach from 1977 to 1986, and he almost never heads to a stadium on Sunday to watch the Dallas Cowboys or the Houston Texans. "But Friday nights is different," says Akers, who runs an Austin-based consulting business with his son, Danny, a former Longhorns quarterback. "We see those lights in the distance, and I'll tell you, more 'n likely we're gonna pull in and watch some high school football."

Indeed, gazing from space upon the Lone Star State on an autumn Friday night, one would see the luminescence from hundreds of high school stadiums, an almost uninterrupted gridiron grid. (Heaven help the authorities if there's ever a statewide blackout.) A handful of schools play on Saturday afternoons, and some, owing to shared stadiums, play on Thursday nights. But by and large Friday night is when you turn off Waylon and Willie, feed the dog, grab your blanket, lock the doors and follow the arc lights. Everyone does it: former football coaches, hardware-store operators, hairdressers, ministers, saloon keepers, even future Presidents. "The phenomenon's hard to explain," says Akers, "but it's in our bones."

Last week much of the Friday-night attention in this football-mad state was focused on a stadium, about 30 miles north of San Antonio, where in front of 8,000 fans the undefeated Smithson Valley Rangers played host to another powerhouse, the Westlake Chaparrals from Austin. The programs and the football-watching milieu were quite different from those described in Friday Night Lights, H.G. Bissinger's classic 1990 book about high school football in dusty West Texas. Westlake prides itself on its sophistication, and Smithson Valley's students are mostly the suburban sons and daughters of professionals. "Like Westlake," says Brad Williams, Smithson Valley's blue-jeans-wearing, pickup-truck-driving principal, "we're basically monochromatic."

But the strength of the programs and the devotion of the fans define the Friday-night phenomenon. From student-body populations of around 2,200, Smithson Valley has about 260 boys in its football program -- there are two jayvee and two freshman teams along with the varsity -- and Westlake has about 220. Percentagewise, that doesn't match the turnout at, say, Hondo High in the 1960s, when, according to Westlake linebackers coach Bob Abbott, "64 of our 65 boys played football, and the one who didn't had a big ol' chunk taken out of his calf by a snake." But for these kids, who could easily be lured away by the diversions of middle- and upper-class life, not to mention other excellent sports programs, the importance of football remains immutable.

The Smithson Valley-Westlake matchup was a nondistrict game but was significant nonetheless because both teams are among the elite that can realistically dream of advancing far in the state playoffs, a mathematical monstrosity that concludes around Christmas and produces 16 champions, 10 among the public schools and six for the privates. Like an NCAA basketball champion, a Class 5A-Division II team must win six playoff games to emerge from a 64-team bracket as state champ. And that's after a 10-game regular season. (Class 5A is for the biggest schools in Texas. Three teams from each of the classification's 32 districts make the playoffs; of those three, the school with the largest enrollment goes into the 32-team 5A-Division I playoffs, while the other two go to the 64-team 5A-II bracket.) Westlake won the 5A-II title in '96 (under quarterback Drew Brees, now with the San Diego Chargers), has played in four other Texas title games and has a streak of 67 straight victories in its district. Smithson Valley, for its part, made it to the 5A-II finals in 2002 and the 4A-I title game in 2001 (losing both of them), advanced to at least the third round in the four seasons before that and came into the Westlake game ranked sixth in the state in one poll.

"It's a long, long road, and we try to keep the end of it out of our mind," said Smithson Valley quarterback Alan Hill, whose father, Larry, is the Rangers' coach. "But winning that state championship is our only goal."

Almost nothing is spared in pursuit of that goal. The organizational intensity of Larry Hill's program could serve as a model for many college coaches, and his hegemony is unquestioned. It's not always that way -- Derek Long got the job at Westlake after its highly successful coach, Ron Schroeder, resigned on the first day of practice this year because he felt unappreciated by some members of the administration and the school board -- but at the majority of Lone Star schools head football coach could be a synonym for king. Hill, who like many head coaches is also the athletic director, has much say about the hiring and firing of his assistants (he has 13) as well as the coaches at Smithson Valley's two feeder middle schools, which perforce run the Rangers' offense and defense. Since every assistant is also a classroom teacher, quite a bit of academic shuffling will take place if a head coach wants to ax a coach. That's just the way it is. "From time to time we get complaints about how powerful the football coach is," says principal Williams, himself a former football coach, "but I always say, 'Look, we don't get 10,000 people showing up to watch a math teacher solve X.'"

And if a player can't live up to Hill's demands, well, the coach will just point to the door. Smithson Valley's 2003 season in effect started in early January, two weeks after its state final loss on Dec. 21. ("We did get Christmas off. I think," says the coach's son.) Then it was three weeks of what Coach Hill calls "leadership training" but is better known to his players as "boot camp." Then it was weightlifting and quarterback camp. Then it was spring practice. After a week or two off at the end of school, it was time for summer conditioning. Preseason practice started in August. And keep in mind that throughout the school year every football player reports to the field house for an "athletic period," which is essentially practice, in pads if the coaches so desire. Is it any wonder that Texas annually leads the nation in the number and percentage of high school players who sign Division I-A letters of intent? In February, for example, 345 did so, 15.5% of the state's players, ahead of California (285, 12.8%) and Florida (265, 11.9%).

"Doing all the repetitive work in the winter can get tiring and boring," says quarterback Hill. "But all you need to keep in mind is Friday nights. Running onto the field, the lights on, thousands of people hollering. That's why you do it. For the Friday nights."

And so last Friday night there was young Hill -- the grandson of a high school coach, the nephew of a high school coach, the son of his own high school coach, the brother of Smithson Valley's promising freshman quarterback -- rubbing his hands together with 14 seconds left in the game as he awaited Westlake's certain onside kick. Everyone was standing and yelling, the sound reverberating through the hills that surround Smithson Valley. The Rangers, trying to improve to 4-0, were holding on to a 14-13 lead, the margin of a blocked extra point that had occurred moments earlier, and Hill was one of the sure-handed returners whom his father had stationed on the front line to field the squib. Here it came, bounding and bouncing along the AstroPlay turf that had been recently installed at a cost of about $500,000. Hill reached for the ball and almost simultaneously was hit high, low and in the middle. He fell to the ground but held on, game over save for one subsequent scrimmage play, the magic of another Friday night under the lights confirmed.

Issue date: September 29, 2003

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