"We judge 'em by lookin' at 'em," says Jon Temple, a Zephyr running back. "And I can tell you right now, that big guy ain't so big. He's little. Not no 6'5" and not no 275 or whatever, and definitely not no 4.8 in the 40."
Leven, who is in fact 6'5" but closer to 250 pounds, stands silently by, unaware that he's the object of so much attention. He lives on his family's 1,400-acre cattle ranch just outside Gordon, and what he likes almost as much as football is showing heifers, in particular Sarah, a black Angus that recently won grand-champion honors at a state competition. Leven, everybody says, needs to get meaner if he wants to become a really good player. He's too kindhearted. "I wish we could make him mad just once," his stepfather, Joey Swain, says. "But I don't think you can do it. He's not the mad type. John's little brothers, on the other hand, they'll go outside and run into trees just to show how tough they are."
If you could put Tijerina's aggressiveness in Leven's body, everybody says, you'd have one of the best football players ever to play the game. "That Mexican kid is cut pretty good," one of the Zephyr boys allows, glancing over at Tijerina.
"Yeah, pretty good," says another. "But can he hit?"
Tijerina stands there with his shirt off, letting Zephyr and the world have a look. Except for a few girls, he's the only kid in Gordon with a ponytail and rings in both ears, but he's not the kind of person you would want to say that to. At 5'7" and 145 pounds, Tijerina is small in size; in terms of heart, they don't come any bigger. He lives with his mother in Palo Pinto, a town about 20 minutes from Gordon. Elaina Tijerina cleans condos and sells tamales to the county jail, and Jesus learned from watching her work that not a thing comes easy in this life. His body, for instance, is the result of years of cutting wood. Handle a chain saw all day in the hot heat of a long Texas summer and see what kind of muscles you get.
The Gordon boys aren't all the Zephyr players talk about. They rate the Gordon girls, too, giving Stacie and Terra high marks. And they can't get over the bleachers, the field house going up, the black rubber track encircling the field. This is big-time. Their place back home is pretty primitive, almost an embarrassment, but typical of most six-man schools. Zephyr's playing field abuts a pasture, where a rancher used to keep several head of buffalo. Whenever games got dull, the fans turned their attention to the action on the other side of the fence: the exotic animals moving under the wild pecans and scrub oaks. The rancher finally got rid of the buffalo and replaced them with llamas, which occasionally looked over the fence but didn't seem to know the difference between the six-man and 11-man games. There are no metal bleachers at Zephyr, only eight long steps of cement in a small hillside. The Bulldogs dress in the school's locker room, and the visiting team uses the weight room off the gym.
Asked to compare Gordon with Zephyr, the Bulldogs' McClain says, "They got a bank and a car dealership in Gordon, so that right there makes them huge compared to us."
"We're going to start a new tradition here tonight," Bufe tells his boys shortly before the start of the 7:30 p.m. game. He sounds the way he did earlier, at the Meet the Bulldogs Breakfast, less certain than hopeful. Twelve hours have passed, and it's time to get this thing over with. "You ready to play?" he says. When no answer comes, he says, "That's good. I know you're ready."
Night is starting to fall, and with it comes the smell of barbecue commingled with one of mosquito repellent. Down on the sideline in front of the home stands Stacie is cheering, "Two bits...four bits...six bits...a dollar," and out in front of the drill team Terra's sequined uniform shivers under the tall electric lights. It is quite a beautiful thing, this night. It is 1996 and 1946. It is today and yesterday and what you hope tomorrow will be. And it is a few other things besides.
It's a Gordon spirit leader dressed up in a velour longhorn costume, and it's little kids playing rough-and-tumble behind the seats, and it's the hills all around colored a mix of pewter and blue, and it's a radio tower way off in the distance beating red lights in the gloaming. It's good old boys in cowboy hats and Wrangler jeans and big-buckled belts talking a language that no untrained ear can make out. It's the U.S. flag hardly stirring over by the scoreboard and a knot of nervous daddies standing on the sidelines, following the movement of the ball as it advances from one end of the field to the other. It's all the mamas, too, wincing at the hard hits and the soft ones, laughing to show they aren't afraid. It's a long train roaring through town just as Gordon's Chris Chamberlain scoops up a fumble and runs it in 25 yards for the game's first score. And it's the mosquitoes and the ants and the armadillos, wherever they've gone.