One after another the boys from Zephyr drag themselves out of the dark and into Mary's Place. It's Friday morning, the first game day of the season, and it seems all the bugs in Texas are screaming.
Mary's stands hard by the Brady Highway in Brownwood, a town of about 20,000, some 12 miles up the road from Zephyr, in the central part of the state. Zephyr counts only about 200 residents, too few to support a restaurant. And so today the boys got up before dawn and came here in a long, headlamps-lit procession, sharing rides in old bombs and pickups, watching out the window as the black land moved past.
Officially the 7 a.m. breakfast they've come to attend has been dubbed the Meet the Bulldogs Breakfast, but except for a radio crew and a local newspaperman, no one is waiting to meet the Bulldogs but the Bulldogs themselves. "How're your boys lookin' today?" somebody asks the coach.
Gary Bufe, 42, stares long and hard before responding. "Some look ugly, some look sleepy," he says. "I don't know if they're ready or not."
Bufe is only joking, but even at this hour of the morning the boys have their game faces on, and nobody laughs. This makes Bufe reconsider. "The boys have come a long ways, and I'll say right now if you have confidence in a group, it's this one." He seems to mean what he's saying, but at the same time he might just be trying to persuade himself and to persuade the boys. Gordon, the Bulldogs' opponent tonight, won't be easy, after all.
Gordon has Jim Ed Kostiha, an all-state linebacker and the starting quarterback, and Jason Sizemore, an all-state running back. Gordon has Jesus Tijerina, a feisty little two-way player with a ponytail and shaved sidewalls and bad attitude galore. Gordon also has that kid John Leven, a running back who, they say, stands 6'5" and weighs 270 pounds and covers the 40 in 4.8 seconds, and when you hit him it's like meeting the stubborn end of a cement wall.
From the way he's looking at his boys, Bufe seems to be trying to read their minds. He's a tall, thin fellow with a prominent Adam's apple and styled hair, and today he's wearing a crisply starched white dress shirt and a necktie. In addition to coaching, Bufe teaches math at Zephyr High, and this time of year he reports to school at 7:30 in the morning and doesn't get home until after 9 at night. To be close to him, his wife and kids sometimes show up at the football field and watch him work out with the boys under the lights. It's either that or try to catch him rushing out the door in the morning.
Now Bufe says, in a stronger voice, "I feel when the boys step out on the field, they'll be ready to play. I really do. They're going to play hard."
All this heat and worry, and when you come down to it, the game they play isn't something most people have ever heard about, let alone seen. Zephyr is a six-man town, which is to say, it's a town whose high school is too thinly populated to field a regular 11-man football squad. In Texas a school can't have more than 85 students if it wants to participate in the six-man public league. Zephyr High, with an enrollment of 76, has 40 male students, 34 of them varsity and jayvee football players.
By last count there were 89 six-man public schools in Texas, 21 in Nebraska, 16 in Colorado, 14 in Montana, 10 in New Mexico, three in Kansas and two in Arizona. In Canada, too, where spaces are vast and the talent pool shallow, six-man schools abound. This year at least one preseason poll is saying that Gordon has the best team of them all.