The boys eat breakfast, and then Brown leads them to the gloom of a football field lit by streetlights with barely enough juice to attract bugs. It's 6:30 now, and still dark. Suddenly rain starts to fall. It's one of those wild, windswept, don't-mess-with-Texas rains that puts nearby cypress trees at risk of losing their bark. On the following Friday, Giddings is scheduled to play Trinity Christian Academy, a private school in the Dallas suburb of Addison and the defending Class 5A TAPPS champs. Because Trinity Christian is the biggest game of the year for Giddings, Brown doesn't dare give in to a little weather. The boys don't mind. They keep practicing even though they can't see the ball when it's tossed in the air and can't see each other until the moment they collide.
"If Coach Brown woke me up at three in the morning and it was ice cold and snowing, I'd still go play," says Chris Matuzek, 18, a safety and captain of the defense. "I'd go play any chance they gave me. When I play, I'm free of everything. I actually enjoy myself. I forget where we come from, and I forget what I did. Believe it or not, I even forget about being locked up."
Matuzek has been locked up at Giddings since May 1995, when he shot a woman in the head while attempting to carjack the pickup truck in which she was a passenger. Matuzek liked the look of the truck, but more than that he liked the idea of killing someone. Drugs and alcohol owned him body and soul, he says, and he was so steeped in self-pity over his lousy childhood that he vented his rage at whoever crossed his path. One day that happened to be a dog. Enraged that it had bitten a neighbor's horse, Matuzek stabbed the dog some 60 times with a long, double-edged knife. Feeling it die in his arms had given him a thrill, and the night in Fort Worth when he shot the woman, seriously wounding her, he was looking for a similar sensation.
"People here call me Little Brown because me and Coach got us a relationship," says Matuzek. "For Father's Day, I buy him a card. I look at him as a father figure because he's helped me so much. Back in regular high school I played football, and I'd use cocaine before games to get pumped up. If I hurt somebody, that was all right—it was good, as a matter of fact. Not no more, though. I'm a completely different person."
Matuzek is typical of the athletes at Giddings. He's renounced his brutal past, and he bows now before the free world, hoping for a chance to prove he's not an animal. Competing in sports, he says, helps him meet this objective. Pitted against average kids without troubled histories, Matuzek and his teammates are given the privilege of proving themselves human. Not everyone lets them forget, however.
"On the field the competition will cuss you out," says Adrian Brown, 19, a former Giddings player. "They'll call you trash and jailbird and good-for-nothing, then they'll cuss your mama. It's hard to take sometimes. But after the game I always offered my hand, and I always told them, 'You played good.' I could forgive them anything as long as they gave me the competition."
To qualify to play, a Giddings boy must have served at least half of his sentence and not be regarded as a high risk, for high risks are not allowed off campus and Giddings has no home games. Because of these restrictions, only about 50 of the school's 340 inmates are permitted to try out, and few of these have any experience in organized athletics. But Giddings administrators boast that their teams have never had an incident of violence while visiting an opponent. The boys can't afford to start trouble. One fistfight or angry verbal exchange would likely result in the whole season's being forfeited, says Stan DeGerolami, the school's superintendent.
Four years ago Brown and Ward, who also coach basketball and track at Giddings, punished a basketball player when the boy asked to use the bathroom too many times during a game. He had gone twice at halftime; then he asked to be excused again as the second half was starting. The request struck both coaches as suspicious, and they cut him from the team.
Some students are cut or suspended for breaking school rules. Last season Brown lost a football player when the boy failed to report that one of his dormitory mates was in possession of contraband, in this case a picture of a nude woman torn from the pages of Playboy. Still other kids with great natural talent aren't allowed to play because of the notoriety of their crimes. One of the best athletes Brown and Ward ever saw couldn't participate in sports because he'd murdered a study partner, whose mother made it her personal crusade to keep him locked up as long as possible. "Every time he had to go to court," says Brown, "all the Austin TV stations were there to cover it. If his sentence was 30 years, you could bet he was going to serve every day."
In 1996 Giddings was undefeated after five games when suddenly its most valuable player, the starting quarterback, was reassigned to an adult penitentiary. It is not uncommon for Giddings to lose players in the middle of a season, as state courts transfer students to adult prisons or to halfway houses. The quarterback, a sex offender, was the only boy on the team who could throw a football with any accuracy. Without him the Indians had no offense. They ended up 7-3, Brown's worst record in years.