It's not yet 5 a.m., and Sandy Brown, coach of the football team at the state school in Giddings, Texas, goes to Mel's Diner and slips into a corner booth. He has a biscuit and a cup of coffee, and he ruminates in the smoky silence over his life's work. Not many people in the place know Brown to say hello. He coaches the convicts. Some other guy in town coaches the regular kids at the regular high school.
At 5:25 a.m. Brown pays and heads out the door. He takes the main drag through town, passing the Dairy Queen and its marquee that says GO BUFFS, then a water tank with a brightly painted rendering of a buffalo. Brown's boys are the Indians, but few of Giddings' 4,093 residents even know that. Calendars with pictures of the current Giddings High Buffaloes football team hang on the walls of businesses and restaurants, but no one celebrates the Indians. The local paper doesn't cover the Giddings State Home and School, area radio stations don't broadcast its games, and there's no booster club to support its team.
Brown, 47, is used to being invisible, and he knows it's no reflection on him. If in the past his boys hadn't committed crimes such as rape and murder, things would be different, for this is Texas, and Texas loves its football, no matter who happens to be playing.
It's still blackest night when Brown arrives at the school's gatehouse and passes through a metal detector, his face illuminated by a bank of TV monitors that show Giddings for what it really is: more a prison than a school, and one far easier to enter than to leave. "Y'all gawn win Friday, Coach?" asks one of the guards.
"Yes, we will," says Brown in a voice as plain as he can make it.
People of a certain sensitivity like to call Giddings a "home" for juvenile delinquents. In truth, it's as much a pen as the one a couple of hours up the road in Huntsville, where the state keeps adult offenders. The Giddings campus, even in the dark before dawn, resembles a small, carefully planned college sprung up somewhere on the prairie between Austin and Houston. It has a classroom building and vocational shops, a chapel, a cafeteria, dormitories, an office complex and a gymnasium. But it also has a security unit with individual jail cells, and its 58 acres are surrounded by a 14-foot-tall fence wired with motion detectors. At all hours of the day guards patrol the grounds in unmarked vans. At night they travel without headlights to keep from showing themselves to anyone trying to escape.
Beyond that, what makes Giddings remarkable is that its athletic program competes off campus in the Texas Association of Private and Parochial Schools (TAPPS), and it consistently wins with teams made up of some of the worst kids in the state. Giddings predominantly houses violent offenders. Many of the starters on the football team have either committed homicide or attempted to, and the starting five in basketball and the sprint relay teams in track routinely are dubbed Murderers' Row by the competition. They may look like other sweet-faced teenagers, but the Giddings boys are the ones who put a gun to the head of a convenience store clerk and threatened to pull the trigger, or who raped a teenage girl while she begged for mercy, or who sprayed gunfire into a crowd in front of a busy nightclub.
After the nightly news tires of them, Giddings is where those boys land. They land on Brown's football team if they behave themselves and meet certain school requirements, not the least of which is keeping a contrite heart in a body brave enough to block and tackle before the rest of the world has even crawled out of bed. Brown and his assistant, Lester Ward, 38, hold early-morning practices not because they hope to get a jump on the competition but because their players spend much of the afternoon in therapy with psychologists and caseworkers, trying to sort out the detritus of their mean, unexcellent pasts.
"All right, fellas, one line," Brown says, his voice the only sound in the grim, marshy darkness this Wednesday morning in October. "Move it out, and no talking."
There are 29 of them lined up on a blacktop path leading to the cafeteria. They wear football pants and rubber cleats and carry black shoulder pads and silver helmets. The biggest of them weighs 242 pounds, the smallest about 130. Most are African-American, but there is a generous mix of whites and Hispanics. They come from Dallas, Houston, Galveston, Corpus Christi, San Angelo, Lufkin. Drop a finger anywhere on the map of Texas and you're likely to find a place where the memory of one of these boys still haunts and terrorizes. Yet today the boys handle themselves with a civility that would charm a den mother. They march in single file, gentlemen all, silent except for the musical clatter of the hand-me-down equipment bouncing against their legs.