Let's roll," Joey Florence says to LB the bus driver, and the hourlong ride south from Denton, Texas, to Fort Worth's Clark Stadium commences. Florence, 36, is the coach of the Ryan High Raiders, last year's Class 4A Division I state champions and currently the Associated Press's No. 1-ranked 4A team in Texas. In what is believed to be the biggest turnaround in the state's storied high school football history, Florence took over a team that had gone 1-9 in 1999 and, in his first season, led Ryan to the state title game. "We got lucky," Florence insists. "We had some talented kids, and we won a bunch of close games. The bottom line is, if you have talent, you can do a lot; if you don't, you're done."
I seek a second opinion from Kris Slivocka, one of Florence's assistants. "He made those kids believe they could fly to the moon," Slivocka says. "He told them, 'We love you, we care about you, and there's nowhere I'd rather be than coaching you.' "
The Raiders are a tight-knit bunch. While the school is predominately white, the team has a large African-American representation, including blue-chip prospects like 6'7" defensive end Jarvis Moss. "The best thing about this team is that everyone, black and white, gets along great," says junior defensive tackle Derek Lokey, whose 12-year-old twin brothers, Taylor and Tyler, are the team's ball boys. ("Do you root for the Cowboys?" I ask. "Very much, sir," the twins answer in unison.)
Ryan will be facing another highly regarded team, Fort Worth Dunbar, at an urban stadium where fans must pass through metal detectors to enter. "I grew up with that this-and-that, so it ain't nothin' to me," says defensive tackle Waymond (Way Way) Roberts. "I'm sure some of our white boys mighty-mighta be intimidated, but I let 'em work it out for themselves. Gotta learn to handle your business."
At least that is what I think Way Way said; the 18-year-old senior has a unique vernacular that amuses his teammates and coaches, one of whom endearingly describes it as "alien talk." Call it country-bonics: Roberts seems to delight in confounding vanilla speakers like me, but he's a lot of fun to interview.
When you won the state title, were the girls all over you?
"I always got girls, I did. I don't need sports, no, to get 'em."
Denton must have been off the hook when you won it all.
"We were all crunk, goin' back-to-back like dat."
What kind of town is Denton?