"Just an ol' country place to me now. I love it, yeah?"
Florence loves Roberts as much as he does any of his players, if not more. "The kid's five-nine, maybe 170 pounds soaking wet, but he's quick as a cat, strong and plays hard all the time, so we stuck him at defensive tackle," Florence says. "Way Way's the reason you coach. When I took the job here, he'd been in a bunch of trouble. They had him in a contained classroom all day, away from the other kids. If I was a betting man, I'd have bet he wouldn't have played a game for us. And here he is, starting for a state championship team, living out what will probably be one of the highlights of his life. He'll be in Denton forever, talking about what he did on the football field."
On the Ryan sideline the giant with the blue oxford shirt and the Super Bowl ring is attracting attention, which is the way it always seems to be with the 6'5", 300-plus-pound James Parrish, a friend I've invited along to provide perspective on football's role in society. Parrish is a financial adviser with Morgan Stanley, but before that he was the ultimate football vagabond, a brainy tackle drawing paychecks at various times from two World League teams, one Canadian Football League club and nine NFL squads.
Having played for so many coaches, including great ones like George Seifert, Jimmy Johnson and Bill Cowher, Parrish is eminently qualified to talk about why some succeed and others fail. Here's the deal with football players: To be a good one, you've got to force your body to perform actions that your mind is dead-set against. For a player to accept that bargain on a consistent basis, he'd better have a sense of something greater than individual gain, be it faith in a god or a coach, a bond with his teammates or a profound fear of failure. Football filters out insincerity in a hurry, and the great coaches know how to inspire their players.
"It's like this implicit contract you have with the coaches," Parrish says. "You've prepared so hard, and they've taken you to the brink. When it's finally time to play, there's almost an audacity about you when you take the field. You have such a faith in your teammates and what you've been through that you feel indomitable, and when that happens, the coaches know they can back off."
Parrish sidles up to a Ryan offensive lineman with a cast on his right hand. "I broke my right wrist once," Parrish says. "Let me ask you something, because it confounded me: How do you wipe left-handed?"
There's a Dunbar fumble, and now something beautiful is happening. There's a race to the ball. Way Way gets there first, scoops it up at the 12 and sprints into the end zone—the third touchdown for Ryan in a 51-22 laugher, and the first TD of Way Way's life.
After the game most of the Raiders are back on the bus when the cops move in to break up a fight in the parking lot. I see Taylor or Tyler Lokey, I'm not sure which, and ask when his first middle school football game will be. "Next week, sir," he says.
"Remember," I tell him, "it's all about having fun."
"No, sir, it's not," he shoots back defiantly-"It's about winning."