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Sports Illustrated OCTOBER 28, 1996
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 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.
From the way he's looking at his boys, Bufe seems to be trying to read their minds. Bufe is a tall, thin fellow, and today he's wearing a crisply starched white dress shirt and a necktie. Now he says, in a stronger voice, "I feel when the boys step out on the field, they'll be ready to play. 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 small to field a regular 11-man football squad, the sort of town you breeze through on your way someplace else, with only a caution light to signal its existence and with only one store, Petty's Grocery & Feed, to satisfy its needs. 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. This year at least one preseason poll is saying that Gordon has the best team of them all. This information, of course, has been weighing heavily on the minds of the Zephyr boys, who weren't included in most of the rankings.
When breakfast is over, they stand in the parking lot, trying to decide how to feel. They are wearing their white game jerseys with maroon lettering, and some already have on their black rubber cleats, even though they have classes today and the game is 12 hours away. The sun has come up, and the bugs have gone quiet, and not one of the boys wants to believe that a kid as big as John Leven can run that fast and hit that hard.