By Rick Assad
High school football in Texas isn’t just something to attend on Friday night. It’s bigger than that. A lot bigger. In fact, it’s more like a religion.
In Southern California, where I’ve been a sportswriter for more than three decades, it’s important, but not to that extreme.
Last Friday evening I attended, along with my sister Frances’s daughter, Kristin’s husband Manny and their sons, Alex, a 2020 University of North Texas graduate and their baseball-loving 10-year-old Noah, a prep football game at Allen High, the five-time state champion and two-time national champ.
The Eagles hosted Denton Guyer in a Division 5-6A contest and routed the Wildcats 56-38.
Nationally ranked at No. 17, the Eagles (5-0 and 3-0 in league) now own an 80-game regular-season winning streak and haven’t suffered a setback at Eagle Stadium, which opened in 2012, cost $60 million to build, seats 18,000 and is the seventh largest in the state.
Because of COVID-19, the usual swell of people wasn’t there, but the crowd was still noisy and enthusiastic.
Kyler Murray, who claimed a Heisman Trophy while playing for the University of Oklahoma in 2018 and is now the Arizona Cardinals starting quarterback, played for Allen.
Allen raced to a 21-3 advantage after the first quarter and pulled in front 42-17 at the half as junior signal-caller General Booty (82 yards on six carries and 159 yards on 12 of 15) accounted for two rushing touchdowns and running back Jordan Johnson (132 yards on 11 carries) and junior tailback Jaylen Jenkins (97 yards on nine rushes) each tacked on a pair of rushing scores.
Quarterback Eli Stowers, who has committed to Texas A&M, was impressive in a losing effort for the Wildcats (5-2 and 3-1 in league) after throwing for 260 yards while hitting 27 of 41 with an interception and added 131 yards on 25 carries with a pair of rushing touchdowns.
Of prime interest is how the experience of playing prep football in California differs from Texas. Or maybe it’s not that different?
For clarification, I polled Erick Hernandez, Adam Colman, Randy Simmrin and Baltimore-based sportswriter John Eisenberg, who has written four books on the NFL.
“I’m not sure my experience quite lives up to the powerhouses in Texas,” said Hernandez, a decorated wide receiver for Burroughs High over three years who attended St. Francis University in Loreto, Pennsylvania where he played from 2016 through 2018 and then transferred to Humboldt State for one season. “However, my high school experience was great. I think playing in college is great and I can imagine playing in the NFL is awesome as well. I still believe that there is nothing like high school football.”
As the wide receivers coach for his alma mater, the Indians, Hernandez added: “High school football was the most fun. You get to play for your hometown team. The people in the community come out and support,” he said. “It is just an experience that does not compare to anything else. I feel that high school is the purest form of football there is. Being able to spend so much time with teammates that you have known for years. Playing on Friday nights in front of crowds that are invested and have been invested in supporting your team through the years.”
Hernandez will never forget what those nights were like.
“Being able to experience pep rallies and going to dinner after games with teammates and their families. You just do not find that at the higher levels. There is something special about high school football that Pop Warner, college and the professional level can’t touch,” he said.
Colman attended Burbank from 2007 through 2011 and quarterbacked the Bulldogs for two and a half successful years.
“Playing for Burbank was special for me personally because of the small-town feel of Burbank,” he said. “I grew up spending Friday night at BHS football games and playing touch football in the back of the end zone. I still have vivid memories of watching the McDonald’s BHS team play Oaks Christian when they had [Jimmy] Clausen and [Marc] Tyler and that great team.”
Colman, the current Burbank head coach who graduated from UCLA in 2015, but didn’t play football, continued: “So eventually getting to play on that field was definitely a special experience. With my group of friends, that’s what kept a lot of us in Burbank instead of going to private school,” he said. “We wanted to play with our friends we grew up with and in those games we used to watch. Obviously the crowd size is different from what you get in Texas, but that feeling of playing for your city and with your lifelong friends I think is similar. I think you still get that in So Cal. Maybe not everywhere, but at least at public schools like Burbank.”
Simmrin was a wide receiver at Burroughs and later at USC, where he was on Coach John McKay’s 1974 national championship squad.
“Playing football in Southern California in the 1970s was a special time. It seemed like our area was the center of the football world,” he said. “Southern California has always been a hotbed for football talent but then it was magnified. We did not have the religion-like following that existed in Texas, but the cream of the crop of players were here.”
Simmrin, who also played in the NFL and the Canadian Football League, added: “The competition was tough and it meant a lot to succeed. There was so much excitement and anticipation in the air,” he said. “In the 1970s Southern California football was the best in the nation by far and there was love and passion that is missing today. It was a simpler time where football was the center of my life and in a small town like Burbank it even had a Texas-like hometown feeling where the community support was tremendous.”
Eisenberg, who was a longtime sports columnist for the Baltimore Sun, knows why Texas is enamored with high school football.
“When it first became popular more than a century ago, football was widely viewed as a sport that could help boys become men,” he pointed out. “It was regarded as a strictly amateur endeavor – the idea of paying people to play was deemed abhorrent. Needless to say, the idea of teaching boys to become men fit right into the classic Texas ethos of toughness, which was a real thing, especially in the state’s vast rural areas. High school football was very popular in Texas by the 1910s, long before the NFL even existed. And that interest in the game has never waned.”
Eisenberg, who covers the Baltimore Ravens for its website, said he enjoyed the prep football beat.
“I covered the Friday Night Lights for the Dallas Times Herald for three years, from 1979 to 1981. As I still tell people, it was maybe the best job I ever had from a storytelling perspective,” he said. “I went all over the state and uncovered dozens and dozens of stories. Still remember them. One weekday morning I went to a little farming community outside of Dallas that had a strong football program. Was there to attend the coach’s weekly breakfast with his fans. It started at 5 a.m. because everyone had to get to their farms at sunup. Coach showed game films on the wall of a diner.”
There were benefits covering the games for Eisenberg, who has written 10 books including, “The League: How Five Rivals Created The NFL And Launched A Sports Empire.”
“Wonderful times. High school football was so important,” he said. “I’d end up back at the paper late Friday night, making sure everything was tidied up in print. One night I was driving home and a policeman stopped me for speeding. I told him I’d just come from putting the paper’s high school coverage. The cop said, “Oh, how did Grand Prairie do? And he let me go.”
Problems cropped up from time to time for Eisenberg, who penned, “Ten-Gallon War: The NFL’s Cowboys, The AFL’s Texans, And The Feud For Dallas’s Pro Football Future.”
“Whatever game I covered on Friday night, I had to get a story filed by 11 p.m. Some stadiums had press boxes but not all of them did,” he said. “And if there was a press box, I rooted for the home team to win because otherwise they might turn the lights out on you and go home as soon as the game ended. I kept my own stats and learned how to be resourceful. Wrote and filed my share of stories on the shelf at a nearby 7-11.”
Journalist H.G. Bissinger wrote the definitive book about Texas high school football, the bestseller, “Friday Night Lights: A Town, A Team, And A Dream,” which Eisenberg knew would succeed.
“Buzz wrote a wonderful book. No surprise that it sold well,” said Eisenberg, who also wrote, “That First Season: How Vince Lombardi Took The Worst Team In The NFL And Set It On The Path To Glory,” and “Cotton Bowl Days: Growing Up With Dallas And The Cowboys in the 1960s.” “There’s amazing drama in Texas high school football. Buzz did a great job tapping into it. And he picked the right school. I came from the University of Pennsylvania to start my journalism career in Dallas, and I think Odessa Permian could have beaten Penn. I covered them in the playoffs one year. They came to Dallas and won. I asked the coach about it. He said, “Well, we didn’t come in here on a load of matchsticks.”