“Sectional football games have the glory and the despair of war, and when a Texas team takes the field against a foreign state, it is an army with banners.”
— John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley in Search of America, 1962
Texas has three days of worship during the week — at least from August to December.
On Sunday mornings and Wednesday evenings, the faithful gather in churches from Abilene to Zephyr to worship the Lord. But on Friday nights, under stadium lights illuminating wind-blown turf or manicured Bermuda grass, many of the same faithful gather to worship the helmeted, shoulder-padded gods of high school football.
Our transcontinental bicycle journey will take us across Texas this fall during the height of the Friday night frenzy. Beginning around the last Friday in August through the playoffs in December, stadium lights will be lit in towns all along our route, from Alpine in West Texas to Navasota in the east.
Some of those towns in remote West Texas, like Sanderson and Marathon, have high schools too small to field 11-man teams, so they play a six-man version of the game. But the faithful are every bit as avid as at the larger schools.
“Football is Texas’s unofficial religion, and our faith in this team or that transcends the superficiality of reason, logic, experience, or last year’s season record,” Bobby Hawthorne wrote in a 2007 book Longhorn Football: An Illustrated History.
“We are awed by the pageantry, rituals, sacred colors, hymns, and holy mysteries of the sport. Our trust in it never wavers, never wanes. Despite the absence of tangible evidence — a recent playoff berth, for example — we know who and what we are. The Mighty this. The Fighting that. The chosen few. Now, you tell me that ain’t religion.”
Many of those callow gridiron gods harbor dreams of one day playing — in a high school playoff game or as a college or pro player — in the state’s new football basilica: the $1.2 billion Dallas Cowboys Stadium in Arlington.
The stadium hosted its inaugural football game Friday night, an exhibition contest between the Cowboys and the Tennessee Titans.
Across the nation, “more than a million American boys suit up and take the field every year, playing on more than 14,000 teams,” National Public Radio reported Aug. 20 in introducing a series of reports on high school football that will continue throughout the 2009 season.
“Some have world-class workout facilities and top-notch coaches. Others compete with six on a side and an English teacher drawing up plays. … In some communities, the coaches earn well over $100,000 a year — often more than the principal, and way more than the other teachers.”
As Hawthorne noted in Longhorn Football: “Folks who wouldn’t attend a school board meeting if every kid in the county flunked the TAKS exam will line up for hours to weigh in on the merits of hiring or firing the linebacker coach.”
H.G. Bissinger wrote of this autumnal fanaticism in a compelling 1990 book: Friday Night Lights: A Town, a Team and a Dream, which chronicled the 1988 season of the Permian Panthers of Odessa, a gritty oil patch town in West Texas. The book was made into a 2004 movie and a television series of the same name.
“In the absence of a shimmering skyline, the Odessas of the country had all found something similar in which to place their faith,” Bissinger wrote.
“In Indiana, it was the plink-plink-plink of a ball on a parquet floor. In Minnesota, it was the swoosh of skates on the ice. In Ohio and Pennsylvania and Alabama and Georgia and Texas and dozens of other states, it was the weekly event simply known as Friday Night.
“From the twenties through the eighties, whatever else there hadn’t been in Odessa, there had always been high school football.”
Check out the video of the Grandview Zebras as they made a run last season for the state championship in Division 2A. They eventually lost out to the Muleshoe Mules.