Texans find `sense of community' in high school football. But new law gives academics priority over athletics

Many Americans sit before their TVs on Friday evenings and watch the latest episode of ``Dallas,'' but, in Texas, high school football remains the unchallenged center of Friday-night interest and energy. When the Texas Legislature decided last year that high school students must pass all their classes to be eligible for extracurricular activities, the intent was to give the classroom undisputed priority over the ball field.

Some students may be studying longer and harder during the week as a result of the law, as many teachers, principals, and coaches claim. But on Friday nights this fall here in Temple -- and in dozens of similar towns across Texas -- it's the game, the bands, the ambience, and ultimately the score, that count.

In Temple, where the high school's 9,000-seat stadium is regularly sold out for home games, reserved seats are handed down from one generation to the next like family heirlooms. The 60-member varsity Wildcat team, a 250-member marching band, a gaggle of cheerleaders and majorettes, and a high-kicking dance team that rivals the Rockettes, involves more than a quarter of Temple High School's 2,100 students in every game.

``The team represents a lot of the Temple spirit,'' says John McKenney, a retired surgeon and president of the 200-plus-member Temple Quarterback Club, an athletics booster organization.

At a recent ``big game'' with rival Bryan High School, Dr. McKenney noted -- in between interjections of ``That's it, big blue!,'' and ``Stop 'em, blue!'' -- that he had no interest in football before he came to Temple from Kentucky in 1941. But he says it wasn't long before he followed the lead of his new home and adopted the sport with a passion. ``It's a vital factor in our strong sense of community,'' he adds.

In fact so important is football that school officials in this town of 50,000 have refused to build a second high school, for fear of losing a strong team, which must be reckoned with statewide.

``Nineteen seventy-nine is still a very strong memory in Temple,'' says Wildcat kicker Bobby Arnold, evoking memories of the year Temple won the state champion-ship and sat for 12 months atop a pyramid of more than 1,000 high school football teams. Temple hasn't figured this year in the top-10 lists of Texas varsity teams. Splitting Temple high into two schools would also weaken the marching band whose performance during the Bryan game rivaled any collegiate half-time show. By tradition, the Temple ma rching band performs every Thanksgiving during the Dallas Cowboys half time. A special feature of their presentation for that event is an American flag unfurled by students who march with 30-yard-long streamers of red, white, and blue.

The rankings of Texas high school football teams could undergo major adjustments this week, as the state's new law governing participation in extracurricular activities affects the fall football season for the first time. Dubbed the ``no-pass no-play'' rule, the measure forbids any student achieving less than a 70 in any class from participating in school-sponsored extracurricular activities -- band, debating society, chess club, athletics -- for the ensuing six-week grading period.

The provision is considered a cornerstone of the state's 1984 education reform, which closely followed the recommendations of a special committee chaired by Dallas electronics billionaire H. Ross Perot. Hostility to the reform and the no-pass no-play rule is evident in bumper stickers that pointedly proclaim: ``Will Rogers never met Ross Perot.'' (It was Mr. Rogers who said he never met a man he didn't like.)

``To listen to Mr. Perot, you'd think all of education's problems came from extracurricular activities,'' says Gordon Wood, head high school football coach in Brownwood, Texas. With 400 wins to his credit, Mr. Wood is considered the winningest coach in football. He says Perot, who sends his children to private school and ``probably never played a game of football in his life,'' doesn't understand the motivation that athletics and other activities give many students to stay in school.

In Temple, head coach Bob McQueen says no-pass no-play will have little effect on the varsity -- he'll lose one second-string player, a manager, and a trainer -- but will disqualify additional players in the junior varsity, sophomore and freshman squads. This roughly reflects statewide trends, which show 10-to-20 percent of varsity players and between one-third and one-half of nonvarsity players being benched.

``Right now we have a junior varsity, a sophomore, and two freshman teams,'' he says, ``but if these trends continue I'd expect we'd have to cut out the sophomore and one freshman team.''

Mr. McQueen, himself a Temple High alumnus, says he agrees with a strong emphasis on academics, but likens the six-week disqualification period to ``the death sentence for stealing a hubcap . . . it's going to devastate a lots of these kids.''

Still, many observers believe that, after the initial shock of the rule's effect, most students will learn to live with it. James Blackwood, a football recruiter for the University of Texas at Austin, says, ``I think the great majority of the kids will rise to the occasion.''

Oscar Aldaiz is one who did. A quarterback for the Temple Wildcats, he is one of 18 players who were disqualified last year from spring training after failing at least one course. ``I came back this year with a whole new attitude,'' says the Hispanic senior, who as a little boy dreamed of being a Wildcat. ``I've worked harder, and I didn't take easier classes, which some have done.''

Although he believes the six-week ``punishment'' is too long, Oscar approves the intent of the new rule, as do many other Texas football fans.

``I'm among those who see nothing wrong with insisting that youngsters be able to read and write when they come out of school,'' says Dave Campbell, editor of Texas Football magazine, a quarterly that gives big play to high school squads. ``I think there has been some overreaction on this from certain alarmists. I don't think the sky is falling on high school football.''

Some longtime Texas football watchers say the rise of an urban, heterogenous Texas, with a myriad of Friday-night entertainment options -- and fewer one-high-school towns -- has done more to dampen the state's football fervor than any eligibility rule could.

``Even with the excitement you see here over [high school football], it's not quite what it used to be,'' says Max Emfinger, who runs the National High School Recruiting Service in Houston (a business that scouts high school athletes for colleges and universities). He says it's the small towns of west Texas -- where there wasn't much to do and the game was the only place to see people -- that nurtured Texas football.

Brownwood's coach Wood recalls how former Houston Oilers coach ``Bum'' Phillips (now with the New Orleans Saints), struggling to explain the Texas football tradition to a New York reporter, told of busloads of west Texans who travel a hundred miles or more to see their local team. According to Wood, Mr. Phillips told the skeptical reporter, ``Well, they can do that, or they can stay home and watch the wind blow.''

There may be more to do now in towns like Temple, but the number of kids involved in the game and the crowds of wildly screaming adults in the stands indicate that the tradition of Texas football remains strong.

Again, Oscar Aldaiz provides a good example. He says he knows football is not in his future, at least not as a player. Come next year he hopes to attend nearby Baylor University, and to major in business. But he fully intends to remain a part of Temple football.

``On Friday nights I plan to come back to all the Wildcat games,'' says Oscar. ``I'll want to see my team.''

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