Bullish on the pigskin

Every fall, every Saturday night, in every li'l Texas town from Planoto Paris, a life-and-death struggle takes place, and no seat is left empty.

To get an idea of how big football is in the tiny black-soil farming town of Celina, Texas, consider these numbers:

*There are only 300 students at Celina High School: Ninety-two of them play football.

*There are only 2,100 residents of Celina, but games there regularly draw 2,000 to 5,000 fans.

*Celina's coach, G.A. Moore, has won more games than any other living high school coach in the state, with more than 350 victories in 36 years. His team won the state championship last year and is currently undefeated.

In short, Celina is the ultimate town for understanding the powerful and primal influence of football in the Lone Star State. Canadians have their hockey, Indianans have their hoops, but in Texas, football is king.

Journalists and Hollywood directors have attempted to explain this pigskin passion to non-Texans, but fans say the only way to understand it is to experience it. And the best way to experience it is on cool autumn Friday nights, when Texans pack up their kids and head off toward the glowing lights on the horizon, toward the high school stadium that dominates even the smallest Texas town.

"I can't imagine not coming to the game on Friday night," says Kim McIlroy, a lieutenant on Celina's drill team whose voice is somewhat hoarse after cheering her beloved Bobcats to an almost inevitable victory on one recent night. In fact, Kim has grown so accustomed to winning that she once asked a high-school-age friend from New Orleans what it feels like to lose.

"She didn't mean it to be rude," adds Kim's mom, Becky, who wears a broad smile and an orange battery-operated button that flashes the words "We Believe." "She just wanted to know what it felt like."

Most Texans can't remember a time before football, but history books indicate that the sport was once an alien import, brought here from the East Coast, where it was developed in the 1870s. The University of Texas at Austin organized the first known Texas football team in 1893, although it's likely that Texas high school students had learned the finer points of a blitz well before then.

Clearly there was something in the rough-and-tumble game that appealed to the typical Texan, and it spread rapidly to become the state's game of choice. Today, football can be found in the largest of high schools (such as Plano, with 5,000 students) and the smallest (such as Novice, which has 26 students).

Texas high schools fall into five classifications, based on size. A tiny 2-A school like Celina, with less than 344 students, would never compete against one of the larger 5-A high schools, which have more than 1,780 students.

Football is a passion that can have a dark side: High school coaches in Texas can face as much scrutiny for every decision as some politicians receive in Washington. In addition, football occasionally skews the priorities of education. It's not unusual for school districts to meet heated opposition to breaking up large schools into more manageable ones, because parents don't want to spread out the football talent or lose their school's current ranking.

But if Texas football can be obsessive at times, it also has the power to hold a town together when everything else is falling apart.

Ask John Parchman, head coach of Lee High School in Midland, the top- ranked 5-A football team in the state - and in the nation.

"It goes back to when we had the tough economy of the 1980s, with the oil bust," says coach Parchman, who speaks with remarkable calm before the all-important game against his team's main rival and perennial powerhouse, Odessa Permian High School. "Football gave these two communities [Midland and Odessa] something to smile about."

Like many high school football coaches, Parchman is accustomed to media attention. The game against Odessa Permian, for instance, was broadcast by three local TV stations. And with 400 seventh-graders playing football in the middle schools that feed into Midland Lee, he has the constant access to talent that would make stoic former Dallas Cowboys coach Tom Landry smile.

But even Parchman is surprised by how passionate Texans can get about football. "When people get divorced, their season tickets are on the negotiating table," he chuckles. "I'm serious."

At Celina's Bobcat Stadium, there's no one more intense than coach Moore. Chewing bubble gum and pacing the sidelines like, well, a bobcat, he directs every play like a gridiron General Patton, blowing off steam at the occasional missed tackle or fumble. His job is made more difficult by the improving skill of this night's opposing team, the Gunter Tigers.

(For the record, football is big in Gunter, too. The caravan to the game in Celina was eight miles long. The drive between Gunter and Celina is also eight miles long.)

Up in the stands, fans stomp their feet and bang wooden planks together because hands are just too genteel. Amid the din, Jerry Mitchell tries to explain why he and his friends always make it to Celina football games. "Everybody loves football," he shouts. "It's just something you look forward to on Friday nights." At this point, he pauses to yell some advice to the Celina defensive lineup, as Gunter tosses a long bomb. "Come on, knock it down."

His friend, Kenny Cantrell, says the key to Celina's success has been the leadership of coach Moore. But the interview comes to a rapid end, as a Celina defensive back puts an especially hard hit on a Gunter running back. "Now that's what I'm talking about," says Mr. Cantrell, with a grin.

As the game draws to a close (Celina won, 21-0), Brendan Kirksey, a defensive back on the junior varsity squad, says that not even a movie in faraway Dallas could lure him away from a Celina game.

"If there [were] a movie, I wouldn't even go," Brendan says. His friend, fellow junior varsity fullback Chris Waller, adds, "There's only one thing I'd do, and that's come here and watch our boys play."

After all, their Friday night glory is still to come.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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