My football career ended in January 1974.
No, that’s not when my NFL team lost in the playoffs. Nor was it after I played for my university in a bowl game.
It was the first week of the spring semester of my junior year in high school. Our family recently moved from Perryton, a small farming/ranching/oil town in the northern reaches of the Texas Panhandle, to Wichita Falls, an oil/business/military city in Northwest Texas. Back then, Wichita Falls was easily 15 times larger than Perryton.
17 years old and 129 pounds
I was 17 years old and weighed 129 pounds. If I suddenly turned into what I dreamed about, it probably would have been—in this order—food, a girl or a football. And really, a girl and football would’ve been a toss-up.
Back then, a 129-pound boy could dream about football in a town like Perryton. My junior year, I played on the junior varsity, which was my preference, because I got to start on defense and special teams, and even substitute on offense. As I looked toward my senior season, I expected to start on special teams and at least make second string on the varsity defense.
But then we moved. The Wichita Falls High School Coyotes were enjoying the twilight of their second round of dominance as a state gridiron powerhouse.
The first week of the spring semester, looking to find myself in a huge new school, I sat across the desk from Donnell Crosslin, the head football coach who recently led the Coyotes to a state championship and state runner-up. (His peers later elected him to the Texas High School Coaches Association Hall of Honor. And in retirement, he served on the Texas Baptist Executive Board.)
“Well, sure, you can go out for the football team,” he said after I told him my plans. “Of course, I don’t think we’ve got a rising sophomore as small as you.”
Before I closed his office door behind me, I realized an important fact: A 129-pound kid with mediocre speed could get crushed playing football at a school like that.
Picked up a reporter’s notebook
And so I hung up my cleats and picked up a reporter’s notebook and camera. The next fall, instead of going out for football, I became editor of the school newspaper and took photos for the yearbook. Standing on the sidelines of football games all season long, I saw those Coyotes—my would-be teammates—deliver ferocious hits. And although I missed the excitement of suiting up and running on grass, I was happy not to be practice fodder for boys much larger and faster than I.
This year, I’ve thought back to my meeting with Coach Crosslin as I’ve read about Damon Janes and De’Antre Turman, high school football players who died from injuries they sustained on the field.
When my daughters performed for the Farmerettes drill team during halftimes at Lewisville High School football games, I taught them a truism: Football will break your heart. We lamented losses, especially when failure in the playoffs meant the end of another season.
Injuries threaten the high school football magic
We learned hearts mend, and life goes on after another tally in the loss column. But broken bodies don’t always mend, and the broken hearts of parents and siblings of boys who die from football injuries never heal.
Plays and schemes have changed, but the main difference in football between my high school seasons and today is the size and speed of the players. Equipment has improved, but in too many cases—and we’ve only mentioned deaths, not concussions and spinal injuries—it’s not sufficient to protect the players.
I still love football. Texas high school football is a cultural phenomenon that elevates the quality of life in our state. But if we do not protect the players, it may not survive—at least at the high school level—for another generation.