Thursday, November 14, 2013

The ‘Splendora’ of Texas schoolboy football

The annual ritual known as Texas high school football playoffs has started in earnest. From this point forward, until the Saturday just before Christmas, hundreds of teams will compete for 13 championship trophies over seven enrollment divisions.
So much is completely unique to Texas, yet I’ve found nothing to compare to the weekly Friday night festival of stadium lights, marching bands, long processions of “yellow dog” buses and hundreds of trailing vehicles driving deep into the clear night, with school colors floating in the evening breeze.
Some Texas high school football is played with just six boys on a side in places like Cotton Center and Lazbuddie and in the middle of unknown places like Runge, Premont and Progreso. In Texas, even teams from small towns can play on the same turf as the Baylor Bears, Texas A&M Aggies, North Texas Mean Green, or Texas Tech Red Raiders. Games might be held in the San Antonio Alamodome, AT&T Stadium (Cowboys’ home) or Reliant Stadium in Houston; it’s all part of the experience.
Rural coffee shops sparkle with talk of anticipation in September and examination in November. Cheerleaders spread their spiritual message on shopkeeper’s windows with white liquid shoe polish. Florists create distinctive pieces of art (called “mums”) in a variety of school colors.
When I think of Texas football, and its power and magic, and the strange things it influences, I drift back to 1978 and the very East Texas town of Splendora, in rural Montgomery County. While most of that area has taken the shape and form of northern Houston and Harris County, in 1978, Splendora was fiercely independent from “progress creep.” Klan rallies were rumored to take place and boys learned how to fish, hunt and dip Skoal at an early – pre-teen – age.
Splendora was a well-known speed trap along U.S. 59 (the road from Houston to Lufkin) and once employed a police chief, who actually pulled over a moving freight train for exceeding the town’s 30 mph speed limit. A book bearing the town’s title has a murderous transvestite as its central character.
But somehow it didn’t seem out of place.
In 1978, the Splendora Wildcats were district favorites and one of the better Class 3A teams in the Houston area. They would lose in the bi-district round to a team from Sealy led by a player named Dickerson (Hall of Famer Eric Dickerson for the uninitiated).
The team’s star was a 170-pound running back-defensive back named Donald Moore, who would try to play at Texas Tech for a season before disappearing from the gridiron scene. But back then, Moore was the town’s gridiron knight in shining armor.
The season opener was at home against the Tarkington Longhorns, a team of inferior quality, but the ‘Horns had a good shot against highly-ranked Splendora because of a chair in the Splendora Cafe. This typical small-town cafe had it all – peeling linoleum on the floor, red plastic glasses for iced tea, and a menu ranging from chicken fried steak to chicken fried catfish to different version of the same hamburger.
On the afternoon before the game, Moore and his brother were enjoying conversation and banana cream pie. Another “gentlemen” entered the fray and began arguing with Moore’s brother, something was said about the man’s parentage, when Donald stepped in to be a mediator.
For his troubles, Donald Moore received a cafe metal chair on the side of his head, as in cold-cocked. Four hours before kickoff, an ambulance whisked the Wildcat star to the hospital, in a half-conscious state.
News of the incident reached Splendora’s colorful head coach Billy “Red” Mitchell; he reacted in his usual manner, with language that would have made sailors blush. Red Mitchell was a unique individual in a sport that carried more than its share of characters. He stood (relatively speaking) 5-8, weighed 230 pounds, and had this patch of shocking red hair to match his constantly blushed and flushed cheeks.
Mitchell always wore a jacket and tie on the sidelines, but the shirttail was always disheveled and pulled out, the tie was askew and the jacket was tossed to the bench when kickoff arrived.
He also ate grass during the game … he’d bend over to see the play before him, reach down, pluck blades from the turf and pop them in his mouth. Honest. Who’d lie about a thing like that?
Kickoff time arrived and Moore was AWOL, but not DOA. In fact, Moore appeared on the Wildcat sideline midway through the first quarter, and he handed Mitchell a set of x-rays showing he had sustained a concussion in the incident.
On the field, Splendora was rudderless without Moore and Mitchell knew his team needed a special boost at halftime. He asked Moore to get into uniform to “give the boys some hope and let them know you’re OK.”
All the while, Mitchell clutched those x-rays and returned to the sideline in the third quarter with Moore in uniform, but unavailable to play. Or so you thought. Splendora did nothing with the second-half kickoff and was forced to punt to Tarkington, trailing 14-0.
Mitchell took out the x-rays and held them up to the stadium lights, like a surgeon about to go into the operating room. He glanced back at the action for a few plays and looked at the x-rays again. And again. And again.
Midway through the quarter, Mitchell looked hard at the films, squinted real hard and exclaimed, “By God, I think that injury just healed itself.”
He ordered Moore into the game and the star responded by returning a punt 77 yards for a touchdown. He intercepted a pass for the tying score and ran 53 yards for the winning points.
All the while, Mitchell waved the x-rays like a twirler’s baton.
Texas football has a healing power all its own; and the playoffs have begun!

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