In a heartwarming report, Dateline travels to Pampa, Texas to tell the real story of high school football, Texas-style.
by Matt Fields, Dateline producer based in Washington D.C.
It was early July. I was sitting at my computer writing a script about a murder trial in Northern California when I got the call from New York. The network was preparing for the return of NFL football on Sunday nights as well as the launch of a new drama, "Friday Night Lights," when our anchor, Stone Phillips, decided that he wanted to do a football story of his own.
It was a natural for Stone. He is, after all, a great athlete who grew up playing football and basketball and went on to have a very successful college career as Yale's quarterback during the 1970s.
I found myself tasked with finding a high school somewhere in the country that would open its doors to our cameras, giving us an all-access behind-the-scenes pass, to tell a story about high school football from the inside-out. The challenge was daunting.
I thought, "There are thousands of high schools in the country, where do I even begin?" I quickly settled on Texas, the state famous for it's obsession with the sport, especially at the high school level, thanks in large part to H.G. Bissinger's Pulitzer Prize-winning book, "Friday Night Lights."
Then, I wondered, "With many of the unflattering stereotypes portrayed in the book and the movie that followed -- coaches pressured to win at all costs, players treated like gods, towns with priorities out of whack -- would any program be willing to let us in? Would any coach want a network newsmagazine following his family and his players from their living rooms to the classroom and the locker room? Eventually, the answer would be yes.
But first, for two weeks, I scoured the Internet and worked the phones, looking for leads. I was looking for something more than football, something deeper, something with an emotional component that would resonate with just about anyone. I wanted to find a dynamic coach, kids with heart, a town with soul. I called sources from past stories, friends, friends-of-friends, sports reporters and our affiliate stations.
Finally, I came up with a list of five potential schools. Then in mid-August I hopped on a plane bound for Texas. Over the next five days, I would drive nearly 1,000 miles across the state, visiting one school each day.
My first stop, Celina. About an hours drive north of Dallas, Celina is home to some 3,000 people, all of them football crazy. The Bobcats were state champs last year, and under the charismatic and fiery leadership of Coach Butch Ford, they were showing promise of returning to state again.
The next day I drove south of Dallas to Waxahachie to visit Coach David Ream and his team. The Indians had a beautiful stadium that most small colleges would drool over and the makings for a deep playoff run in the 4A division. It just so happened that Stone has roots in Waxahachie, with a family farming operation dating back generations.
From there I headed further south to a town outside of Waco called Gatesville. Home to the Fighting Hornets, several state prisons, and a young enthusiastic coach named Michael Morgan. Morgan was looking to build his team into a perennial playoff contender in the 3A division.
On Thursday morning I drove north some 200 miles to Windthorst to meet Coach Bill Green and his son, Brad. The youngest of three sons to play under his father, Brad is the team's star QB. Coach Green had won a state championship with his two older boys and was looking to get his third with Brad. The Trojans are a 1A powerhouse, a division for some of the smallest schools in the state. The town of Windthorst has a little more than 400 people living there, most of them dairy farmers. In fact, several of the boys on the team get up well before the sun rises to milk cows before heading off to day filled with football and schoolwork.
|Courtesy Wil McCarley
|Matt Fields (right) with Dateline's Stone Phillips.
Over the past four days I had meet some wonderful coaches and kids. All of the schools would have been ripe for a story. But when I strolled into Pampa on Friday morning, five days into my road trip, and met Coach Andy Cavalier I knew almost immediately that my search was over. I had that gut feeling. Pampa would be the focal point of our story.
What unfolded throughout the day confirmed my feeling all the more. Andy Cavalier, with his "aw-shucks" charm and contagious smile had such a palpable geniuneness about him. I could feel his incredible passion for football and the love he had for his players. Talk about salt-of-the-earth, it was this guy. And to top it off, he had wonderful family supporting him, especially his wife Wendy and his mother, Kathy.
Of the players, I was impressed right off the bat. And all of them told me they had bought into Andy Cavalier's motto for the season, "Tueor Porro," a Latin phrase meaning to preserve and surpass. In this case, they wanted to preserve and surpass the legacy of Andy Cavalier's father, Dennis, who was the greatest football coach this town ever had. When he came to Pampa in 1987, he set a high standard for the football program and challenged every team that followed to live up to it.
Aside from football, each and every player I met with made eye contact with me and answered my questions with a "yes sir" or "no sir." This is certainly not something I find talking with most teenagers I know. They were however, typical of most teens around the country, interested in cars (pick-up trucks in this case -- it is Texas after all), girls, video games, cell phones, and food.
Perhaps what struck me the most, though, was witnessing their interaction with the team's Equipment Manager, Trent Loter. Trent has Down Syndrome and has been a part of the team since the early 1990s. These guys treated Trent like a brother: wrestling with him in the locker room, exchanging jokes and playful teases, and quizzing one another about the various high school mascots around Texas. To me, this spoke volumes about their character.
Later that evening, I attended the "Meet the Harvesters" event in the stadium. Thousands of folks poured into the stands for the chance to meet the players, coaches and cheerleaders. I had the opportunity to talk with alumni, parents and fans. Yes, they were crazy about the Harvester football team. But what I found was more than just a group of people interested in winning football games. What I found was a caring community. And the boys beneath the helmets and pads were a reflection of what mattered the most in Pampa: family, friendship and faith.