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Deep feelings about football

ABILENE, Texas — Tucked in the back of Abilene's largest athletic supply company is a place simply known as the coffee room.

Every morning around 9:30 about a dozen former high school players, coaches and officials gather around a table in a tiny room and play armchair quarterback. The discussions at times may reach back to the days of leather helmets, but the coffee is always the same — black.

On one wall is a map of the Lone Star State, full of bright orange stickers to recognize state championship teams since 1923. In the opposite corner sits David Bourland, quarterback of Abilene High's state title team in 1955, eyes tucked underneath a cowboy hat. Three men in the group went on to play for the legendary Sammy Baugh at Hardin-Simmons University down the street.

Nearly six decades of history are in this room, walls covered in yellowed newspaper articles and black-and-white photos, where high school coaches and officials used to gather Saturday mornings to exchange rolls of 8 mm game film.

On this day, the eve of Abilene High's nationally televised matchup against Plant, the talk turns to the big game.

In this west Texas town of 120,000, restaurants close early on Friday evenings during football season. Abilene's 15,000-seat Shotwell Stadium, home of the town's two high schools, sells out before game day.

This week's game was moved to Thursday so it could air on ESPN, the first time this town has been showcased on national television.

But in Abilene, there's nothing like being at a game in person.

"If you want to commit robbery in the state of Texas, Friday night is the time to do it," said Jim Steadman, a coach at Abilene from 1970-72.

• • •

In Texas, high school football is a priority. A 50-minute class period is worked into every school day for teams to practice. The facilities dwarf those of the local colleges. Coaches are celebrities, each with his own weekly radio show. Teams travel to every road game by chartered bus. Allegiances to the town's high schools — Abilene, Cooper and Wylie — are created at birth and remain for life.

"This time of the year every single community, from the smallest of six-man schools to the biggest of the biggest of 5A schools, is all amped up for high school football in this state," said Steve Warren, who has coached Abilene for 14 years. "Some people talk about it like it's a religion, and it might well be."

In recent years, Warren's Eagles have been the toast of the town. They won the Class 5A Division 2 state title last year. They were ranked No. 1 in the nation by ESPN coming into this season, and before losing to Class 2A defending Florida champion Cocoa last week, hadn't lost a regular-season game since 2007. Abilene has made the playoffs 11 straight years.

Warren compares today with the glory days of the mid 1950s, when Abilene won three straight state titles (1954-56) and had a 49-game win streak. In those days, tickets would go on sale Monday mornings, but fans would start lining up Saturday nights, the line winding a full city block around the campus, said former Abilene High PE teacher Bev Ball.

It has been a long climb between now and then, including a 40-year stretch from 1959-89 when Abilene didn't make the playoffs.

Now all three schools in town are flourishing. Abilene and Cooper are state contenders, though they share a district. Wylie is a state contender in Class 3A.

"Really, the fans in this town had probably gotten a little spoiled," said Cooper coach Mike Spradlin, a former offensive line coach at Houston.

• • •

As the saying goes, everything's bigger in Texas.

Big like the athletic complex at Wylie, which recently finished a $3.5 million renovation to its 8,200-seat on-campus stadium, adding a press box tower, 1,200 homestand seat backs, 1,000 additional visiting seats and a privately funded scoreboard with video screen — which donors insisted be larger than the one at Shotwell Stadium, where Abilene and Cooper play.

"It's about a foot larger," Wylie coach Hugh Sandifer said. "There's competition, even when you build the scoreboards around here."

A decade ago, Wylie built an indoor practice facility that includes a 40-yard turf field and weight room, as well as a basketball and tennis court and cages for the baseball, softball and golf teams. Wylie, which has its own school district separate from the Abilene school district, allows district residents access to the facilities.

"It's a total community when you play a school in Texas," said Sandifer, who won a state title in 2004. "… You don't just play the school, you play town vs. town."

• • •

On Wednesday evening, the Abilene football team crowds into Harold's Bar-B-Q, one of the town's longest-standing barbecue joints, dating to 1956. The Eagles usually eat their team meal here the day before games.

By the door is a hand-written sign by owner Harold Christian telling patrons he's closing at 5 tonight so he can make it to the game. He doesn't miss the Eagles often. Few rarely do.

"I always go," he said matter-of-factly. "High school football, it's a huge thing around here. It's all they talk about."

Eduardo A. Encina can be reached at eencina@sptimes.com.

Deep feelings about football 09/15/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, September 15, 2010 9:44pm]
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