5 Brutal Realities Of High School Football (From A Coach)
Whether you're on the homecoming court, playing in the band, or getting your underwear pulled over your head by a linebacker, football is a big part of shaping the life of an American high school student. In Texas, however, high school football is responsible for shaping the life of the entire state. Teams generate millions of dollars of revenue, and the coach with enough winning seasons under his belt can damn near get away with murder.
We spoke to William Lane, a former player and volunteer coach in both 3A and 5A schools (meaning medium-sized and fucking huge, respectively) in Central Texas. He told us some things about the crazy zeitgeist surrounding high school football that not even Varsity Blues felt comfortable divulging.
The Stadiums Are Built With A Roman Emperor's Extravagance
What did the football stadium at your high school look like (assuming you even had one)? Maybe wood bleachers that seated a couple thousand people? Well, when I tell you that high school football is a big deal in Texas, I suppose a picture is worth a thousand words:
All this for a bunch of players who will never even sniff a Super Bowl. Just like Cowboys Stadium.
Or maybe I should say that a picture is worth $60 million, because that's how much that stadium cost. That's the Allen High School Eagles stadium. It seats about 20,000 people. Again, we're talking about an arena in which teenagers play games of football. A public school district dropped $60 million on a football stadium that hosts something like 10 games every year, tops. Oh, and the concrete cracked after a single season, rendering it unusable.
"Are you ready for some maintenance!?"
Allen isn't a lone case of wild extravagance, either. Katy High School (appropriately located in Katy, Texas) spent $58 million on an even-higher-capacity stadium. Ratliff Stadium in Odessa seats over 19,000 and cost $6 million, which sounds downright frugal in comparison, until you consider the fact that it was built back in 1982. Adjusted for inflation, that's nearly $15 million.
Nowadays, it's too small for high school games and too big for Jacksonville Jaguars games.
I once went to a booster club meeting, during which we discussed approving several million dollars' worth of repairs to our stadium. A school representative who had recently moved to town from New England was appalled that we were blowing this kind of money on high school sports. We were equally horrified to learn that her previous school had cut their football program in favor of improving its chemistry lab.
She might as well have suggested that we spend the entirety of the school's budget on building a rocket, and then launch ourselves into the Sun. We'd never dream of cutting football.
On Game Night, Everything Shuts Down
When I say that things shut down in these towns during high school football games, I mean they really shut down. Any given town turns into an abandoned dust village straight out of The Walking Dead. If the game is local, then the fire department, EMS, and police will have an absolute skeleton crew on duty, keeping a radio on hand in case a call comes in.
Also like The Walking Dead? The fans entering the stadium.
When I was playing over a decade ago, one small town hung a "CLOSED" sign over the welcome sign at the edge of town, because literally everyone had left. Hospitals are obviously required to stay open, but even they have radios operating at every nurses' station. That's right: High school football is such a big deal that not even ER doctors are expected to be completely focused on their jobs during a game.
"Time of death ... uh ... about 10 minutes into the third quarter."
Why? Well, there are only a few cities in Texas that are home to professional sports teams, and Texas is still an absolute monstrosity of a state compared to, say, Connecticut. In order to satisfy their lust for feats of athleticism, most of the small towns filling in the gaps between cities like Dallas and Houston have turned to high school football in hopes of patching up that void in their souls. As a result, their economies largely revolve around a football season consisting entirely of games played by competing teams of 14-to-18-year-old children.
"Coming soon: stoplights!"
You saw how big the stadiums are -- attendance at some of the bigger games is higher than that of genuine college bowl games (that link references a game in which more than 54,000 people bought tickets). Everything revolves around the football team, and on Friday night, your ass better be in the stands. I remember staying home one game day because of the double-whammy of having both an injured leg and a sick grandmother. I listened to the game on the radio while I stayed with her, and at one point, we noticed someone peeking through a window. It was a police officer who had drawn the short straw for duty that night, checking to see if we were a team of burglars. Because all of the upstanding members of the community were at the football game.
It's Not About The Players; It's About Money
To be clear, I led a pretty comfortable life as a football player, even though anyone who wasn't my teammate (or a cheerleader) was seen as "unworthy" of representing the school. It wasn't until I finally became a coach that I realized that the players are nothing more than a commodity. Maybe your real education doesn't start until you learn that.
Shoulder first, keep your head up, and your life is meaningless except to make everyone else richer. Hut-hut!"
Thousands of fans can mean huge numbers for merchandising, tickets, and concessions sales. Pep rallies are little more than fundraising drives. Even the intergalactic ransom we pour into those giant stadiums can be excused as a necessary expense, because the stadiums are basically giant advertisements. A high school football coach making six figures may seem absurd until you realize that bigger districts near the suburbs of Dallas and Houston can rake in over $2 million per season, based solely on a bunch of teenagers in tights trading aggressive hugs over a ball. It's a cycle: Teams make more when they win, and schools care about making money from the games to pay off the expensive football team.
Football is a legitimate industry-driver here, and everyone reaps the benefits. Restaurants time their hours in order to pick up customers either heading to or from a game. Hotels know they will see a huge spike in business if the opposing teams have made a particularly long drive to play each other. Local television and radio stations bank on advertising revenue generated by the games. In Texas, high school is both your prime-time television and your religion.
Right down to the inspirational billboards alongside rural highways.
They've Only Recently Started Caring About Player Safety
The fact is that many coaches have been downright abusive. My dad told me that coaches in his day would refuse to allow any medical personnel to be anywhere nearby, in case they should get the insane notion to delay a game with their "doctoring" nonsense every time a player got a teensy-weensy concussion. To make matters worse, there was a powerful "water is for the weak" mentality among the high school coaching staff that didn't exactly jibe well with Central Texas heat.
After all, our bodies are already 70 percent water. Why would we need to add more?
Today, coaches are held to a vague set of standards, which is at least better than a system based on flagrant child endangerment. But it took a long line of injuries to get here. Nationally, high school football players have about a 12 percent chance of getting injured. But since everything in Texas is bigger (noticing a trend here?), the injury rate for our players is much higher, peaking at an astonishing 50 percent a few decades ago.
Reviving the Coliseum and making everybody fight lions would've put fewer kids out of action.
Since then, Texas has graciously decided to start trying to take better care of its athletes, and now has some of the strictest rules in the country aimed towards preventing injuries. For instance, Texas is one of few states to limit tackling drills and contact-based practice. So many players were suffering concussions, or even being killed (there were six deaths in 2011 alone), that someone finally got with the program. Due to skyrocketing numbers of concussions, we now adhere to the same helmet standards as the NFL, and have implemented rules meant to prevent players from experiencing permanent brain damage while allowing an entire state of adults to live vicariously through them.
Except for the not-getting-paid part. Nobody wants to live that.
If you're wondering why it wasn't the parents raising hell about these issues all those decades ago ... well, that's a tough thing to do when playing through injury is considered a rite of manhood. ("Oh, your son collapsed from dehydration and heat exhaustion in practice? Sorry, I thought he was tough.") And it's harder when winning coaches are revered as living legends -- who's going to question their judgment? Even now, with some regulations being enforced, coaches can still get away with a lot in terms of pushing players past their limits. Short of making creepy upskirt videos of female students, it's nearly impossible to get fired.
Unless you start losing games, of course.
We Will Break The Law To Win
When you picture football recruiting, the first thing that probably comes to mind are a bunch of big-time college coaches visiting some prize recruit, taking the kid's family out to dinner, and doing everything but buying him a high-performance luxury car to get him to agree to attend their school in the fall. But high schools can't do that. You can't send a football coach to sweet talk some promising young athlete into switching high schools, since public school students have to attend the school in their district. Right?
Friendly reminder before you answer: That tiny building on the right is the entire school.
Actually, even though it's both a fireable offense and totally illegal, coaches will in fact drive good teenage athletes from one school district to another. To "legally" pull this off, a kid and his parents will have to file paperwork explaining the switch between districts. A parent's occupation is an acceptable factor, so the parents of star players will often suddenly find themselves getting great job offers from a few districts over.
Case in point: One kid who moved to the school where I was coaching his senior year told me about his previous years playing for schools in the Dallas and Houston areas. His dad moved every year for work, so they wanted to buy a house close to wherever his mom would end up working. Once word of their particular home-buying criteria got out, she would be showered in job offers from businesses in different districts. They were essentially bidding for her son. In case I haven't made it abundantly clear by now, high school football is a big fucking deal in Texas.
"I don't remember applying to be both mayor-for-life AND the next Pope ..."
None of that matters if a kid can't keep his grades up, though, so you better believe coaches pitch in with that, too. If a certain star player's grades were on the cusp of academic ineligibility, teachers would either magically discover a perfect test score amid the stacks of Cs and Ds, or begin offering extra-credit assignments that could be completed by a toddler who hadn't quite learned how to read yet.
"Step One: Open the text book. Step Two: Close the text book. Congratulations! You have passed Honors English."
In 1988, Dallas Carter High School won the first state title for an independent school district in almost 40 years, only to have it revoked after it was discovered that they had allowed a kid with falsified grades to play. "Well, that was a different time, right?" Okay. In 2012, a superintendent lost his job for inflating a student's GPA in order to earn him a football scholarship. The sheer competitiveness of these football programs and their impact on the economy means that schools are more than happy to let illegal shit get swept under the rug.
Make no mistake -- Jon Voight's character from Varsity Blues is 100 percent a real person. And he coaches for more than one high school football team in the state of Texas.
And sadly, there are way more of him than there are whipped cream bikini girls.
Evan V. Symon is the interview finder guy for Cracked. If you have an awesome experience or job you would like to see as an article, hit up the tip line at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more a look at the crazy zeitgeist in a different kind of football, check out Drugs, Violence, And Soccer: 6 Realities Of Hooliganism. And check out what life is like in another cult in 7 Horror Movie Scenes I Lived Inside A Real Apocalyptic Cult.
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