September 15, 2015

Friday Night Lights 2015: Week 3



“Welcome to another night of the finest football played in America — Texas high school football.”

Last week was a special Lone Star State version of Friday Night Lights. I was in Texas visiting my uncle and we attended the McKinney Boyd-Allen matchup at Allen’s $60 million, 18,000-seat football stadium.

That’s right — a $60 million, 18,000-seat high school football stadium. (The field also has soccer markings, so I assume it is used for soccer, too. Another uncle told me Allen’s graduation ceremonies are held there, too, so it has multiple purposes. It’s main purpose, obviously, is hosting football games on Friday nights in the fall.) That right there should give you an impression of how big high school football is in the state of Texas.

We’ve all heard about it, we’ve all seen it portrayed in Varsity Blues and other movies and TV shows (including the awful film adaptation of Friday Night Lights), but it is a completely different thing to see and experience the enormity and cultural significance of high school football in Texas in person. It’s something else. For my uncle and I, the experience was akin to attending a college football game. At multiple times during the game, I needed to remind myself that we were watching high school football, with 16-, 17-, and 18-year-old athletes.

Someone, maybe my uncle, told me that fans would be tailgating before the game. “Tailgating? For a high school game?” I thought. It almost seemed funny to think about, but, sure enough, fans were tailgating in the parking lots behind the tall press box when we arrived. I did not see any beer, but groups were lounging in lawn chairs, team flags were flying high, food was spread out on tables beneath pop-up tents, footballs were being tossed, and games of bags were being played. To my amazement, there were even a couple RVs.

This is a big deal, I thought.

Allen Eagle Stadium looked more like a college football or MLS stadium. It has a horseshoe lower bowl and a second deck on the press box side. According to Wikipedia, the stadium opened in 2012 but closed in 2014 due to cracking concrete. It reopened this year after $10 million in repairs. A weight room, golf simulator, and wrestling room are located beneath the stadium. Needless to say, it was hard to wrap my mind around the fact it was a high school football stadium. It spoke volumes about the value placed on football locally and in Texas. Yes, it was impressive, but I could not shake the sense that it was perverse.

We had general admission tickets, which cost only $6 a piece, and sat in the bleachers behind the north end zone. The stadium filled slowly and we watched the players warm up. Again, I got the sense I was sitting in Kinnick Stadium watching Wildcats or Boilermakers taking practice snaps. The program did not list the height and weight of the McKinney-Boyd players, who were practicing on our end, but there were some big boys on the line. The teams took the field and the announcer started the festivities with the perfect quote to open this post. (He was an excellent announcer who complimented great plays on both sides of the ball. I could tell he was a fan of the game and he provided a model of good sportsmanship.)

I didn’t know much about McKinney-Boyd, but was aware that the Allen Eagles are three-time defending state champions and entered the game with a 45-game winnings streak. (Allen also won the mythical high school national championship in 2014 — a season which the team played entirely on the road due to repairs at Allen Eagle Stadium.) I expected to see some fireworks from the Eagles, but was hoping for a good game. It didn’t happen that way. The Eagles basically dominated; the final was 45–15. I took notes on the game play but the experience took precedence.

As I mentioned, it was akin to attending a college game. Many fans proudly wore blue and red Allen gear, much as you would see Hawkeye fans in black and old gold on Saturdays at Kinnick. The athleticism on both teams was above and beyond anything I have seen recently in Iowa. Though the players may also play other sports, they seemed groomed for football; I got the impression they were more athletes than students. Wide receivers made incredible, leaping catches — feats of athleticism I am used to seeing on Saturdays and not Friday nights. The Eagles were especially impressive, though McKinney-Boyd Broncos looked like they could beat any team in Iowa. Sadly, there seemed to be a lot of trash talking and disrespect among opposing players, and the referees called a lot of unsportsmanlike penalties, especially against the Eagles.

A sense of community was also on display in the stands. Before every kickoff, Allen fans stood and held up their pinkie fingers, or locked pinkies with those next to them, and held a long “Oooooo” that grew louder and louder and eventually reached its peak when the ball was kicked. They would then shout in unison something like, “Allen Eagles, fight, fight fight!” Both young and old were in attendance and I got the impression that Allen’s football team was very much a part of the city’s identity. (Allen, I learned, is the largest high school in Texas.)

Much like in Iowa, the game is not just about football. A 30-minute halftime featured both sets of school bands and dance squads of what were essentially dancing cowgirls. Allen’s band is apparently the largest in the country and it showed, filling much of the field. After the show, I watched band members push something like 20 xylophones into the tunnel in the northwest corner. Despite all the emphasis on the athletics program, especially football, it was nice to see that Allen seemed to value other programs and activities as well. (Allen apparently has an excellent broadcasting program with its own TV and radio stations.)

The game was well in hand so my uncle and I left after the third quarter. Attending the game was a cool and special experience, confirming to me how big and important high school football is in the Lone Star State.