The Family That Played Together

It isn’t every day that South Texas produces an NFL quarterback, let alone two, let alone two who are brothers. For their athletic feats, Ty and Koy Detmer have one man to thank: their father, a high school coaching whiz everyone calls Sonny.

January 1998By Comments

Mission is a solid eight hours from Dallas, but you won’t find a more dedicated bunch of Cowboys fans than the citizenry of this Rio Grande Valley town, where the local stadium is named after Mission High School’s most celebrated former player—some guy named Tom Landry. Having finally forgiven Jerry Jones for his handling of their native son (funny what a few Super Bowls will do), people here are Cowboys crazy again. When the ’Boys were on Monday Night Football this past September 15, all the employees in the school’s special education office came to work in their best silver and blue.

Except Betty Detmer. “Betty,” read an interoffice memo reminding people to trot out the colors, “has special permission to wear green.” That’s because she and her husband, Sonny, at the time Mission High School’s head football coach, have shifted their loyalties to Philadelphia, where their 30-year-old son, Ty, has endured an alternately brilliant and rocky two years as an Eagles quarterback. And just so the family doesn’t have to invest in more than one line of official NFL merchandise, Philly also employs Mission’s second most celebrated former player, son Koy. The most prolific quarterback in Texas high school history, Koy, 24, is spending his rookie season on injured reserve.

The Cowboys have always provided Ty with his most critical NFL games. He suffered a concussion against Dallas in his debut as an Eagles starter in September 1996; later that season, at Texas Stadium, he pulled out a big win that had the media comparing him with Joe Montana. The September Monday-night game continued the trend. In a nighttime swelter that reached 105 degrees on the field, Detmer’s Eagles led Dallas 20—9 at one point, only to see the Cowboys climb back to a late 21—20 advantage. With 47 seconds left, amid the blare of a cynical crowd ecstatic with surprise at the Cowboys comeback, Detmer blithely drove the Eagles 85 yards in 43 seconds, completing three big passes to bring the Birds to the 4-yard line with 1 second left.

“I was jumpin’ up, running around the room, high-fivin’,” Sonny Detmer says. “Then it was, whoa, wait a minute!”

Whoa indeed. As even the casual fan will recall, the game ended in a Dallas victory when Philadelphia misplayed the snap on a sure-thing field goal. Though Sonny Detmer felt his son’s disappointment six hundred miles away, his friends and neighbors came away happy. “The game was perfect for Mission,” the eldest Detmer says. “Ty did good, but the Cowboys won.”

Two weeks later, Sonny still couldn’t have a phone conversation without the Dallas game coming up. In this culture of celebrity he will always be best known as the coach and father of two guys who have spent their Saturdays and Sundays playing on national TV. Ty and Koy are most renowned for their competitiveness, their innate football smarts (rather than their size), and their habit of accomplishing things that conventional wisdom says they can’t. All of that comes from their father. They are living out his dream of playing in the NFL. Not that Sonny, who never made it there, has any regrets. He likes his life—whether it’s family, ranching, hunting, or football—far too much for that.

His sons aside, Herbert “Sonny” Detmer is a bit of a Texas football institution himself. He’s a former junior college star who went on to play semi-professionally in the Continental Football League before becoming a full-time coach. In the X’s and O’s department, Detmer’s claim to fame is the offensive philosophy that helped his sons light up scoreboards—in the land of the wing T and the wishbone, of Doak and Dickerson and Earl, Sonny has always favored a high-risk and highfalutin’ crazy offensive weapon called the forward pass. That may sound silly now, but in the early seventies, with many high school teams still throwing about as often as Texans voted Republican, multiple-receiver sets and thirty throws a game were radical notions indeed.

Detmer, 53, has been coaching now for almost thirty years, the last nine at Mission High. But on December 2 he announced he was quitting. He has grandchildren piling up, a pension coming due, and a budding vocation selling Longhorn meat to a Valley-area grocery chain. He also has a considerable coaching reputation—Detmer’s retirement from Mission, where he compiled a 68—32 record, doesn’t mean retirement from football. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine the Detmer family without the sport. The sign in the Detmer living room says it all: “We interrupt this marriage to bring you the football season.” “We’ve been married thirty-two years,” Betty Detmer says, “but I always say, honey, real time, sixteen.” Betty is not one for complaining, though (unless the subject is referees). She still remembers when she and Sonny were students at Southwest Texas State University in 1965. They had just gotten married, and her new husband spent a whole semester without playing any sports. “I felt so sorry for him,” she says. “He played the pinball machines. I mean, he was so bored.”

These days, football is completely woven into Betty’s life. Ask her about the half a dozen pesky dogs that run around her kitchen. “We only invited four of them,” she’ll crack. “Two of them are walk-ons.” And Betty’s is probably the only laundry room in America that doubles as a storage space for the Heisman trophy, which Ty won at Brigham Young University in 1990. Most of Ty’s and Koy’s voluminous honors, however, have been mothballed. The laundry room’s prime shelf space is currently stuffed end-to-end with gold basketball and golf trophies, the bounty of the youngest Detmer child, Lori, a seventeen-year-old senior at Mission (another daughter, Dee, 28, coaches basketball and several other sports at the local junior high). Among the sprinkling of books on a lower shelf is a hardcover copy of Friday Night Lights, the classic book about high school football in Texas.

Surprisingly, Sonny Detmer did not grow up with Texas high school football. There was a time when football wasn’t even his game. Born in 1944 in Beaumont, Detmer grew up in Indiana and returned to Texas in 1962 on a dual basketball-baseball scholarship at Wharton County Junior College (WCJC), outside Houston. With nothing else to do in the fall, Detmer figured he might as well go out for football too. “Guys kinda teased me because I was from Indiana tryin’ to play football in Texas,” he recalls. “I told them, ‘Yeah, well, we got a little church school that does pretty well up there—Notre Dame.’ They said, ‘Notre Dame’s not in Indiana!’”

At WCJC Detmer met and courted Betty, a sixth-generation Texan from El Campo who was descended from original settlers named Woods. And he prospered on the gridiron, becoming an All-American wide receiver. But he turned down a chance to transfer to Division I Tulsa in favor of a basketball scholarship at Florida State in 1965 (he continued to play baseball as well). The playing time on the hard court never materialized, so later that year Sonny headed for San Marcos to be with Betty, who had transferred from Wharton to Southwest Texas State.

After a year of playing pinball, Sonny took a coaching and teaching job at South San Antonio High School. Soon the San Antonio Toros of the Continental Football League came calling. Detmer spent two and a half seasons playing wide receiver with them, clearing about $150 a game while still coaching and teaching at the high school. He was then traded to the West Texas Roughnecks, where he cleared a little more by driving from San Antonio to Odessa and back every week, pocketing the $60 the team provided as plane fare. At one point Detmer passed on an NFL tryout because the $22,000 minimum salary would have meant a pay cut compared with his combined income from teaching, coaching, and playing.

When he was with the Roughnecks, Sonny almost took a job at the heart of Texas high school football, as the junior varsity coach for Odessa Permian. Instead, with the CFL floundering, he stayed in San Antonio with his family. From 1969 to 1982 he held jobs at Churchhill, Somerset, Roosevelt, and Central Catholic high schools. He spent a year coaching in Laredo before returning to San Antonio and coaching at Southwest High School—where Ty made his mark—until 1988. The Detmers then spent a year in Arizona before settling in Mission, where Koy made his mark.

Sonny says he never planned on making his teams a family affair. Sure, both Ty and Koy had footballs pretty much from the crib, and both spent their childhood toddling around while Sonny watched game films, but he says he never forced the issue. “You probably push them to a certain extent in that you provide everything that you can for them to play,” he says. Both boys were natural athletes, with Koy eagerly doing everything his older brother did. But once, at the age of six, Koy decided to quit football. Sonny let him, figuring that teaching him a lesson about persistence was less important than letting him play for the right reason—because he liked it. Koy came back to it on his own.

“He never told us, ‘You need to play football,’” Koy says. “He has always just let us be what we are and encouraged us to be the best that we can at whatever we want to do. It has always been just me playing football or basketball or golf because I enjoy doin’ it. He always says if you don’t enjoy doin’ it anymore, you need to quit. That’s one thing that Sonny has been real good about.” (Ty and Koy have called their father “Sonny” pretty much since they could speak. Ty began the custom because that’s what he heard his grandparents call him.)

Even after it was clear that his kids loved the game, Sonny says he didn’t want the dual father-coach role: “I wasn’t gonna coach them. But I kept watchin’ them play and I said, ‘They’re too good not to play for me.’ There are some kids that you have to push a little bit harder to make them better players. These guys wanted to be players. You just put them out there and teach them and they have an inner drive, a fire to play.” That fire went beyond the football field: Ty excelled at basketball and baseball, and Koy starred at basketball and golf. Their obvious talent circumvented any resentment team members might have felt about the coach’s son playing quarterback. It’s hard to resent future Texas high school hall of famers—Ty is already there, Koy will be. At Southwest, Betty recalls, Ty’s black teammates nicknamed him Whip, “because he was white and smooth like Miracle Whip.”

Koy has never had to follow directly in Ty’s footsteps—they are six years apart and played at different schools. Metaphorically speaking, however, Ty was Koy’s blocking back. Ty was not heavily recruited by Texas universities—at nearly six feet even he was small, and the passing game was not yet a priority in the Southwest Conference. But after Ty set 59 NCAA records and won the Heisman at Brigham Young University, the inch-taller Koy found things easier, especially when he put up even bigger high school numbers while taking the 10—1 Mission Eagles to the state semifinals in 1990. Former University of Texas coach John Mackovic went after Koy but lost him to Colorado after Shea Morenz signed with the Longhorns. Ty and Koy also share a star-crossed history with Texas A&M. In the 1990 Holiday Bowl Ty suffered not one but two separated shoulders in a loss to the Aggies. And in 1995 Koy blew out his knee in College Station and missed the rest of the season.

Now both Detmers are in Philadelphia, where it’s unlikely they will ever compete for a job. According to Sonny, though, Koy would be the perfect backup for Ty, and vice versa. Most parents take great pains to treat their children as individuals, but from a football perspective, Sonny talks as if he has only one son. “If you like Ty, then you like Koy,” he says. “If something happens to the first one, you don’t have to change anything because they see things alike. They have the same feel for the game, so your quarterback would basically be the same guy.” The brothers are aware of this, at least subconsciously. Ty describes Koy, on and off the field, as “easygoing. Nothing gets to him; he can handle anything.” Koy on Ty: “Nothing gets to him really. He’s pretty thick-skinned about things.”

Jon Gruden, the Eagles’ offensive coordinator, says Koy was drafted on his own merits, but “we had the feeling that he would have some of the intangibles his brother had.” Gruden is an unabashed Ty fan, having first coached him when he and Eagles head coach Ray Rhodes (a Mexia native) were assistants at Green Bay. “Ty is a quality person,” Gruden says. “He has an innate feel for the position that is rare, and he has physical ability, which a lot of people don’t realize because he’s not the biggest or the strongest guy.” Sonny remains grateful to Gruden and Rhodes for allowing his son a shot at starting: “Rhodes is one of the few guys who gave him a chance, who said he could play in this league.”

But as much as the Eagles say they love Ty Detmer, it’s unlikely he’ll be in Philadelphia next year. Beginning with the loss to the Cowboys, the team’s 1997 season has become a meltdown. Through no real fault of his own (one columnist in Philly described his treatment as “terribly unfair”), Ty had to fight with Rodney Peete for the job in training camp, was relieved by Peete twice early in the season, was benched for two weeks, then put back in charge for a big game against the 49ers. Finally, with the team all but eliminated from playoff contention, Rhodes gave the reins to Bobby Hoying, a second-year player who is considered the Eagles’ future. (Koy, should he stay, is expected to challenge or back up Hoying.) Through it all, Ty hadn’t been brilliant, but he hadn’t been bad either—the offense was rated first in the league, as it had been last year, and Ty was the ninth-best passer in the NFC, down from fourth in 1996. An inconsistent offensive line and a horrifying special teams unit were the reasons the team wasn’t winning. Betty jokes that it’s her fault—she’s always praying that Ty won’t get hurt, and he can’t get hurt sitting on the bench. Sonny is already looking ahead to Ty’s next team. “Ty needs somebody to just say that he’s gonna be the guy,” Sonny says. “He can play. He wins big games. So Philadelphia served a real good purpose for him. But football has kinda become a job for him this year.”

Ty, of course, is Mr. Circumspect. One of his favorite expressions is “It’s hard to say.” Is he getting a raw deal from the Eagles? “It’s hard to say.” Did he have something to prove this year after struggling late last season? “It’s hard to say.” Maybe it’s true that Ty Detmer can’t be an NFL player—he’s too genial. Where’s the flamboyance, the narcissism, the petulance? Ty has never been a show-me-the-money guy—his base salary is only $700,000 at a time when quarterbacks who have accomplished less than he has (Elvis Grbac, Scott Mitchell, Gus Frerotte) make $20 mil-lion over four or five years. After Ty won the Heisman as a junior, he returned for his senior year—almost unheard of. And though an observant Mormon, he has never used his piety for media fodder. Ty is the anti-Deion, an aw-shucks team player whose demeanor masks a cutthroat competitiveness. He may not stand tall in the pocket in the literal sense, but he does so with his leadership, his stubbornness, and the way he lives his life.

“That’s what I appreciate about him so much,” says Sonny, the man who helped shape him. “He doesn’t look, talk, or act like a tough guy, but this guy is tough. You know that goin’ in, he’s got to be, because he’s not gonna get all the opportunities to make mistakes and have time to mature and have time to learn—like Brett Favre got all the time in the world to mature. And he made mistakes and they patted him on the back and said, ‘You’ll do better next time.’ For Ty it was, ‘Well, if you don’t win this one, this could be the end of your career.’ Why wouldn’t you root for a guy who is an average guy to go in there and do super things? Why wouldn’t you be rootin’ for a guy like that to make it?”

Last October, in one of Sonny’s final home games, the Mission fans saw another characteristic night of Detmer football. No one was surprised when the Eagles won the toss and chose to kick off to the Pharr—San Juan—Alamo Bears; high school football fans have grown accustomed to teams opening the game with a defensive statement, knowing that when the second half begins, the ball will be theirs. But the Bears were plenty surprised when Mission started things off with an onside kick. Sonny Detmer’s maverick coaching philosophy kept the Bears off balance all night in what turned into a 47—0 romp. Mission went for it on fourth and thirteen, punted before Pharr—San Juan—Alamo had all its men on the field, and of course, passed, passed, and passed again. 

Only three things happen when you throw a pass, Darrell Royal famously said, and two of them are bad. This is not so in a Sonny Detmer offense. At its most maximalist, there are seven things that can happen: the two bad ones (incompletion, interception), plus successful plays to the first receiver, the second receiver, the third receiver, the fourth receiver, and the fifth receiver. Those are much better odds.

In the age of the run and shoot, West Coast offenses, and God forbid, major aerial thrusts at UT and A&M, Detmer looks like a prophet. He jokes that as a former wideout himself, he’s simply inclined to throw the ball, but really he does it to entertain, to make things tough on run-oriented defenses, and in Mission’s case, because his team wasn’t built for brute force—at 185 to 210 pounds the offensive linemen were no bigger than . . . well, Ty Detmer. Oh, yeah, and he does it because it works.

“These places want to win,” Detmer says. “They’re not having little picnic dinners after the game is over. They’re intense about football down here. They know that the weight room is open from five o’clock until eight o’clock at night, and if they see a kid out on the street [at that time], they want to know why he’s not in there.”

Every Friday during football season Detmer addressed a group of local businessmen over lunch, and on the day of the game against the Bears, his hands covered in purple salve from treating an injured horse, he had to apologize for the previous week’s loss. He was then barraged with friendly but demanding questions about the quarterback situation, the defense, and the long-ball passing game. “You’d think this was an NFL team,” joked one of the participants. “Barry Switzer doesn’t get this much abuse.”

At Mission Detmer had almost as many assistants as Switzer—thirteen, including a former NFL assistant coach as the defensive coordinator. Detmer himself was the offensive coordinator, and he chose to call the plays from the press box rather than the sidelines. In the box at the Bears game, he was totally placid, peering over formations and drinking a Dr Pepper per quarter as his assistants yelled, squawked, cheered, and cursed over the militarylike din of headsets and microphones. “You guys ready to go?” he had asked his squad, all peach fuzz, pimples, and pads, before the game. The system was in place; the team was prepared to play. From consistency comes greatness, with no need for a fire-and-brimstone speech (“How many of those can you give?” Detmer asks). At halftime the coach worked his way back to the locker room, stopping to chat with a few fans before setting up in front of a marker board to diagram a few adjustments.

“People try to make coaching a lot harder than it is,” says Detmer, who has been known to be relaxed enough on game days to take a nap. Though that might actually be work: “Seeing the plays on the inside of his eyelids” is how Betty describes his rest. He has logged his share of sixteen-hour days, but he knows there’s more to life than football. “When he’s late getting home,” says Betty, “it’s not because he’s at the field house. Usually he has stopped off to check a cow or a horse or see a guy about hay.” Detmer owns horses and cattle and works them on some nearby land he leases. He can sometimes be found riding one of the horses around the groves near his house, the dogs in tow. “I have a great life,” he says.

One can’t help but think that whatever Sonny does next will have something to do with the thing that drove him around Texas all those years and landed him in Mission. “Football has been so much fun, and it’s been so good to me. Everything that I have ever gotten or ever had happen to me has been because of football. If it weren’t for football, I would just be an average person, doin’ an average deal, but I’ve been made into something a little more special than I really am. I’ve had a good life ’cause of football. A lot of people have special feelings for me because I have two boys that are in the NFL and I’ve been a good coach in high school in Texas. I never wanted to be anything else. I never wanted to do anything else.”

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