Seems Like Old Times

At my high school reunion—Wichita Falls, class of ’63—I laughed with lifelong friends, mourned the dearly departed, and relived one of the greatest Texas football dynasties that no one ever talks about.

AS THE DRINKS GO DOWN AND THE LAUGHTER builds at my high school reunion, a DVD of the 1961 state semifinal football game between our Wichita Falls Coyotes and the Fort Worth Paschal Panthers flickers on a television screen. A former Coyote has recorded a play-by-play in which he says the words “Twenty-Eight Spinner One”—an end run in our offense—as if repeating a mantra. Wearing black pants, red jerseys, and white helmets, our heroes are such throwbacks that our obdurate coach, the late Joe Golding, lines them up in the single wing. “The Moose is loose!” the announcer exclaims about our all-state fullback Larry Shields, who would later move to San Antonio and become a commercial pilot. “The Worm squirms!” That would be little Kenny Sims, filling in for our flu-ridden tailback Mike Kelly and running wild in the 41—12 rout. Few of us had any idea that Kenny was an epileptic, and a couple years later, he had a seizure while driving. He died after his car veered off a country road. The time warp reminds me of Plato’s allegory of the caves. The forms on the screen look real, but they’re dim shadows of memory; the drama was played out far behind us, long ago.

Held at a Dallas hotel, the two-class reunion is our forty-fourth and forty-third (evidently the planners decided that we’d better not wager on being around for more-conventional anniversaries). My hometown is Austin now, and I haven’t seen many of these people since we walked the halls of our redbrick school. I grin after spotting my Marine pal Johnny Stafford, still as trim and handsome as Jimmy Stewart, and flinch seconds later on hearing that another in our straggling troop, Jimmy “Tuffy” Castledine, passed away from cancer three months earlier. It’s like any high school reunion—a difficult event for spouses who don’t know anyone there. My wife and I have a deal: I won’t drag her to my reunions, and she won’t haul me to hers.

I find myself mesmerized by the game film, but I also see a fair amount of ambivalence, boredom, and alienation. “My experience with football,” murmurs Ronnie Shaw, a software consultant, “was walking around and around our stadium, never seeing a play—but running to watch the next fight that broke out.” Tommy Beck delights in reminding me that my nickname on our summer baseball teams was Feet, over which I was always tripping. I had a little skill as an outfielder, but in football I was practice meat. I didn’t have the pride or self-possession to walk away. The coaches just erased me. In the Fort Worth stands that day against Paschal, I was a forlorn spectator, a B-team washout with a broken collarbone.

Whatever we thought of football, it was the defining sport in our town. During Coach Golding’s fifteen-year tenure, Wichita Falls was a high school dynasty. Though his Abilene rival, Chuck Moser, compiled a 49-game winning streak during those years—a record that would stand for more than four decades—the Coyotes signaled the end of the Eagles’ reign in the 1958 semifinals. On a day so cold that Golding let his team wear longhandles under their jerseys, the Coyotes devastated the Eagles on their home field 34—8. The next week they whipped Pasadena in the finals, and Coyote teams reached the state game each of the next three years. During my teens, the Coyotes were the best of the best when Friday Night Lights’ Odessa Permian, the next empire on the horizon, was still struggling to win district. In 1961, Golding’s last season, the Coyotes finished 14-0 and won the school’s fourth state title, then a record.

The Wichita Falls dynasty may be largely forgotten today, but not in this room. The 42 boys who made the ’61 team were our elite, and the affair is a reunion within a reunion. I’m curious if our onetime lords of the plains still have that favored strut about them, now that our lives have devolved toward thoughts of grandkids and cholesterol, surgeries and mortality.

Deep backs in the single wing, Larry Shields and Mike Kelly were our stars. Though Larry was the superior talent, Mike had a gift for big plays in big games. In the ’61 finals against Galena Park, he completed a long touchdown pass that tied the game, then ran 50 yards right up the middle to seal the win, 21—14. Both backs won scholarships to Oklahoma. Larry had a couple of years as a relative standout for the Sooners, but Mike demolished a knee before he played a varsity down. Larry couldn’t make the reunion, but Mike drove in from his home outside Fort Worth, where he recently retired from the National Cutting Horse Association. His sixties find him tall, bald, friendly, and funny,

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