THE FOOTBALL FALLS FROM THE SKY, HITS THE artificial turf and takes off as if it has a mind of its own. It shoots sideways, skips, cartwheels slowly, and then spins off in a new direction—always just out of reach of the frantic teenager.
“Relax! Relax!” yells the coach from the sidelines as the boy fumbles for the ball, which is now wobbling along like a car with bad wheels. “You gotta relax!”
Right. The first day of practice, two other kids are bearing down on him in the punt-coverage drill, and a coach is already yelling at him. It’s only eight-fifteen in the morning on August 4, the official start of Westlake High School’s two-a-days. There will be no relaxing here, not today and not for another four months.
The coaches and teenagers aren’t the only ones running around Westlake’s Chaparral Stadium. A woman in her early forties arrives with her three small boys—they’re maybe twelve, eight, and six—and together they start jogging on the reddish-brown track that circles the green turf. “C’mon, guys,” she says impatiently, as if they’ve done it before. She trots along with the two youngest, exhorting them to keep up, while the eldest runs ahead on his own. Occasionally he glances up at his heroes playing football. He watches briefly and then looks down again.
It’s already at least 90 degrees and muggy as hell. Nobody complains. At the center of the field is head coach Ron Schroeder, in blue shorts, white shirt, and mirror shades. Cool and impassive, arms folded, watching, he looks like Douglas MacArthur in a gimme cap. Around him swirl twelve assistant coaches and about one hundred Westlake Chaparrals: sixty on the varsity in red shorts and white shirts, forty on the JV. In silver helmets but no pads, they resemble an army of cartoon ants. The assistants split them into platoons for drills, and they run them with ease. Every twenty minutes they work a new one: tackling, catching, blocking.
The only sounds are the boom of a punter practicing on the sidelines and men yelling. “You guys wanna catch that ball!” one says loudly. The helmets nod sheepishly. Schroeder is mostly quiet, letting his assistants harangue, though he occasionally stops the action to give explicit comments. “Always keep your head up,” he says in a deep voice that echoes across the field. “You get in trouble when you put your head down.” The helmets are silent, obedient, as systematic as soldiers. Later, at the first water break, the hard plastic headgear comes off to reveal the soft faces of teenage boys, stringy hair pasted to sweaty foreheads.
The mom walks by with her middle son. They have been out here for thirty minutes and are drenched. “One more time around,” she says. “You can do that!” A few minutes later they come by again. She was right. “See?” she sings, “You made it!” Someday her boys may be Chaps. Right now they’re just exhausted, and they want to go home.
Schroeder splits the offense into three teams. Each player goes directly to his position. The first team lines up, Schroeder calls the play, and the quarterback counts it off—a pitchout, swift and precise. The second team lines up and runs the exact same play the exact same way. The third team lines up and does it again. The first team gets into formation again and executes a short pass over the middle. Then the second team. Then the third. They run through half a dozen plays this way. Except for their sopped T-shirts, the Chaps look like they’re going through a perfunctory day of November playoff workouts. They’re fit, disciplined, hungry. The football season is ninety minutes old.
In truth the Chaps’ season never ends: These men and boys have been working toward this moment ever since November 20, 1998, the day Westlake lost by one point to Lake Highlands in the 5A regional semifinals. Football is a year-round obsession at suburban Westlake, much to the chagrin of urban Austin, which is visible to the east from the hills around the stadium. Up here great expectations are held by coaches, parents, teenagers, and exhausted little boys; more often than not they’re met. Up here the glory days dawn every day the sun shines. And the sun always seems to be shining on Westlake.
ME AND SOME FRIENDS WERE coming back from the beach,” remembers Bobby Dillard, who played defensive tackle for Westlake in 1997. “We stopped at a gas station and started talking to the guy, told him where we were from. He asked, ‘So where’s your bumper sticker—you know, We’re White, We’re Rich, We’re Westlake. ’”
People in Central and South Texas love to hate the Chaparrals, just like people love to hate the Yankees, the Cowboys, and the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame. “There are people who don’t like Westlake for no reason they can articulate except that it’s Westlake,” says the school’s principal, Chris Hines. When Westlake is losing and the score is announced during other Austin games, everyone cheers wildly. The Chaps are the most dominant Texas high school team of the nineties, with a record of 116-12-3. They have won eight straight district titles. They get the kind of news coverage usually reserved for college or even pro teams. They often blow out their opponents, even after putting in their second team in the second half. Several Austin high schools, including Austin High, Crockett, and Bowie, have never beaten them. Last year Westlake defeated those three District 14 foes by a combined score of 144 to 12.
But the hatred is about more than wins and losses. It touches on class, arrogance, and envy; not only is Westlake a rich-kid school—the campus is located in the predominantly white, upper-middle-class suburb of Westlake Hills—but it keeps getting richer. Unlike most Texas schools, for instance, Westlake actually makes money, according to athletic director Ebbie Neptune. Some of the profit comes from the $125 participation fee that many of the 2,200 students pay