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.

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

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