The Rookie

Two and a half years ago, the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum asked me to organize an exhibit about high school football. Did I mention I'm not a museum curator?
The Rookie
Midland High School Fans, ca. 2010. Courtesy Midland High School. Photo by Emma Wellen.

I am not a museum curator. I am a writer and a historian. Yet last week I had the pleasure of standing before several hundred folks at the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum in Austin to show them the special exhibit I have spent the past two and half years curating— “Texas High School Football: More Than the Game.”  

So how did that happen?

In December 2008 I received an e-mail from the museum asking me to apply for the position of guest curator. Why me? I wondered. There were more qualified football experts. Then I started looking through some old articles I’d written about high school coaches, the Herkie jump , and weird mascots. Maybe I did know something about this subject.

I also had an idea of how museum exhibits were organized. When the Bullock reached out to me, I was nearly finished writing the history of the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History, a place I first experienced as a preschooler when it was still the Fort Worth Children’s Museum. I learned a lot from Van Romans, the museum’s president and a former Disney “imagineer.” His presence illustrates how museums have evolved from cabinets of curiosities to interactive-intense productions that emphasize visual literacy.

I was also starting a history of the Dallas Cowboys, the only thing bigger in Texas than Willie Nelson, my last biographical subject. You can’t appreciate the Cowboys’ popularity and clout without knowing the high school version of the game, the taproot of all Texas football.

When I submitted my application for the guest curator position, I emphasized all the elements that make high school football the community unifier that it is—marching bands, mascots, cheerleaders, dance teams, students, parents, relatives, and boosters. A couple of months later, I got the job.

With a history going back to 1892, when Ball High School, in Galveston, fielded a team to play a squad of townies, there was a lot of ground to cover. Jay Black at the Texas Sports Hall of Fame, in Waco, graciously loaned items and turned me on to Felton "Pooch" Wright, coach of the Ballinger Bearcats, who in the 1930s invented a snapping machine to hike the ball to a quarterback and the Ballinger Blocking Board, a scoreboard that credited the play of the linemen, the unsung heroes of every offense.

(Those were hardly the only Football Firsts I unearthed. Raymond T. "Prof" Bynum, the father of Texas high school marching bands, brought John Philip Sousa to guest conduct the first Abilene Eagle Marching Band in 1926; Lawrence Herkimer, a cheerleader from Dallas, invented the ubiquitous Herkie jump and started the first cheerleader camp; and Gussie Nell Davis founded a female drill team called the Flaming Flashes at Greenville High School before she started the world-famous Kilgore Rangerettes, the standard by which all Texas drill teams are measured.)

Older city high schools with long histories of football were crucial to my research. A friend of a friend led me to Linda Troncoso, president of the El Paso High School alumni association, who unlocked the school’s archives dating to 1884. Franna Camenisch, with a sign language interpreter, showed me the small museum she oversees on the Texas School for the Deaf campus, where students first played football in the late 1800s. Bill Minter of the Abilene Preservation League contacted me and opened up a storage room at Abilene High School to reveal one of the oldest and most extensive collections of high school memorabilia. Mike Weber Jr., an auto dealer in Cuero who has become the keeper of the Fightin’ Gobblers’ history, took me on a tour of the museum he has helped put together.

I had lunch with Robert Brown, of the Prairie View Interscholastic League Coaches Association, whose archives chronicled the forgotten story of black high school football during the dark era of segregation. And I enjoyed an old-time fizzy soda at the fountain inside New London’s museum, which provided evidence of the first "Friday night lights", a direct benefit of being a wealthy school district (thanks to its proximity to the East Texas Field, one of the largest known deposits of oil in the world at that time).

My research took me to Euless, where I watched players from Tonga lead the Trinity Trojans in the pregame Haka dance; to Edcouch-Elsa, whose Yellow Jackets are nicknamed La Maquina Amarilla; and to Ratliff Stadium to watch Odessa High upset cross-town rivals Permian in front of an overflow crowd of 22,000 on a perfect October evening. 

I wound up with two hundred artifacts—more than twice as many as the Bullock typically allows for special exhibitions—including ancient leather helmets, the first University Interscholastic League state championship trophy, Marty Akins’ kicking shoe, and the Westlake Chaparrals jersey of Akins' nephew Drew Brees, who reached the pinnacle of football achievement fourteen years after leading Westlake to the state title when he led the New Orleans Saints to a Super Bowl championship and was named the game’s Most Valuable Player.

A version of this story appears on www.nytimes.com.

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