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, still regal in that way characteristic of breakaway runners and strong-armed passers. Wearing a Hawaiian shirt, he stands beside the bar and clearly gets a kick out of trading yarns with his old supporting cast. I have good friends in the group around Mike, but I wasn’t part of what they’re sharing. I’m reluctant to horn in.
Instead, I chat with his ex-wife, Martha Fain, who resembles Meg Ryan. Mike and Martha were our glamour couple. They were sweethearts from junior high through high school, and they were married for eighteen years. On her family’s sprawling ranch, they raised two children and Mike gained his zeal for horses. She tells me that the children of her children play baseball, football, and soccer and “take after their grandpaw.” She smiles, enjoying that word. I ask her if she liked football.
“I didn’t know much about it.”
“No, really. I was just up there cheering.”
In 1960 Ysleta shocked Permian in the first round of the playoffs and came into Coyote Stadium with a buzz that its backfield was the fastest in the state. The Coyotes crushed Ysleta 51—0. “We went around that week saying, ‘Let’s have “Yslettuce” on our hamburgers,’” Martha now says, giggling in abject repentance. “Isn’t that awful?”
The undefeated Coyotes were expected to win state that year too, but underdog Corpus Christi Miller had a runner named Johnny Roland who would go on to be an All-American at Missouri and a two-time Pro Bowler in the NFL. Roland and his teammates made a lasting impression on Terry Worrell, a guard and defensive end whose nickname was Oogie. After college Terry helped found a chain of record-and-video stores, Sound Warehouse, which was purchased by a company owned by Roy Disney. Today Terry and his wife, my old friend Sharon, live in a Dallas mansion that once belonged to Boone Pickens. “None of us could tackle Johnny Roland,” Terry tells me. “We were just a bunch of kids. They may not have been thirty-five, but they damn sure had been shaving longer than we had. We were helping each other on the bus after that one.”
The old state champs are not large men. One short, rotund man who wears a ball cap slightly askew comes up and gives me a bear hug. “I thought we were pretty good,” he drawls about the ’61 team. “Then I got to watching the films. I don’t know how we won any of those playoff games. We had two players, Shields and Kelly. The rest of us were just a bunch of pissants.”
“Who was that?” someone asks as he walks away.
“Jay Lavender,” I reply. The man blinks and in reflex draws back. At 151 pounds, Jay was our intimidating linebacker. He tackled with the crown of his helmet—a style of attack that was eventually outlawed, for fear of broken necks—and he wouldn’t let the managers rub off the paint smears of opposing helmets. Jay was also the town’s best Golden Gloves boxer, a street fighter whom prison-hardened thugs were loath to challenge. Golding usually ran off kids like that, but he took a particular shine to Jay, nicknaming him Jay Boy. Most kids in our school were afraid of Jay. Even some teammates thought he was crazy.
He went on to start at Oklahoma State and was an assistant high school coach until 1980, when he came back to Wichita Falls to start a roofing company he named Jabeau, in honor of his coach and that glory. Two decades ago I focused part of a book about football on the shenanigans of the Lavender brothers, Jay, Keith, and Pinky. At the reunion Jay tells me about going to Waco last year for Larry’s induction into the Texas Sports Hall of Fame. Another honoree was Gene Mayfield, who coached Borger in 1961 and later launched the Permian dynasty. Some of Mayfield’s Borger players made the trip, among them John LaGrone, an All-America defensive lineman at SMU and now a district judge in the Panhandle.
The onetime opponents compared notes on that bi-district game in Borger. The Coyotes won 14—0, with Jay picking off a pass inside the 5-yard line when the outcome was much in doubt. He chugged 90 yards before someone ran him down. It was his biggest play as a Coyote. Our wingback was Kenny Aboussie, now a dentist in Wichita Falls. “One play we had the ball,” Jay recalls of the Borger game, “and LaGrone blew Kenny up. He went one way, his helmet went another, and the ball went another. Judge LaGrone told me he remembered that play and said he thought, ‘That guy’s not going to get up.’ But Kenny popped up, found his helmet, and trotted on back to the huddle.”
All the old state champs are inclined to understate their prowess. It’s genuine modesty with some inverse braggadocio. Jay says they were too small and slow, but they dominated because they were tougher than anyone else—too ornery and dumb, perhaps, to stay down. Jay’s biggest disappointment came in the climax of that championship season. He sprained his ankle in practice the week of the state game. As we’re moving toward the reunion buffet, he pumps the hand of the player who took his place. Don Fowler owns an energy engineering firm in Austin. “I got to watching that game film,” Jay flatters him, “and I was wondering why they ever let me on the field.”
Don enjoys the moment as much as Jay. “Larry called me not long ago,” he says, “and said he wanted to thank us for the blocking. Said he didn’t always have it that way in college.”
Jay observes that successful high school coaches know the benefit of having some runts on the team who are short on material advantages and sophistication: All they want is a regular meal and the opportunity to hit somebody. “Remember our first day of varsity two-a-days?” Jay asks the grinning engineer. “Terrible storm blew up. Coach Golding said, ‘Well, boys, it appears we’ve got a little precipitation.’ Looked at me and said, ‘Jay Boy, that means rain.’” “Will you guys quit holding up the line?” barks a tall, large man with a shaved head. I laugh, recognizing Mickey Lewis, a friend from our neighborhood’s ball diamonds and streets; he’s now a Dallas businessman. After the reunion, he sends me a thoughtful e-mail. “I didn’t play football,” he reveals, “and I was secretly ashamed of it because of my size.” He reflects on the code of manliness that enshrined sports like football and boxing. “On the one hand, we learned that women were to be respected and the weak protected—not bad ideals to follow. On the other, it was a tremendous challenge living up to the expectations created in our own minds.”
Though the players in my senior class were ranked number one for half of the 1962 season, they suffered the shock and indignity of losing to Irving in district and failing to make the playoffs. They were victims of expectations. As the Coyote-Paschal DVD runs again, Sammy Milam, who succeeded Mike Kelly as starting tailback, jogs onto the field to mop up. He catches a snap, skips backward, and just before a lineman slams into him, he lofts a perfect touchdown pass across the field and off the wrong foot. “I didn’t remember that,” I enthuse to his blocking back and lifelong friend, a Garland athletics coordinator named Don Williams, whom everyone called Don Don. “He looked like Joe Montana on that play. Where is Sammy?”
“Aw, I couldn’t get him to come,” Don Don replies. “But you’re right. Sammy could throw. And when he ran the ball, he was like this”—he moves his hand like a minnow darting through a creek—“Sammy didn’t like to get hit.”
I sip the whiskey my friend bought me and think: You know, Don Don, neither did I. And it was not a lasting disgrace to find that out. Sammy may have been the bravest one of us, for he couldn’t see half the blows coming. He was blind in one eye.
Jay is eager to show and narrate another DVD that includes all the ’61 playoff games. Though the crowd is thinning and Mike Kelly protests that he has to turn in for the night, Jay talks him into staying to watch the state game against Galena Park. At midnight they’re still staring at the screen, captivated by the wonder of what they did back then.