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 for extracurricular activities, a fee most public school districts couldn’t possibly charge. Not that they wouldn’t like to: In Austin coaches have had to undergo budget cuts, attendance at games is down, and ten high schools have to share three stadiums. Westlake has its own.
And rich schools aren’t supposed to excel at something as down and dirty as Texas high school football. A virtually all-white team can’t possibly ace a sport in which black players are, individually, so dominant (20 of the 24 members of Texas Football’s 1999 “Super Team” are black). Westlake must be racist. Westlake must be using steroids. Westlake must be cheating—a soulless machine powered by the dark forces of money and privilege (“You Can’t Buy This One,” read a sign in the stands during a 1996 playoff game with Victoria). It has the ingredients of a teen horror flick: football juggernaut, suspect bloodlines, a coach who ultimately answers to the Prince of Darkness. A conspiracy. How else to explain the Chaps’ consistent success?
WESTLAKE HASN’T ALWAYS BEEN SO great on the gridiron. The only high school in the Eanes Independent School District, it was classified as 2A (based on its middling enrollment) when it opened in 1969 and did well but didn’t win district until 1979, when it was 3A. The Chaps’ first post-season victory came in 1985, in 4A, when they were coached by Neptune. The next year, thanks to rapid growth in the Austin suburbs, they moved up to 5A and had their last losing season, going 2-8.
In 1987 Westlake named Schroeder head coach. Whereas the avuncular Neptune was the great motivator, Schroeder—his offensive coordinator since ’82—is intense, strict, and regimented. His first three years were fairly good ones, losing only three games each season. In 1990, though, he brought the program into its own. That year Westlake dropped back to 4A and got all the way to the state finals, losing 19—7 to Wilmer-Hutchins. Every year since, the Chaps have soared through the regular season—winning or tying 67 straight games from 1990 to 1998—and into the postseason, winning at least two playoff games every year but one. In 1994 the Chaps moved back up to 5A and lost to Tyler John Tyler in the state finals. Two years later undefeated Westlake won the 5A Division 2 championship against Abilene Cooper, 55—15. While teams like Wilmer-Hutchins, Abilene Cooper, and even Odessa Permian have come and gone over the past decade, Westlake has consistently won big each and every season.
Yet in its entire thirty years, the school has sent only one player to the pros: Brad Shearer, class of 1973. Athletes aren’t the stars at Westlake; the system is. It’s a well-oiled, high-powered football machine, and feeding it is a talent pipeline that runs from the two Eanes middle schools, Hill Country and West Ridge. Each has a seventh- and an eighth-grade team, while Westlake has two freshman teams, two junior varsity teams, and the varsity. The coaches at the middle schools introduce their kids to drills and plays they’ll be running for the next six years. The boys all know each other and the coaches know them. “Everyone grows up together,” says Dane Martindale, who played defensive end in the late eighties. “You’re always on the same team. You know who plays what from the time you’re a little kid to the time you’re in high school. The stars—the quarterbacks, running backs, big guys—know what they’re gonna do from a young age.” In larger school districts the pipeline breaks. Kids who play together at a middle school go off to different high schools. Bonds never form, loyalties never grow.
Every summer, Schroeder gathers his twelve assistants—some of whom have been at Westlake since the early eighties—for a week of meetings. They go over the offense, the defense, the players, the strategies. The architect of the Westlake system looks younger than his 52 years, his body as fit and his hair as disciplined as his team. He went to school at the University of Texas at Austin and Southwest Texas State University in San Marcos, where he got his bachelor’s and master’s degrees, respectively, in education (he is certified as a high school counselor). He’s not the mythic good ol’ boy Texas football coach, yet his drawl—he’s from Schulenberg—marks him as an outsider in the suburbs.
Schroeder’s methods are part Vince Lombardi, part Bill Walsh. Like the Packer legend, he emphasizes conditioning, fundamentals, repetition, and discipline, and he motivates his players to play beyond their expectations. “He won’t let you lose,” says Martindale. “If you do, you’ll pay the price at the next practice.” Like the 49ers coach, Schroeder employs a sophisticated, wide-open offense, with various sets and complicated plays. Last season his offense averaged an astounding 405 yards a game. Schroeder works extensively with his quarterbacks and almost every year develops a great thrower, such as Purdue University Heisman trophy candidate Drew Brees (class of ’97). Many high school offenses are stuck in the sixties, almost exclusively running the ball; Westlake’s keeps defenses off balance. The Chaps run reverses, motion plays, and the Bum-a-roo-ski, a trick play that involves a running back playing possum with the ball while the defense chases somebody else. Schroeder knows that a juiced-up offense wins games. It’s also just plain fun.
At least on Friday nights in the fall. The rest of the year, football is work. “We were up at six-thirty every morning and in the weight room,” remembers Tom Shaw, a Chaps tailback in 1994 and 1995. “After practice every day, the weight room. We never stopped running and lifting weights.” All the Westlake football coaches are also track coaches, and most players run track. (While many players at rival schools run on cinder, Westlake has a gorgeous, well-maintained Resolite track.)
“There’s a certain standard that I have in the program,” says Schroeder. “And it’s tough. If you were coming here as a freshman, we would get you going on the weights, and some time during your freshman year you would become addicted to weights. And you would go run track. We’d get you out there, run hurdles or some event, get that speed going. Your junior or senior year you’d start filling out and you would be pretty fast from track and pretty strong. You go out and you love to hit. And that’s how you do it in football.”
0F COURSE, THAT’S HOW MOST SCHOOLS DO IT. Westlake simply does it better, and the main reason goes to the heart of why Texas high school football is so exciting. The town of West Lake Hills (estimated population: just under 3,000) has a proud community identity, and the kids want to grow up to be Chaps. They want desperately to play and win for Westlake in the same way kids in Odessa want to win for Permian. “In third grade all I could think of was being able to play for Westlake,” says Dillard. “I went to every game.” Every seat in the stadium is spoken for at every home game, with eight thousand fans screaming at the boys in red, white, and blue. What kid wouldn’t want to play—that is, win—in front of a crowd like that?
Yet West Lake Hills is not your typical small Texas town. Like other suburbs, there’s not much there there, except for the craggy green hills and bluffs that launch the Hill Country. Most of its history concerns cedar choppers getting displaced by upper-middle-class professionals; now it’s known as a pretty place where people with money move. The closest thing to a town square are the fancy strip centers that line Bee Cave Road and the closest thing to a park is Chaparral Stadium. Success—not blood or heritage—is the glue that holds the community together. It’s almost a birthright.
“One of the things about this community is the high expectations it has for its children,” says Hines. “We want you to be successful. We want you to produce.” Ninety-five percent of Westlake’s graduates go on to college. Unlike Permian and other football powerhouses, Westlake has a good academic record, with mean SAT scores (1164) well above those of its counterparts statewide (995) and nationally (1017), five straight “exemplary” ratings from the Texas Education Agency, and few jocks disqualified for bad grades. “Westlake strives for excellence at every level,” says German teacher Scott Gardner. “We don’t accept failure. It’s very, very competitive.” Westlake kids, the ultimate overachievers, learn from the masters: their parents, many of whom are doctors, lawyers, lobbyists, and professors (and football standouts themselves; this year’s varsity team includes the sons of Longhorn football stars Earl Campbell and James Street). “There’s a stereotype that Westlake kids are a bunch of rich kids, that they’re given this, given that,” says Howard Bushong, a former Westlake assistant coach who is now the head baseball coach at Southwest Texas State University. “Let me tell you something: I don’t care what they were handed at home—when they walked out there, they worked their tails off. They wanted someone to push them.”
To get an idea how much, go to the steep ninety-yard hill across the street from the old Anderson High School in predominantly black East Austin on Tuesdays and Thursdays in July. From two to four in the afternoon, in the hellish heat, you’ll see a bunch of mostly white kids running up and down, up and down, at the direction of Carment Kiara, a former track coach at Huston-Tillotson College. On Monday, Wednesday, and Friday at Reagan High School, Kiara has them running sprints and lifting weights. Of the 73 kids in his camp this past summer, 57 were from Westlake. “Their commitment is unbelievable,” says Kiara. “They have the attitude of inner-city kids, like this is the only way out of the ghetto.” The difference is that most of these kids have no trouble affording the $250 fee for the month-long program, just as they can afford to devote their summers to football and, in some cases, working out with personal trainers. Says a former player: “We have cars. No one has to work. All we have to worry about is what supplement to take and what gym to join in the summer.” Boys elsewhere have no such luxuries and no such devotion. “I’ve seen kids from other high schools after two-a-days in worse shape than me,” jokes Olin Buchanan, who covers high school football for the Austin American-Statesman.
Once the Westlake players—in tremendous shape, drilled to perfection, hungry to wear the school colors, and confident to the point of cockiness—are plugged into Schroeder’s offense and defense, the results are almost a foregone conclusion. “It’s not necessarily the personnel,” he says, “it’s the formations and the different things we do. I don’t think our athletes are that much better than other schools’.” But they want it more—and that’s the big difference. Or, as an ex-player puts it, “You face a guy who’s bigger, tougher, and meaner than you, and you know you’re gonna beat him.”
IF WESTLAKE PLAYED LIKE COUNTRY club schools are supposed to and went 2-8 every year, no one would much care about them. “People dislike them because they beat the dog out of everybody,” says Larry Moore, the head coach at Georgetown, the school that, with an 8-14-1 record against Westlake, has beaten them more times than any other (but not since 1989). “I don’t mind being disliked if it’s for winning.” Tommy Cox, the coach at Bowie, who was Schroeder’s boss at Austin’s Travis high school, agrees. “I’d like to be like Westlake and get some enemies,” he jokes.
It’s human nature to hate winners when they play for the other side. And especially when they play for the Dark Side. The Westlake game is circled in red on every team’s calendar, and coaches go wild motivating their kids, perhaps mentioning how embarrassing it would be to lose to a school that does well at effete sports like golf (the Chaps won state last season) and tennis, or how the Westlake parking lot is filled with SUVs and brand-new pickups. “Schools have called us the Caviar-for-Lunch Bunch and the Kids on Cadillac Hill,” says Neptune. “That’s how they get their kids ready to play us. They tell them that we’re rich, that we don’t care about them, that we have very few minorities.”
It helps that the Westlake kids flaunt their gridiron victories like they drive their SUVs: as if they’re entitled to them. “We got cocky as shit,” says one former player, “though I was never cocky until someone acted that way to me.” Their confidence, year in and year out, is infuriating, as if they think they’re better than everybody else; at least on the football field, it’s true. Worse, commoners don’t have the luxury of lording the future over Westlake jocks, most of whom will find themselves, as their parents did, in good universities, fraternities, and high-paying jobs when their glory days are over. At least in Odessa the players have the decency to fall back into pathos, moaning about the way things used to be.
Some of the ugliest feelings toward the Chaps are racial. Charges of white elitism and outright racism have often hounded Westlake, which is 89 percent white, about 4 percent Hispanic, and less than 1 percent black (the rest of the student body is mostly of Asian descent). The school has only one black faculty member and one black assistant principal out of 235 staff members and not many more Hispanics. Racial tensions have escalated Westlake’s rivalries with Austin schools, especially since a notorious 1989 incident, when LBJ High—which had beaten the Chaps by one point the previous year—visited Westlake for the first time and someone had painted an extremely vulgar racial slur on the visitors’ seats. There were also unsubstantiated rumors: a sign with the words “Nigger Go Home” raised at one point during the game, a black doll hung in effigy the night before, racial slurs yelled at the LBJ band. The resulting media firestorm, especially after Westlake’s then principal said he did not see it as a racial issue and the Eanes superintendent called it a “minor thing,” kept the school in the news for weeks. Eventually three students were suspended for the graffiti and the Chaps were reprimanded by the University Interscholastic League, placed on probation for the next school year, and ordered to come up with a racial-sensitivity plan—one of the first times the UIL had ever disciplined a Texas school for a racial incident. Eanes eventually conducted sensitivity training for teachers and formed committees of students who met with their counterparts elsewhere to talk about race, but the damage was done: In 1991 someone painted “WestlaKKKe” and “White Pride of the Hills” near the entrance to the school.
Many high schools suffer racist students and racial incidents; Westlake, because of its wealth and winning ways, seems to get scrutinized more closely than most. “I think Westlake has been unfairly labeled,” says the Statesman’s Buchanan, who blames a few “knuckleheads.” Georgetown’s Moore agrees. “The race thing has been blown out of shape. Other than the LBJ incident, I’ve never heard of anything.” Bushong, who was coaching at Westlake in 1989, agrees that coverage was sensationalized. “Were there problems? Yes, there probably were. But I didn’t see the same problems others saw. We didn’t care about color.”
To be fair, Westlake is not the only privileged white winner. Most successful 4A and 5A football programs in the nineties have come from mostly white schools in suburbs just outside big cities, many of which are the only high school in the district. “It’s amazing how many state football champions are predominantly white,” says Buchanan, citing Duncanville, La Marque, Katy, Permian, Lewisville, and Plano. But those teams have rarely had to deal with the bitter accusations lobbed at Westlake. Tom Shaw remembers going to a basketball game against a school whose football team had lost to the Chaps that season by fifty points: “They were screaming in my face, ‘Steroids! Steroids!’” Several years ago, a rumor swept through Austin that Westlake coaches were handing out steroids like candy. Today such fictions are accepted as fact by many people. While as many individuals probably take illegal steroids at Westlake as at other schools, the coaches assert their use is not sanctioned. Several former players say the coaches tried to scare them away from steroids with stories of shriveling testicles and threatened to kick offenders off the team.
If anything, all the rancor solidifies Westlake’s bunker mentality, its sense that they’re different out in the hills, that to be a Chap is to be something special. Most teenagers, much less most schools, would die for that feeling—or at least sweat blood for it. No wonder everybody hates them.
“SUCCESS DEMANDS SINGLENESS OF PURPOSE.” “Mental toughness is essential to success.” Vince Lombardi’s clichés are hung in wood throughout the Westlake dressing room, out of time but somehow completely at home. Conspicuously absent is Lombardi’s most famous and intelligible saying: “Winning is not everything. It is the only thing.” That one cuts too close to what many feel is the truth: Westlake strives to win at any cost. Schroeder is all too aware of the perception. “I’m not here to win state championships,” he insists. “I’m here to run a program that provides a positive part of a student’s life.” He talks often of priorities: God first, then family, academics, and finally, football.
Some of his former players aren’t so sure about the sequence. Says one: “That’s not realistic at all. Westlake football is a twenty-four-hour deal. You don’t ever stop thinking about it. The idea of grades being more important than football is a joke.” Another former player, Tom Martindale, who was kicked off the team after killing a woman in a car accident in October 1997, agrees: “There wasn’t any room for anything except for football. It takes everything you’ve got, emotionally and physically.”
It’s impossible to overestimate how much kids want to win or how hard adults will push them. Especially at Westlake. “There is such a wealth of players and so much competition for a limited number of slots that there’s sometimes a callousness to the coaches,” says one father. “The coaches almost have the attitude, ‘My way or we’ll plug in someone else. If you get hurt, we’ll just plug in someone else.”
Most parents, meanwhile, live in their own dream world. Although there’s something noble about moms and dads attending games by the busload, selling antenna balls under the stands for the Chap Club, and eating doughnuts and watching game films with Schroeder on Saturday mornings, their boosterism has a flip side. “There’s definitely this bizarre sports culture among parents at Westlake, this kind of vicarious living through little Johnny that is at once pathetic and somewhat endearing,” says Glenn Brown, a baseball and basketball player who was Westlake’s valedictorian in 1992. “There are all these suburban moms whose primary concerns are really bitchin’ landscaping and what the middle linebacker can squat.”
Not all of the moms and dads are so enthusiastic. “It makes my skin crawl,” says one mother about the 456 Chap Club members who spend so much time and energy cheering Westlake athletes and, some would say, holding delirious expectations for them. “Kids aren’t valued for being kids in Westlake,” says a disgruntled football father, “unless they’re putting trophies in the case.”
IF THERE WAS EVER A SEASON FOR THE Westlake system to work its magic, it’s this one. Schroeder is worried that the Chaps have no returning backfield starters and only one returning offensive starter, tackle Trevor Harrison. The quarterback, Alvin Cowan, is strong-armed but inexperienced. Wide receiver Christian Campbell, Earl’s son and the only black player on the team, is speedy (he placed second in the 200 meters at state last year) but doesn’t seem to relish contact. The other split end, Reid Brees, brother of Drew, is coming off an injury. Certain events of the past two years have also raised eyebrows. In 1997 the Chaps lost in the first round of the playoffs for the first time in the decade. And in 1998 Westlake lost two games in a row for the first time under Schroeder. “I’ve never seen the morale at school so low,” says Westlake senior Eli Kooris.
But Westlake has the good fortune of being in District 14-5A, in which every team but New Braunfels had a losing record last year (the Unicorns went 6-5). The Chaps are picked to win their district easily; Texas Football has them ranked number three in 5A.
And they have the system. It’s white, powerful, and privileged. It’s decked out in red, white, and blue. At the first pep rally of the 1999 season, on August 27, it was fired up—the old gym packed and screaming with hundreds of students, teachers, and parents. The next day Westlake would play Humble in the H-E-B Football Classic in San Antonio’s Alamodome. The seniors, in their first gathering of the year, stood together at one end of the gym and began spontaneously chanting and clapping: “Seniors!” (clap, clap) “Seniors!” (clap, clap). The cheerleaders bounded about like colts; the players, in bright blue shirts, sat on folding chairs at the center of attention with little smiles on their faces. The band played a square version of “Proud Mary” and the sixty Hyline girls danced a routine that was wholesome and awkwardly sexy at the same time. At the end the trumpets blew melancholy and everyone locked arms while they swayed and sang the school song. It was only eight-forty-five in the morning and there were more than a hundred parents at the pep rally. Didn’t they have more important things to do? Well, no.
The next day, in front of a crowd that included three thousand or so Westlake fans who had driven to San Antonio, the Chaps survived a close first half to come on strong in the second and whip a good Humble team, 42—20. Schroeder’s worries about his starters were ill founded. Cowan looked like an heir to Drew Brees, throwing for 312 yards and three touchdowns, two to Reid Brees. Campbell caught three passes for 62 yards. Scott Ballew ran for two touchdowns and Brad Beavan for another. The offense methodically rolled up 422 yards, and the defense swarmed the Humble offense—especially in the fourth quarter, when the Wildcats were exhausted and the Chaps fresh. The Chaps’ backfield footwork looked like ballet, with tackles pulling, backs blocking, and Cowan deftly spinning to roll out the option. It wasn’t football—it was choreography, with each step plotted and designed years ago and run by hundreds of boys ever since.
The system works, as all systems seem to at Westlake—whether they’re designed for winning games or pursuing happiness. Out in the ’burbs, football is life and, residents of Westlake Hills might say, life is like football: Desire and hard work win the day. They can be forgiven for failing to mention how important it is to be born in the right place to the right people. Their urban neighbors are surely never going to let them forget it.