The high school football playoffs began this week, and if you aren’t already cheering for a child’s school or an alma mater, might we suggest adopting the Booker High Kiowas as your home team away from home. The tiny town at the top of the Panhandle, population 1,516, only has 29 players on its team. But with a former prison guard as coach and a pair of cousins smashing state records, they’ll give you that warm feeling about football you’ve been missing since Friday Night Lights went off the air.
Here are seven things about the place and the people who live there that will make you want to have some Kiowa pride.
“I can look out my kitchen window and see Oklahoma,” says Booker head coach James Henton. Maybe seeing Oklahoma from your window isn’t much to crow about, but the folks in Booker approach their remote location and small size with a sense of humor. There are nine streets running north and south that make up the heart of town, and signs on Highway 15 as you drive through declare “Booker – Next 9 Exits.” And their modest size in a far-flung part of the state that’s closer in proximity to Dodge City, Kansas, than to the closest big Texas city (Amarillo), hasn’t deterred them from dominating a geographically huge schedule. When the Kiowas go on the road for away games, it’s an hours-long affair, and many townsfolk travel to see the team. In fact, the shortest road trip this year was the regular-season finale at Wheeler, more than an hour away.
Before hackles are raised over the name the Kiowas, a Native American tribe that settled nearby in southwestern Oklahoma, rest assured that Booker doesn’t have the same trouble that a certain NFL team in our nation’s capital is having with their nickname. In a 1991 ceremony, the Kiowa tribe of Oklahoma formally adopted the Booker Independent School District.
Everyone is proud of the team and its heritage, even when it went through some tougher times. For years, the Kiowas were a respectable, though not outstanding team, winning just a few games per season. But since 2011, the team has been on a hot streak, getting to the playoffs four years in a row. They just wrapped up their first 10-0 regular season in school history and are ranked in the state’s top 10.
This success is due in large part to head coach James Henton. His path to his current coaching job is one not uncommon for people who grew up in small towns. Henton was raised in Booker, graduating from high school there in 1990. (Funny enough, football wasn’t his main sport. The Hentons were known as a “track family” around town. James went to the state meet in Austin in his senior year as a sprinter, and his grandfather, father, and sister all made it to state before him.) When Henton graduated, he left town, joined the Army, and got married, thinking, as many sons who leave their small towns think, he’d never go back. Following his military service, he got a job as a prison guard at the maximum security Clements Unit in Amarillo. “It didn’t take long working there before I realized that maybe I should go back to school and get my degree,” Henton said.
After finishing school, he started coaching in the Dallas area. Some bad news drew him back home, though. He got a call that his dad had cancer, prompting him to pack up his family and head back to his hometown, where he became head coach in 2010. (His dad got better and now even comes to many of the games.) There were only 98 kids in school, which meant Booker could have been bumped down from Class A to the smallest division of Texas high school sports, where they play six-man football. They stuck it out, though, and now two of the team’s players boast some of the very best stats in high school football history.
Hunter Lile, who has been playing for Henton since 2011, took to Henton’s new pass-heavy spread offense quickly. This hasn’t been much of a surprise—football is a bit of a family business in the Lile family. Hunter’s father, Brent, has been a coach in Booker for years, and his son grew up on the Kiowa sidelines, serving as a waterboy and ballboy.
But Hunter’s success as QB has been hard-earned. The senior has passed for more yards than anyone in Texas high school history, an impressive stat when you consider that Texas has produced more current NFL quarterbacks than any other state. He’s also the career record holder for pass attempts and pass completions, becoming the first player in state history to complete more than 1,000 passes in a career. And over the past four years, the person who has caught more of his passes than anyone is someone Hunter has known all his life.
Two months after Hunter’s mom, Gina, had him, her sister, Tracy, gave birth to her son, Jared, who now is known in the high school record books as the state’s all-time leader in pass receptions. Hunter and Jared grew up together, playing baseball, basketball, and football, and roaming the sidelines of high school games where Jared’s dad, Shane Reagan, coaches offense alongside Hunter’s dad, Brent, who handles defense. (As in many small towns, Shane and Brent pull double—well actually triple—duty as coaches for both the basketball and baseball teams. And their sons play for them in those sports too.) Not only has Jared caught the most passes of any receiver in high school football history, an honor he earned back in September, he’s also among a handful of players to catch 20 or more passes in a game and 50 or more touchdowns in a career.
The Final Home Game
The cousins played their last regular-season home game Halloween night, lining up with two dozen or so of their senior classmates for the traditional final walk across Kiowa Field. When the group got to the other end, each student released the balloon they were carrying and watched them rise into the Panhandle sky. It was a bittersweet moment for the kids, one that thousands of students across the state feel each fall, but Jared had other things on his mind at the time—primarily his appointment the next morning in a deer stand for the opening of deer season.
As district champions, Booker earned a bye in the first round of the playoffs. They’ll be facing some tough competition in the early rounds, but if they string together enough wins, they’ll make it to the state finals at AT&T Stadium, which could hold the entire population of Booker 50 times over.
Back in town, the Reagans and the Liles, nearly inseparable over the years, will soon be neighbors when the Liles’ new house is finished. So if you’re looking for the most prolific quarterback-receiver combo in Texas high school history, you’ll find them in a pair of houses side-by-side in Booker, Texas.