After hoisting one final trophy, Austin Westlake Chaparrals coach Todd Dodge led four of his team captains down the halls of AT&T Stadium, the home of the Dallas Cowboys, and into a room where reporters waited to start a press conference. Dodge surveyed the crowd. “If my eyes start watering,” he said, “I’m not crying.”
He wasn’t the only one. Once the clock hit zeroes, some of his players wept too. They were tears of joy over winning the Texas 6A Division II football state championship, sure, but they were also from the relief of fulfilling a promise. Since July, when Dodge announced his plan to retire after this season, there’s been a feeling around Westlake High School that these Chaps were destined to win one more for their coach, to send him out on top.
Dodge tried to keep the team’s focus on smaller goals: They had to win district before they could even start thinking about playoffs, and once that was accomplished, their only intention could be to have a practice on Thanksgiving, which would mean that they were still in the hunt for state.
Before games, Todd told his teams to “dream the beautiful dream,” to imagine executing everything just right, to visualize themselves playing the elusive perfect game. The dream is not supposed to be about winning a championship, at least not at first, but even a team as laser-focused as Dodge’s must have imagined the scene since preseason two-a-days. They knew this win would mean something more. Everybody who followed Texas high school football knew. Saturday, when the Chaps trailed in the first half, a young boy, maybe twelve, groaned from the crowd, “We have to win this. It’s Todd Dodge’s last game!”
The Chaps got the message. They came back against the Denton Guyer High School Wildcats to win their third straight championship, 40–21, the first three-peat ever at the 6A level. It was Dodge’s seventh state title overall, capping off a career spent mainly at Southlake Carroll and Westlake that has been nothing short of legendary. As Westlake’s Clemson-bound quarterback, Cade Klubnik, said postgame: “He’s the greatest coach of all time.” Or in the words of Guyer’s coach, Rodney Webb: “He’s made football in Texas. He’s changed it for the better.”
In Saturday’s first half, however, it looked like Dodge’s beautiful dream might turn sour. The Chaps scored first, storming into the end zone on a blocked punt during the first drive of the game, but after that play, Denton Guyer controlled the action and led 14–13 at halftime. The usually well-oiled Westlake machine turned the ball over twice and surrendered three key penalties. One parent said, “I was sitting there those first two quarters thinking, ‘What team am I even watching? What’s going on?’ ”
Dodge isn’t the type to give grand halftime speeches. His lessons are incremental, mantras that he hits over and over throughout the season like bells, only to come back and ring each one when the time is right. During Saturday’s mid-game break, he echoed his message from the first home game of the season: Stay in the moment. Focus on executing one play at a time.
When the second half began, it didn’t take long for Westlake to start playing like Westlake again. “Now that it’s over with,” Dodge said afterward, “I’m a little glad we had to look down the barrel of the gun.” The turning point came with three minutes left in the third quarter, when Dodge called on senior kicker Charlie Barnett to attempt a 53-yard field goal, a decision that shocked everyone in the stadium—including the Chaparral sideline. Channeling Westlake great Justin Tucker (who kicks for the NFL’s Baltimore Ravens these days), Barnett knocked it straight through the uprights, giving Westlake the lead and shattering the record for the longest field goal made in a Texas high school football championship game. (Only sixteen college kickers hit a field goal from farther this season).
From there, the defensive line, anchored by recent Texas Longhorn signee Ethan Burke, swarmed Guyer quarterback Jackson Arnold and the Chaps finished the game with nine sacks. Klubnik connected with junior receiver Jaden Greathouse, who set a UIL record for receiving yards thanks to 69- and 71-yard touchdown passes. Westlake finished the game on a 20–0 run.
When it was over, the team took a knee near the 50-yard line while their coach stood to address them in the center one last time. “I just want to tell you once again,” Dodge said, “I love you. Thank you.”
WATCH: Coach Todd Dodge explains the meaning behind “Dream the beautiful dream.”
About a minute later, Dodge looked toward his defensive coordinator and expected successor, Tony Salazar. Nine years ago, when Dodge was the coach at Marble Falls High School, his famous offense was held to fourteen points by a 33-year-old assistant at Leander. Since he couldn’t beat Salazar, Dodge hired him—and the defenses Salazar has created since following Dodge to Westlake are as dominant as any offense Dodge ever ran. This year, Salazar’s unit allowed just 8.9 points per game. “Tony, we did it, baby,” Dodge said on the field Saturday. “If I had some keys in my pocket, I’d toss them to you.”
Should Salazar get the job, he’ll inherit a team in the midst of a forty-game winning streak, a squad steeped in pride and tradition that reached new heights during Dodge’s tenure. Westlake doesn’t win with the best athletes or even the best facilities. They win because of their program, because every person involved understands the head coach’s expectations. Parents regurgitate team mottos like “Kill the will” (of opponents, that is). Pop Warner teams run the playbook. Twice a year, former captains travel to Austin to help evaluate the new roster.
The myth of Texas high school football is that it turns small towns into big cities—that for one night of the week, the Friday night lights shine as brightly on rural Texas football fields as they do on any red carpet in Hollywood. But the truth, at least in 6A ball, the division with the largest schools, is that the sport is dominated by teams near cities. Westlake is a fifteen-minute drive from downtown Austin, and Guyer sits squarely in the Dallas–Fort Worth Metroplex. Even the famed Permian Panthers couldn’t make it out of the second round of this year’s playoffs; every quarterfinalist came from a major metropolitan area. What 6A Texas high school football actually does is turn big cities into small towns; it gives residents of the state’s most crowded, busiest places a common purpose, a reason to know their neighbors’ kids’ names. This is the part of the job that Todd Dodge does better than anybody.
At 9 a.m. last Tuesday, commuters crept toward corporate campuses while a stream of other cars weaved out of the bumper-to-bumper and onto the shoulder of Texas Highway Loop 360. From there, they turned right into a Shell station and Rudy’s Bar-B-Q, only to find that the parking lot was filled and the overflow lot was filling quickly. Once they found a spot, they walked through Rudy’s, picked up brisket breakfast tacos, and chatted with familiar faces before heading to the back porch. Tuesday mornings are when Dodge hosts his Quarterback Club at Rudy’s, recapping last week’s game and previewing the upcoming one for anyone willing to listen and donate $15 to the booster club. Everyone waited last Tuesday morning for Dodge, buzzing about Guyer and three-peats when somebody in the front of the room shot up.
“Elvis is in the building!” the man announced, and when Dodge opened the door to the porch moments later, the crowd stood and cheered for at least thirty seconds. “We’ve had some big crowds here before,” Dodge said. “But this is the biggest.”
That’s what high school football does—even in Austin and its well-heeled suburbs.
By Saturday morning, yards throughout West Lake Hills featured signs that said “Go! Chaps! Go!” Moms and dads tied red and blue ribbons to gates, streetlights, trees, and anything else that would hold them. At Eanes Elementary, the sign out front predicted a “THREE-PEAT,” and police closed Camp Craft Road to the high school’s stadium. Authorized vehicles only. So families traveled to the high school the long way. Some walked with their dogs, some rode bikes, and an hour before the Chaps’ scheduled departure, about a hundred people had already arrived to send them off. They brought speakers and cowbells, coffee and tequila. A young boy, maybe six years old, wore a replica Westlake jersey with a homemade sign taped to his chest. “Wist lick,” it said. Close enough.
Even the city’s most famous resident caught Chap fever. Matthew McConaughey sent a video that the team watched in the locker room Saturday morning. Players recalled that he told them to “leave it all on the field,” along with some other McConaughey-isms. When the Chaps finally left the locker room to head for the buses (ten minutes late—thanks, McConaughey), the crowd had doubled, clapping and telling their boys to make them proud.
Once the last player boarded the bus, the masses scattered. They went to line the streets. All around town, you could hear the honking. Two police cars and two fire trucks escorted the team out of the parking lot to begin the drive to Arlington. The players filled four buses, and Dodge rode in front, sitting shotgun in a Chevy Silverado. “Go get ’em, Coach!” fans yelled, and he held the school hand sign (thumb and pinkie extended, like a surfer’s shaka that supposedly resembles a roadrunner) high out of his window.
The Chaps drove away, and the crowds rushed back to their cars. They had to hurry home, pack, and then join the procession. “Oh, I just wish it could be tonight already,” said one woman as she fixed a pin to her shirt that said “Believe” over a Westlake logo.
When Dodge left Southlake Carroll following his third straight title there in 2006, football observers predicted the state would never see another run as dominant as Dodge and his Dragons had enjoyed. Those critics believe in Dodge now. But that’s just the coach’s style: setting a standard, then raising it again and again.
Way back in 1980, when Dodge first led a team to the state title game as a senior quarterback at Port Arthur’s Jefferson High School, his team lost, but Dodge helped his Yellow Jackets rewrite the state’s offensive record book. In this final trip, his Westlake Chaparrals rewrote that book again.
Dream the beautiful dream, he says. It doesn’t get much more beautiful than that.