As ever, we had a lot to cover in Texas this year. The invasion of Ukraine, and its odd tendrils in our state; the massacre at Robb Elementary in Uvalde, and the response from Texas leaders. The changing politics of South Texas, a primary election that spelled the end of one dynasty, and a general election that predictably (no, seriously, really predictably) extended another. Not to mention Robert Earl Keen’s final tour, the fiftieth anniversary of the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders, and the upcoming two-hundredth anniversary of the Texas Rangers. We could go on and on.
But, of course, we couldn’t cover everything, and many other publications did wonderful work about Texas and Texans. Fifteen Texas Monthly staffers chose a story from another outlet that they wish we had done.
“How Justin Tucker Became the Greatest Kicker in N.F.L. History,” Wil S. Hylton, The New York Times Magazine
I’ll admit, to my shame, that before reading Wil S. Hylton’s fantastic profile of Baltimore Ravens kicker Justin Tucker for the New York Times Magazine, I hadn’t an inkling that Tucker was Texan. But the graduate of (where else?) Westlake High School in Austin (the alma mater of fellow Super Bowl champs Drew Brees and Nick Foles) is,
hands feet down, the greatest kicker of a football of all time. Kickers practice a woefully underappreciated craft, one of the few in sports that, I learned in this story, hasn’t been completely “moneyballed”—predicting and understanding the trajectory of a kicked football still defies analytics. It’s a practice mastered through elbow knee grease: repetition, feel, and honed instincts. — Josh Alvarez
“’She made us happy’: The all-star dreams of Uvalde’s biggest José Altuve fan,” Roberto José Andrade Franco, ESPN
I think about the last scene of Roberto José Andrade Franco’s story out of Uvalde almost every day. Written for ESPN, it centers on the life of Tess Maria Mata, one of the ten-year-old victims of the Robb Elementary School massacre. Tess loved softball, and spent her days perfecting her pitching in the backyard, inspired by her favorite players—her older sister and Houston Astro José Altuve—to try to make the Little League all-star team. Andrade recounts her story with tenderness and finesse, but what he does with this piece goes way beyond a heartbreaking remembrance. Andrade, who grew up in El Paso—yet another Texas city still grappling with a horrific mass shooting—deftly traces the role of the Colt revolver in securing the Nueces Strip for Texas, looks back at the history of segregation in Uvalde, and examines the specific crossroads for families like Tess’s amid such violence. But there’s something about telling this story through the prism of sports that makes for an even deeper cut. What’s more life-affirming than kids putting it all out there on the field, their nervous families rooting for them from the bleachers? When Franco takes us to the Little League ceremony that’s missing six of its players—all ten years old—it’s forever haunting, as it should be. — Kathy Blackwell
Untold archaeological treasures—cave paintings, pottery shards, human bones—lie hidden across Texas. Many of these items in West and southwest Texas are locked behind gates and fences on ranches, however, because more than 95 percent of the state’s land is private. In some cases, pay-to-dig profiteers trade in these artifacts; in others, vulnerable sites languish or are looted. This is all perfectly legal, but often deeply unethical. Rachel Monroe, the New Yorker’s Marfa-based Texas contributor, delves deep into these questions in her story on the Spirit Eye cave in Presidio County. She speaks with the Texas archaeologists who’ve conducted research there, as well as with Xoxi Nayapiltzin, who grew up nearby. DNA testing linked his ancestry to that of ancient remains found in the cave. Nayapiltzin joins a growing number of Indigenous Texans who are petitioning for the right to rebury sacred remains. “It doesn’t surprise me that my ancestors are here,” he told Monroe. — Rose Cahalan
Want to hear for yourself how false confessions happen? There have been plenty of stories on how and why people confess to something they didn’t do. What Maurice Chammah does in this story is give you a first-hand listen. The titular murder confession was given by Larry Driskill in Parker County in 2015 to James Holland, a Texas Ranger famed for his ability to get killers to talk (the Los Angeles Times once called him a “serial killer whisperer”). A woman had been murdered in 2005, and Holland was on the case. Though Driskill swore he couldn’t remember anything about that night ten years before, Holland used his good-old-boy charm, a well-placed lie or two (which is totally legal), and the judicious use of the word “hypothetically.” At the start of their talks, you can hear Driskill ask if he’s in trouble, and Holland assures him, “No, we think you might be able to help us.” At first, Driskill denies everything, eventually saying, “I’m sorry if I took somebody’s life but I don’t think I did”—but finally offers, “I guess I choked her down.” You can hear the uncertainty in his voice, just like you can hear the resolve in Holland’s. Chammah knows how to listen (he’s a violinist) and he knows how to write, and “Anatomy of a Murder Confession” is a fascinating addition to the criminal justice reporting canon.
Driskill was paroled in September after serving seven years behind bars; his lawyers with the Innocence Project of Texas are seeking a full exoneration. And he will be a character in a six-part podcast hosted by Chammah this March that focuses on Holland’s investigation. It’s called “Just Say You’re Sorry.” — Michael Hall
This blockbuster investigation by Houston Chronicle reporter Zach Despart revealed that Harris County commissioners relied on county vendors for 79 percent of their campaign contributions from 2020 through 2021. Despart, who now writes for the Texas Tribune, also found that county commissioners awarded 93 percent of all appraisal, architecture, engineering, and surveying work to firms that gave to their campaigns, suggesting a brazen and entrenched pay-to-play system. Of the five commissioners, only Lina Hidalgo refuses to take contributions from county vendors. The other four—two Democrats and two Republicans—denied that they were steering contracts to campaign donors. “I have no idea what pay to play means,” Adrian Garcia, one commissioner, told Despart rather unconvincingly. — Michael Hardy
For years, as abortion remained illegal in much of Mexico, a fearless network of volunteers and mutual aid communities distributed abortion pills to those in need across the country. This year, the New Yorker’s Stephania Taladrid embedded with a group of the activists who have expanded their “abortion underground” north in Texas. It’s a story of resistance, but also a tale of two countries: in Mexico, abortion has been decriminalized, and the procedure has become legal in multiple states, including Coahuila, right across the border from West Texas. In the United States, of course, we’re going in the opposite direction. Taladrid’s article focuses on individual women more than it does on policy, and the result is powerful. — Jack Herrera
Many of our most beloved American foods—barbecue, mac and cheese, and ice cream, to name a few—have their roots in African American cuisine and culture. This podcast, produced by Whetstone magazine and hosted by writer Deb Freeman, explains how African Americans have contributed to or laid the groundwork for distilling, brewing, farming, baking, and barbecue in the U.S. A lot of these stories begin in the South, and guests such as barbecue expert Adrian Miller and Fort Worth–based cookbook author Scotty Scott had me reflecting on the origins of dishes we enjoy in Texas. I learned something new in every episode, and was motivated to read and research further, which is what all effective media should inspire in its listeners, viewers, and readers. — Kimya Kavehkar
“A child star at 7, in prison at 22. Then she vanished. What happened to Lora Lee Michel?,” Stacy Perman, Los Angeles Times
How does a famous child actress simply disappear? I had never heard of Texan Lora Lee Michel, and never seen any of her movies, but the headline of this story drew me in. I started out skimming and ended up devouring all 10,454 words of Stacy Perman’s investigation into Lora Lee’s life—her troubled early childhood in Schulenberg, her rise to stardom in Hollywood, and the court order that sent her back to Texas at age 9, kicking off a life of instability, crime, and loneliness. At one memorable point in the narrative, Perman recounts how a reporter asked a jailed, 22-year-old Lora Lee what happened to her career. Her response: “I grew up.” Perman’s exhaustive reporting exposes all the drama and heartbreak behind those three words. It makes me wonder how many other tales of forgotten Texans are out there waiting to be unearthed. — Lea Konczal
Megan Thee Stallion’s rise to fame was always tinged with a little bit of sadness. In 2019, just as her name was becoming a household staple, she lost her mother, a rapper who went by Holly-Wood, and her great-grandmother within weeks of each other. And then in 2020, after leaving a party with people she then considered friends, she was shot in her feet, requiring surgery and rehabilitation to walk again. The rapper Tory Lanez was found guilty of shooting Megan in late December, but in the time since the incident, you would think it was Megan under examination. Rather than believe her account that a man she once trusted chose to shoot her (a far too common occurrence), too many people have spun conspiracy theories that accuse Megan of lying to end the career of a less popular musician.
In her June 2022 Rolling Stone cover story, Megan gets vulnerable with Mankaprr Conteh, sharing details of the shooting (including why she’d initially kept details about it private). “In some kind of way I became the villain,” Megan says to Conteh. “And I don’t know if people don’t take it seriously because I seem strong. I wonder if it’s because of the way I look. Is it because I’m not light enough? Is it that I’m not white enough? Am I not the shape? The height? Because I’m not petite? Do I not seem like I’m worth being treated like a woman?” Watching the public narrative flip around Megan has been an unfortunate lesson in misogynoir, the brand of misogyny that casts Black women as unworthy of care and protection. But Conteh’s profile manages to balance that darkness with the lightness that Megan is determined to find and maintain as her star continues to rise. — Doyin Oyeniyi
“How Texas’s abortion laws turned a heartbreaking diagnosis into a cross-country journey,” Eleanor Klibanoff, Texas Tribune
In August, Texas’s trigger law—which outlawed abortion in the state, after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in June—went into effect. Immediately, questions arose, prompted by real-life cases, about the ban’s exemption for pregnancies that would kill or severely injure a pregnant patient. In reporting on one 27-year-old Texan’s journey to obtain an abortion out of state, the Texas Tribune underlined the fuzziness of the law’s exemption, while making the consequences of the ban immediate and real.
Lauren Hall was in her second trimester when Roe was overturned. But it wasn’t until eighteen weeks into her pregnancy that her fetus was diagnosed with anencephaly, a lethal condition that often ends in miscarriage or stillbirth. Hall was faced with a heartbreaking decision: carry a child that would die—either in the womb or soon after birth—or travel out of state for an abortion. In telling the story of Hall’s journey to Washington state, Tribune reporter Eleanor Klibanoff managed to turn both a micro and macro lens on the myriad considerations that doctors and patients must face as they navigate pregnancy complications under the new law. — Taylor Prewitt
“A taco-by-taco look at the busiest shift of the week at La Tejana,” Jordan-Marie Smith, The Washington Post
I began tracking the opening and success of La Tejana, a breakfast taco spot in Washington, D.C., via social media when my friend and Taco Chronicles producer-director Hallie Davison, a Dallas native and current D.C. resident, texted me in late August. “I can confirm that La Tejana in DC is LEGIT!” she wrote, also sending a blurry photo of two unspooled breakfast tacos on crinkled aluminum foil. I was jealous. I wanted to catch a red-eye flight to our nation’s capital to stand in the ever-growing lines that formed outside La Tejana.
Alas, visits to the taqueria have eluded me. So it was with glee and jealousy that two months later I read “A taco-by-taco look at the busiest shift of the week at La Tejana” in the Washington Post. The story tracks a morning shift of orders, with embedded photos, to tell the taqueria’s tale. It’s a format I’ve always wanted to try—and this one covered my beat! Fortunately, Texas Monthly didn’t miss out on spotlighting the restaurant. La Tejana was one of the restaurants featured in a Texas-food-in-D.C. roundup published in November. I still need—need!—to visit for myself, though. — José R. Ralat
When it comes to generating great stories, our state has few competitors. But on occasion there’s an amazing yarn that inconveniently happened in one of those other 49 states, and it becomes a bit of a parlor game for Texas Monthly to try to find the Texas angle that would make the story amazing for us. My envy of Sean Williams’ story on a stone-skipping savant for Outside is so immense, I’ve endeavored to find a Texas angle to justify its inclusion here on a list of stories we wished we had published. Fortunately, there is one: the old Guinness World Record for stone skipping—38 hops—was set in the Blanco River in 1992. Williams tells the story of Kurt Steiner, a reclusive Pennsylvanian who broke that record—first in 2002, and then again and again, in pursuit of perfection. (His current high is 88 hops). It is an amazing story about the meditative quality of stone skipping and the intense competitions that puncture that Zen state, as well as a beautiful tale about the loneliness of the pursuit of singular achievement. — Ben Rowen
“An Open Palm: A state of grief becomes a state of solace for a new Texan,” Fowzia Karimi, Texas Highways
When I moved back to Texas just over a year ago, I was coming home after a season of personal traumas. Here was a place of recovery, and I was quickly embraced by the healing powers of family and space, sunshine and comfort food. For author and illustrator Fowzia Karimi, becoming a Texan was spurred by her partner’s job at the University of North Texas; she made the move from California amid the loss of her mother, an upending of life, and found comfort here. In her moving May essay in Texas Highways, Karimi explores not only the solace of her new home state, but also the nonlinear process of grieving—both the people we lose and the people we were.
“That year,” Karimi writes, “I met my new home of Texas again and again, bumping into it softly, waking to it gently. I was raw and bruised, and each gentle tug let me know I was surrounded by kindness.” I’ve come back to her words multiple times over the past several months. They remind me that death holds constant balance with life and grief brings that reality to the fore. But life peeks through—in the kindness of neighbors, in the landscape of home. — Sandi Villarreal
I’m a longtime fan of my former colleague Cecilia Ballí, but I’m also a friend, and knowing that she grew up in the Valley and played the clarinet as a kid, I screamed when I saw “A Championship Season in Mariachi Country.” Not only did she skillfully interpret what was happening in the nail-biting music scenes, when the mariachi players are preparing to compete in the largest contest of its kind, she portrayed it all in the context of modern Valley challenges such as constant Border Patrol searches and high rates of Covid. Bonus: breathtaking photographs by Benjamin Lowy, especially the shot of the members of Mariachi Cascabel freaking out over their win. — Katy Vine
“We Need to Take Away Children” is a difficult read. At almost 30,000 words, Caitlyn Dickerson’s investigation into the Trump administration’s family-separation policy is like an archaeological dig into state-sanctioned cruelty, each layer revealing fresh horrors about how government bureaucrats and political appointees orchestrated the forcible taking of thousands of migrant children from their parents. Perhaps the most important revelation is that this moral failing, which required the cooperation of scores of officials across sprawling bureaucracies, was not an unfortunate byproduct of prosecuting migrants for illegal entry. Rather, as Dickerson writes, “Separating children was not just a side effect, but the intent. Instead of working to reunify families after parents were prosecuted, officials worked to keep them apart for longer”—purportedly to deter other families from seeking to enter the U.S. illegally.
Few reporters are enabled to dig so deeply for a single story. Dickerson’s impressively thorough reportage took eighteen months and drew upon 150 interviews and thousands of documents, many of which were obtained through a multi-year lawsuit. Without such a commitment from The Atlantic, the truth may have been hidden for years, perhaps forever. The refusal to move on from a subject that many would sooner forget has yielded an important contribution to journalism—and to history. — Forrest Wilder