Many outsiders look at Texas and see only cowboy hats and oil fields, tacos and BBQ brisket, football and honky-tonks and tech startups. While that surface level understanding misses the complex patchwork of people and passions that accurately represent the state, there is some truth to those conceptions. But even if you only look at the major hallmarks of Texas culture, it’s amazing how easy it is to miss out on the everyday moments that form the connective tissue of our vibrant communities.

The world of Texas BBQ is highlighted by the incredible bumper crop of talented pitmasters running world-renowned joints and operating at the top of their game, but there’s a dense and rich forest among and between those tall trees that is worth exploring further. Beneath the professional ranks, there are countless weekend warriors manning a smoker that feed into local cookoffs and statewide festivals. And it’s in between those ecosystems that a new story has emerged as a pillar in many communities and the best secret in Texas BBQ: the high school BBQ team.

Texas High School BBQ Inc. (HS BBQ) is a non-profit organization that has hosted regional BBQ competitions and a State Championship Cookoff each year since 2016. In partnership with the Texas Beef Council and other key supporters like Goodstock By Nolan Ryan, founder Chuck Schoenfeld has created a structure and environment that gives kids a unique extracurricular activity, one that delivers unparalleled opportunities to learn and develop practical life skills while competing for scholarship funding and bragging rights. And, of course, a delicious meal!

When you first arrive at a HS BBQ competition, which features prizes for each individual discipline (dessert, beans, chicken, ribs, and brisket) as well as an overall team champion, you may notice the intensity of the students as they monitor their fires or taste check their dishes. You certainly will be entertained by the playful team names and impressed with the custom smokers adorned with mascots and puns.

You may not realize that the competition started at 4:30am and requires an impressive level of dedication, considering every one of those students practices their cook regularly, forgoing other temptations of the weekend in pursuit of smoky glory. Even if they never win a competition, though, each student is gaining a tremendous amount of experience that augments what they learn in the classroom that will help them find success in their lives, whether they pursue BBQ as a profession or not.

Carsyn and Jacob are responsible for the dessert and beans, respectively, on the reigning state champions, the Smoking Eagles team from Atascocita High School. They spoke with us after they had turned in their dishes for judging at a recent Regional competition in Comfort, TX about what they get from the experience on a high school BBQ team.

The pre-dawn start time and required practice sessions foster a strong work ethic, and the fact the students are on their own inside the cooking area with their mentors, coaches, and family only allowed to provide input from afar, develops teamwork and individual responsibility.

Each competitor must manage their time to effectively plan and execute the many steps between setup and the turn-in deadline for judging to have a chance to win. They receive feedback from the judges that teaches them to learn from constructive criticism.

Like many teams, the Smoking Eagles are coached by a mentor with competition BBQ experience. Their coach, Maune, helped them devise a winning strategy by researching the prevailing style of BBQ in the region where they’re competing and catering their recipes to that taste to give themselves an edge. Winners at the regional competition earn an impressive trophy along with scholarship funds to attend the Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts.

Regardless of whether these kids pursue a career in the vast fields of agriculture or the food service industry, they are far more prepared for the challenges of professional life than even kids who get all the benefits of competing in high school athletics. The values that HS BBQ instills in students and the broader community has even attracted support from big name sponsors like Goodstock and its founder, legendary Texas rancher, Nolan Ryan, which only serves to amplify the positive impact.

And then there are the bragging rights. The 2022 HS BBQ State Championship Cookoff, which rotates location and is being held at the Dell Diamond in Round Rock, TX this year, on April 30, will crown a new state champion of BBQ among nearly 100 teams from across the state.

When the competition starts, there’s just one goal on the mind of each of these young Texans: taking the top spot on the podium. All the other benefits fall into the background. After all, as Jacob told us, “Winning is always nice.”