You may not recognize Kyler Murray’s name, but don’t worry, you’ll be cheering for him in no time. The electrifying quarterback just finished up his career at Allen High School, winning back-to-back-to-back state titles, producing 14,500 yards of total offense and 186 touchdowns, and going 43-0 as a starter. Texas, of course, has seen phenoms before—Ken Hall, Eric Dickerson, Vince Young, the list goes on—but that’s why the sport continues to thrive: the next star is only a season away.
When I was a kid growing up in Plano in the seventies, I had three goals: play high school football for the Plano Wildcats, play college football for the SMU Mustangs, and play professional football for the Dallas Cowboys. I didn’t grow up in a football family—Dad, a Missouri farm boy, preferred baseball—but football was what I heard my friends talk about, it was what I saw on television, it was what the older boys were doing. Sad to say, I was zero for three in my plans. It would be charitable to say that my buddies and I were not jocks in high school, but every Saturday morning at ten o’clock we met to play what we called “PFL”: Plano Football League. It was full contact played on a full field, and more often than not twenty or more people would show up. I’m not sure which of us came up with the idea, but we gave one another ridiculous nicknames (I was the Intimidator), and we printed out official identification cards that we kept in our wallets (I laminated mine). Over the Thanksgiving break, we would play our biggest game of the season, which we dubbed the Turkey Bowl. Those mornings are fresh enough in my memory that I still bore my wife with stories about the catch I almost made or the tackle that stopped me short. I may not have worn the helmet, but I played the game and that was enough. I loved the sport the way a Texan loves the land: you grow up with it, and you can’t imagine life without it.
As a writer for this magazine, I’ve spent equal time celebrating the game (a reporting trip to Celina here, a week in Odessa there) and worrying about its pitfalls (its safety, its extravagance, its misplaced priorities). But then I think about small towns like Cuero and Canadian and Mount Pleasant and what high school football has always meant in terms of identity and culture. In the film version of Larry McMurtry’s The Last Picture Show, the camera opens on a fictionalized Archer City that is dusty and sparse and worn-out. It’s Saturday morning, and what do the old men have to say to the young boys? “Surprised you had the nerve to show up this morning after that stomping y’all took last night” and “A few football teams have had some luck with tackling—keeps the other team from scoring quite so often.” The fortunes of the town are reflected in the fortunes of the high school football team. Is that the way it should be? I don’t know, but that’s the way it has always been.
I still love watching the boys play on Friday nights. And I’ll be watching Kyler Murray this year as well. He’s signed on to play at Texas A&M, where he has a chance to become the starting quarterback during his freshman year. Will Saturdays eventually turn into Sundays for him? Will he be the next Texas quarterback to light up the NFL? I bet you’ll be watching to find out too.
This piece is just one bit of wisdom offered in our April 2015 cover story, “Welcome to Texas!” a friendly user’s guide for our state’s most recent transplants. To read more advice, go here.