Pigskin priorities

ERIC FRANCIS -- Calgary Sun

, Last Updated: 7:52 AM ET

GALENA PARK, Tex. -- High school football is more than a game in Texas. It's a religion.

Sun columnist Eric Francis recently travelled to the Lone Star State and visited two towns where high school football is an all-consuming passion: Galena Park and Odessa, the setting for the current box-office hit Friday Night Lights. Watch for Eric's reports daily -- only in the Sun.

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It is, quite simply, high school football's Field of Dreams.

Equipped with a seat for every one of the 10,000 residents in a lower middle-class community about 10 km east of Houston, Galena Park's ISD Stadium has it all.

A Jumbotron scoreboard with instant replay, TV monitors in the concession areas, state-of-the-art AstroPlay turf, stadium seats with cup holders and a double-decker press box with VIP seating for the horde of coaches, scouts and media types who congregate under the lights on Friday nights.

Despite the fact the median house value in Galena Park is less than $50,000 and the median household income is $35,000, locals were more than happy to vote in favour of building the $21-million complex, which opened in 2001.

"High school football in Texas is big," says David Taylor, a writer for the North Channel Sentinel, a local paper.

"How many places can you go and find a stadium like this for high school? When it comes to their kids, people in communities like this one want to do what's best for their kids and nothing is too pricey for them. That's not true in every U.S. community."

It certainly isn't, which is why many will find it shocking to learn the Houston area sports almost a dozen football stadiums of similar quality.

"It's funded by the community -- they pay their tax dollars for this and they voted on it," says Ed Warken, director of athletics for the Galena Park Independent School District. (GPISD). "This community got excited about football and we had modernized all our schools with computers and TV classes and they decided they wanted this kind of facility. Nobody complained, everybody's proud."

On this night, civic pride overflows after the Galena Park Yellowjackets clinch their first playoff spot in 22 years.

With duelling marching bands, drill teams, cheerleaders and a crowd of 3,000 providing an animated backdrop for the proceedings, quarterback Miguel Gutierrez punches in the game-winning touchdown in the final quarter of a 17-14 victory over Forest Brook he'll forever cherish.

"Since I was in middle school and elementary, I always came to the games but never thought I'd be here in this position," says Gutierrez, punctuating answers to every question with 'sir.'

"Football here is real important, especially in Galena Park, which is a real little city. This means a lot, not just to me but to everyone. Just look."

t's 10 minutes after the final whistle and the bulk of Gutierrez's teammates are still on the field, celebrating a moment they've dreamed of as Pop Warner hopefuls.

Following the traditional post-game handshake at midfield, the 'Jackets assemble along their sideline, hold hand and face their fans as they all joined in a school chant.

From there, they proceed toward the stands where jubilant mothers, fathers, friends and girlfriends embrace or shake hands with their Friday-night warriors.

Fifteen minutes later, they all head to the parking lot where a convoy of decorated, horn-honking vehicles follow the team buses -- and a regal police escort -- back to their side of town.

"This is my alma mater," proudly declares county constable Ernie Flores, who swears he'd be attending the game as a fan if he wasn't already assigned security duty on this night.

"This kind of thing goes so far in a community -- it reaches every neighbourhood. You lay it all out on the field and it's a wonderful experience. Some of my fondest memories stem from playing for Galena Park -- there's so much pride involved, it's easy to reminisce."

It's also pretty easy to stay focused given the importance placed on varsity football.

With close to a dozen full-time coaches working around the clock on football and nothing else, players take class time to work on their game as they would with any other subject. This follows years of training on any one of the six school football teams that see as many as 300 kids a year go from an organized middle school program to one of three freshman teams, a sophomore squad, junior varsity or varsity.

Football, for many, is everything. That's not to say that's all these kids do.

Gone, says Warken, are the days of teachers covering up for athletes who drop the ball in the classroom or in the community.

At least at his school.

"We're a 70 percent lower socio-economic school district but we have an exemplary rating (the highest academic designation a school can get from the state)," he says.

"You have to pass everything to play. We feel like the athletic program helps in the overall atmosphere of the school and the discipline of the kids in the hall or wherever. Our program is based on the ABCs: Academic accountability, behaviour accountability and coaches as role models. We feel like we're backing that up."

They sure have, as 230 college athletic scholarships in the last 14 years can attest.

Of course, that includes kids from the 3,600-student North Shore high school, which emerged state champions in 5A football last year as part of their current 23-game win streak.

Players from the nationally-ranked Mustangs (8-0) share the stadium with the Galena Park Yellowjackets and occupy the stadium's adjoining 28,000-sq.-ft. field house and workout facility, which also houses a dressing area, coach's offices, meeting rooms and storage.

It's there the coaches go over endless film with players before heading up to the press-box on game nights where they sit in air-conditioned quarters relaying messages to sideline coaches via headsets. It's all very professional, which is part of the reason they draw closer to 12,000 fans when they play at GPISD Stadium.

Losers of one regular-season game in their last 51 outings, the 'Stangs are one of the nation's top-ranked teams, which routinely attracts scouts from all the best colleges in the U.S.

"For games like that, it'll be standing- room only and the overflow we catch on the other side," said Flores, pointing out all stadiums keep fans from each school on opposite sides of the field.

"There can be problems at times, depending in the rivalries -- it gets pretty heated."

The weekly competition is every bit as intense as the battle for scholarships many kids and their families depend on.

"What their coaches and programs do is create opportunities," says Taylor, who covers a sport that garners four pages of broadsheet coverage in every Saturday's Houston Chronicle.

"For most of the kids, it's a dream to just play under the Friday night lights. But of the 99 football scholarships handed out to grads here over the last 10 years, 14 made it to the NFL."

On the flip side, Taylor says the student body at large in the GPISD racked up $6.8 million in scholarships for grads last year alone. And numbers like that help easily justify building a world-class football stadium that plays host to much more than just football Fridays. It also allows between 400-600 kids to perform on the field during the game or at halftime when marching bands, drill teams, cheerleaders and the ROTC (reserve officer training corps) contribute to the show.

"It's the ultimate in student participation and community support -- it's also great entertainment," says Warken, whose stadium played host to one day of filming for the current box-office hit Friday Night Lights.

"Season ticket sales and scoreboard advertising create money. Our athletic program puts in anywhere from $200,000 to $250,000 into the general fund which is used for everything, not just athletics. The funding of that helps fund other sports."

More importantly, it gives everyone in the small town an identity -- something they can associate with and be proud of, win or lose.

"I'll remember this for the rest of my life -- this is overwhelming, yes sir," said Yellowjackets tight end Eliazar Salinas, soaking in the moment. "Football here is massive. Do or die. Something very important to me and the entire community."

It's Friday Night Football in the heart of Texas, where those stadium lights make dreams come true every week.


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