Talking Texas Football with Author Gray Levy

gray levy high school football texas bookWhen people talk about high school football in Texas, many of them compare it to a religion. Schools have sparkling facilities, and teams are followed year round by passionate crowds. But unless you live in the Lone Star State, chances are you haven’t experienced it first hand.

Author Gray Levy does his best to change that in Big and Bright: Deep in the Heart of Texas High School Football. The book gives outsiders an inside look at what Texas high school football is all about. Over the course of weeks, Levy traveled to 11 high schools, learning for himself what makes things different in Texas.

Levy talked with Sports Illustrated Kids about what it was like to be on the road, what he discovered about Texas and high school football, and what he hopes to convey through his book. 

What made you want to go out and write this book?

I was fascinated by what I saw when I visited Texas before I wrote the book. I visited a couple of high schools and was amazed at the facilities and the athletic periods with all coaches there. It was the first time I’d seen it first hand. I knew I couldn’t go down there and coach, so I thought, “What other way can I get answers to what it’s like down there?” There were so many things I wanted to see that I couldn’t see without devoting a lot of time. For the book, I thought it was a story that was worth telling. Most of the country has gone away from athletics being an important part of the curriculum. I thought there was a real good story there that could be told from a different perspective that points out all the good of what the Texas high school football model provided the students. 

Going in, what were some of the good things — and bad things —  you had heard about high school football in Texas?

I coached in Reno with several guys from Texas at different times. Both guys coached in Texas and came to Reno, and they just couldn’t handle it. They could not handle the way high school football was in Reno because they were so accustomed to the way it was in Texas. They coached one year in Reno and went back to Texas. I knew mostly second-hand stuff. I knew they had great facilities, I knew the sport was incredibly important at the high school level, and I knew the infrastructure was much better than it is back home. I also read Friday Night Lights. I heard stories about coaches being fired for losing games. I knew there were positives and negatives. Coming from where I was from, as a coach, I had to scramble for every single little thing. Where I was, support was the principal handed me the keys and said “Good luck.” After a while, they’d come pat me on the back and tell me to keep my head up. Going down to Texas and seeing what real support looked like was just amazing.

What might outsiders not understand about the way things are in Texas?

Many outsiders have a misperception. I think everybody knows it’s very serious in Texas. Outsiders buy into the fact that it’s too serious. When I talk to others, all they want to talk about is the big stadiums and the great scoreboards and things like that and it’s always sort of with a negative attitude. I tried to point out in the book that there’s a real good side to that. Around the country, you either have a college team or a pro team you root for, and unless you have kids there you don’t care about the high school. I don’t think outsiders understand how in Texas, the mindset is different. People have a pro, college, and high school team they root for. Especially in the small towns, the high school team is really a major part of the town’s identity, which is untrue in most other places. That support also goes beyond football. I’d talk to people about the football team, and they’d talk about football but they’d also talk about the band, and the softball team. The high school is important to the community as a whole.

What might Texans not understand about high school football elsewhere?

Every school I went to, I would sit in the coach's office and all the coaches would grill me about how high school football was in Reno. They were blown away because most Texas coaches never leave Texas to go elsewhere. They take a lot for granted. A main thing was the athletic periods. It blew their mind that we didn’t have athletic periods with all the coaches. We didn’t have offseason as a class. We would lift weights in the offseason, but football wasn’t a year-round activity. Coaches in Texas wondered how we had quality programs like that. For some smaller sports, even the head coach doesn’t show up until the season starts. They're just people in the community who may know a lot about soccer, so they become the head soccer coach. To Texans, that’s amazing, but anywhere else it isn’t.

gray levy high school football texas bookWhat were the greatest disparities you noticed among the schools you followed? 

My smallest school had only 56 students and my largest had over 3,000. Some of them were suburban and some were rural. The biggest difference when you get to the smaller schools, or the schools in West Texas in general, is the facilities. Everybody talks about how wonderful all the facilities are in Texas, but when I got out to West Texas they weren’t. They were OK, but they didn’t have huge stadiums with video scoreboards and indoor practice facilities. In West Texas, the facilities are much more like the ones where I’m from.

What was the most memorable match-up you saw and why? 

It’ really hard when I think about that. In the regular season, it was absolutely the crosstown rivalry between Abilene and Abilene Cooper. It’s a huge deal there, especially when both teams are good, as they were that year. It went down to the last play, and 15,000 fans were on their feet the whole game and it was an amazing experience. The other game that really stood out was the very last game I was at. It was the state championship in Cowboys Stadium between Cedar Hill and Katy. That year, Cedar Hill wasn’t expected to even make the playoffs and they just kept on winning as an underdog. They played a Katy team that had blown everybody out, and Cedar Hill actually led in the fourth quarter until Katy grinded it out.

What makes Texas high school football so important to those who play it, coach it, and attend the games? 

I would say something different for all three, which brings up something important to point out: I don’t think it’s more important to the players in Texas than anywhere else. I played for a school in California that never really won, but the games were still important to me. No matter how many people are watching or what stadium you play in, players put their heart and soul on the field. No one remembers my games, but I care. The biggest difference is just in Texas they were coached better. They had much better support every single day than any other state in the country. They had better coaching and better equipment. College coaches say it’s a double-edged sword. If they have a guy from Texas who runs a 40 yard dash in 4.5 seconds and a guy from another state with that same time, they’re more impressed with that guy from the other state because they know that they can improve, while the guy from Texas they know has been very well coached and have run that dash as fast as they ever will. In Texas, coaching is a career. You have to teach, coach, and you have to be ready to move. If you lose, you’ll get fired and have to move. The biggest difference in fans is, around the country, high school football fans are parents and maybe students of the school. In Texas, high school sports fans are the entire community because they actually care. 

What was the most important lesson you learned while reporting and researching this book?

People take a lot of things for granted. When I returned from researching this book, I saw everything so differently. I never thought that I didn’t have much support where I was. Then I went to Texas and saw what real support looked like. The biggest thing I learned is how much outside support matters to the success of the program. When I say “support,” it means a lot of different things. It means money, interest, policies from administration that support athletics. It means hiring professionals that do a professional job. It means having a large amount of people on the student body to buy in and participate. The bottom line is, the difference in Texas and everywhere else is the support. In Texas it’s respected and not just looked at as an extracurricular activity. 

If you had to tell the world one thing about high school football in Texas and about what experienced covering it, what would you say?

High school football in Texas is generally a good thing. I mention in the book how in Ancient Greece they said education is a combination between intellectual, physical, and emotional. In most of the country, we have forgotten about the physical and emotional parts and focused almost only on the intellectual. The intellectual is important, but if it’s all your school teaches that doesn’t fully develop a student. You need balance, and we’ve gotten away from that balance in our school system. When we eliminate things like athletics and fine arts from education, we end up limiting many character traits. You don’t learn toughness in the math classroom. You don’t learn teamwork in the science classroom, generally. You learn those types of things on the athletic field or the marching band or in other things. Those things help you in every aspect in your life. Where I’m from, schools have become testing factories and it’s a real shame. In Texas, there’s still a balance with the extracurriculars that students still want to go to school. Kids don’t go to school because they want to take tests. They go to be in the band, or play sports, or be in other activities.

Photo: Courtesy Gray Levy

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