In small towns and big cities alike, high school football is something like a religion in Texas.
"If you grow up in Texas as a kid like I did, it's preached in your household around the table from the time you know what's going on," said high school coach Bob Shipley, who is becoming something of a local legend in Burnet, a small town in the central Texas hill country.
Shipley coached the Burnet Bulldogs to an undefeated season last year, then took the team to the state championship for their division, 3-A. (High school football in Texas is divided into divisions by the size of the schools and each division has its own state championship). The Bulldogs lost the championship to a team from the Dallas-Fort Worth area, but this year they were undefeated again going into the long round of playoffs that end in the middle of December.
"It's ingrained in our kids," Shipley said. "When people read the obituary column of the local paper to see if a season ticket holder has passed away, you know you're talking about serious football."
Spirit of Texas Hill Country
The Texas Sports Hall of Fame has a division dedicated to high school football. This year it's honoring the man considered to be the sport's No. 1 fan, 71-year-old Bennie Cotton of Orangefield, a small town in southeast Texas. Cotton has driven throughout the state since 1960 to attend more than 2,000 high school games, according to estimates.
"You go to those small towns … and everything revolves around the high school football team," Cotton told Bob West, the sports editor of a local newspaper, the Port Arthur News.
"To those people, football is NOT the Dallas Cowboys," Cotton continued. "Football is the school in the town where they live. They close down the towns for a high school football game."
On any given week, the University Interscholastic League of Texas estimates that there are close to 600 high school games across the Lone Star State, involving nearly 40,000 players — 100,000 if you count the non-varsity game.
This fall, Burnet (population 4,935) represented the epitome of that spirit by turning out en masse to watch the Bulldogs play. "I'm sitting in the seats that my parents sat in," said Crista Goble, a Burnet city employee. "And my children have added seats that are adjacent to us. Our whole family sits in one section."
Burnet has been competing in high school football for more than a century, but has never won a state championship. This year, the hopes of the town's citizens have rested on a team with 39 players on its varsity roster, led by quarterback Stephen McGee and wide receiver Jordan Shipley, the coach's son.
Up to the weekend of Burnet's Nov. 7 district championship game, McGee had thrown 29 touchdown passes without an interception. Shipley has more than earned his place on the field, setting all-time state high school records for total receiving yards and touchdown receptions.
All of the players on the team are powerfully aware of how much they and the players who went before them mean to the town of Burnet.
"It's all everybody talks about all the time," said Jordan Shipley. "Friday nights the whole town just shuts down and everybody just goes to the football game."
"We really don't have a whole bunch of incredible football players," said McGee. "We have a bunch of guys that love the game and that work hard. That are willing to sacrifice their summers and their springs to go out there in a 100-degree heat and play football and love doing it."
In the small towns of Texas, as Cotton pointed out, the high school team — regardless of the level of talent — is often what draws the community together and gives it something to brag about. That is especially true of communities that developed a long way from the entertainments that cities offer.
"Particularly during the war years, there wasn't a lot that people could do," said Burnet fan Goble. "Football became the entertainment. That's what people did on Friday nights."
It also boosts the local economy. Ron Faulkenberry, the director of economic development for Burnet, says no one has ever quantified the value of the team to Burnet, but that motels and restaurants experience a definite surge in revenues.
"It's great for business," said Alan McAnelly of Burnet's Riverwalk Café. "And it's definitely great for Burnet. Everybody and their brother comes, and all their neighbors and family."
And in a state where everything seems oversized, mythicized, and romanticized, high school football bestows a tradition on a town that it doesn't have to share with anyplace else. It's as personal as it gets. The tradition has crossed so many generations in Burnet that it seems to be part of the collective memory in the surrounding hills.
"That kind of built a fire in me at a young age and I knew that it's something I wanted to be a part of as a coach," said Bob Shipley, who grew up in Burnet. He has coached the Bulldogs for three years, and his first game was memorable for a number of reasons, not all of them good. He had to suspend eight players who had been drinking — six of them starters.
"That was a game I dreamed about my whole life," said Shipley. "But we felt like we needed to do that … to let the folks know and the kids know we weren't going to tolerate that, and we had a high set of standards. We lost that game, barely.
"During the game I was very dejected," he continued. "And a friend of mine came out of the stands and said, 'Look up there, Bob.' And the whole stands gave us a standing ovation. We lost the game. But they knew that there were a lot bigger and better things to come."
Fridays are when everything builds to a fever pitch. The crowd begins arriving at Burnet's stadium as early as three hours before the game. And, in a town with three banks, two grocery stores, five motels and 17 churches, it's easy to wonder whether any business but praying is still being conducted.
Coach Shipley stays out of the locker room until the last few minutes before the game. That's when he delivers The Speech. On Nov. 7, before the district championship game against another tough, undefeated team, the Liberty Hill Panthers, Shipley led his team in an emotional call and response. It was a wet evening, with a fall chill in the air.
"Who practices in the rain? Who practices when it's cold?" Shipley cried.
"We do!" the team responded.
"Who's got the advantage tonight?" Shipley asked. "Guess what — it's a little wet out there. Guess what — it's a little bit cold out there. Who's got the advantage?
"None of you guys have ever lost a varsity game here," Shipley finished, his voice rising. "And we ain't going to start now. This is our house. This is our yard. This is our town. And we're one team, one town, one heartbeat."
Crista Goble and her family were in their usual spot in the stands. "It brings back nostalgia," she said. "That feeling that you had in high school — everybody's got it. Football on Friday nights is the place to be in Texas."
During the last home game for its seniors, Burnet's team played as it had all year — with extraordinary poise. Forty-three seconds into the Bulldogs' first possession, Stephen McGee threw to Jordan Shipley for a touchdown. After Liberty Hill tied the score, it was Shipley's turn again. He picked up the ensuing kickoff and ran it back for a touchdown.
McGee threw four touchdown passes, raising his total to 33 — still without an interception. Burnet won the game and the district championship, 45-21. It was one of several hundred high school games played in Texas that night, but it might as well have been the only one to the people in Burnet.
Since then, the team has won three consecutive playoff games and needs only one more win to compete for its goal — the state 3-A championship on Dec. 13.
McGee is going on to Texas A&M, while Jordan Shipley will attend the University of Texas. Their future teams are bitter rivals. For some players, high school football success is a ticket out of town. But what it really is is a lifetime pass to a place that will always welcome them home, because Burnet doesn't forget its teams. It remembers them on a mythical landscape where life's lessons are measured by the yard, and the philosopher who delivers them always has the same first name: coach.