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."