I was on vacation in 2009. I spent a week with my sister in California without any other family. It was in March, a safe time of year to travel without children since my husband was “out of season” in the spring that year. My sister, my nephew and I took a trip to Reno, Nevada to see the local flair and check out a few artists for my nephew’s first tattoo. While he was interviewing his potential artist, looking over portfolios, and viewing his artwork on the walls, Sis and I leafed through a few of the other portfolios and discussed regional culture.
My sister and her family are sporty; they snowboard, hike, mountain bike, skateboard, and race motocross. She never misses a toughmudder race and her husband is a cross fit champion in his own right. They are fit people with a plethora of competitive highways they speed down fearlessly together. We reached a point in our conversation when she wanted me to explain how football was more “sport” than all the things they did. How a team with ‘fat kids’ at the line could be thought of as more athletic than her son, the peak of physical fitness. I stumbled around with the question, not really being able to rationalize why football players were so much more acclaimed than other athletes. Finally, I resolved that it was a regional difference and that culture had a lot to do with what was valued.
Just before we were able to really get into the depths of how sport and identity are refracted through culture and dispersed in different places around the country, we were startled by a scream from the piercer’s room. This was not your normal painful burst because a needle was stabbed through some part of the body one thought earned the right to adorn jewelry. This was a certifiable horror flick scream with a whimper at the end. One that made you believe the person was missing a limb or their left eye. Moments later, a young girl wearing pink cowboy boots, a pink and purple argyle cardigan over a white camisole and a fray bottomed blue jean skirt came bouncing out of the piercer’s booth. She bounded into the lobby of the tattoo parlor and startled leafing through portfolios.
“Y’all take walk-ins?” Her accent was unmistakable. I pegged it down as soon as I heard her speak and I couldn’t resist in responding.
“What did you have pierced?” I was helping the tattoo parlor attendant, Jake, who looked as if he may run her off for thinking she could handle a little butterfly piece or even a line of script after the scream she just polluted our world with moments earlier.
“Oohhh! My ear at the top! Ain’t it cute?” She was beaming while pointing to her ear.
“You’re kidding right? You screamed like that for an ear piercing?” My tone was level, suggesting she was a pansy. She didn’t like it. Her eyes narrowed and she threw one hip to the side.
Just before she opened her mouth, I said, “Bless your heart!” This is the phrase that does it. It reveals your Texas roots and ask for a fight.
“Where are you from?” She was curious now.
“Texas … Van, Texas. Ever heard of it?”
“Yep.” I waited.
“It’s in East Texas. We went three rounds deep in playoffs last year.” The look was cold and collected. The tattoo parlor was completely quiet, everyone looking at us as we ‘faced off.’
“That’s nice. We won the state game and set the record for the most points scored in a 4A state Championship. I’m from East Texas too. Our quarterback went to Auburn and our left tackle’s been at Texas A&M since January.” Check mate.
“Oh really? Did we play y’all?”
“No. You’re a 3A. We are a bigger school. You gonna try your hand at the tattoo needle? I find it to be painless.” I tipped my head toward the portfolio she was holding.
“No, I don’t think so; not today anyway.” She closed the portfolio and walked out of the parlor.
On the way out she called back, “Congrats on your state win! I bet your town is proud!”
“Thanks! We are!” The door shut quietly and I turned back to my book.
Jake said, “That was intense … did you seriously run her off with some baseball story?”
“Jake, darlin’ quarterbacks and left tackles don’t play baseball. They’re real athletes,” I chuckled.
Though this may seem far fetched I promise to the moon and back it’s a true story. It is also an experience that made me realize how dominant regional football can be in Texas. Here was this young girl, in her early twenties, maybe even just graduated and she knew that her identity was somehow shaped by the success of her football team as well as the region they played in. I was also aware that this may be the only year I could have ever said “champion” and “win” in this discussion. I actually wasn’t sure that my town was in East Texas. It could have easily have been in the Dallas/Ft Worth metroplex region. It was a liminal town. The district lines, redrawn by UIL every two years dictated its fate and regional associations. For a further understanding of this, here is a great explanation from pop culture. In any case, the area that you play football makes a difference with regards to who you are. We were in Reno, Nevada, folks!
These identities are attached to records: I will look at them in seven regions, although there are a couple of little pockets where regional identities have manifested themselves; North Texas and the Golden Triangle for example.
With a deeply Mexican influence, South Texas flourishes with music, art, and languages. However, it also has a reputation for weak showings in state championship wins. From 1950 – 2009, the region can only boast a total of twelve state wins at every level from 1A – 5A. This doesn’t mean that South Texas schools have little to offer students or that it is not a desirable place to live. It does, however mean that those residents would have been ‘less’ than the little pansy girl from Van, Texas in Texas language.
There are many factors that contribute to the lack of football success in South Texas. Football is a physical sport and while Mexican Americans are extremely tough, they are also very attached to soccer. Soccer programs flourish in South Texas. Additionally, this is the most impoverished section of the state and often times economically disadvantaged districts lose athletes to the workplace. The numbers are not there and the culture of South Texas does not privilege football like other areas. Moreover, the focus on English Language learning may take precedent over athletics in many districts. Therefore, it has nothing to do with identity yet everything to do with identity.
San Antonio / Austin
Moving north, into the area of Central Texas, the Austin and San Antonio metropolitan area combined have won 26 state championship titles in all levels between 1950 and 2009. I suspect that while the diversity is still very high in these areas, socioeconomic and population factors play the largest parts in the increase of championships secured. When we look at these areas, there are simply more athletes to play and more money to support the programs through booster clubs and other avenues. While Austin is the place to be a music star and San Antonio houses a majority of Texas historical sites, you still aren’t truly Texan if you played ball there. Unfortunately, you also aren’t really a legendary coach if you coach here. That is except for the program at Converse Judson who has won several state championships and a long run of great teams. We can see that same thing with the Austin Westlake and Lake Travis programs. Anyone who knows anything about Texas football knows they break the mold.
Moving into the heart of Texas; south of Dallas/Ft Worth, north of Austin, northwest of Houston, we have a concentration of schools that boast 49 wins between 1950 – 2009. This jump can be most attributed to great collaboration between high school coaches and local college staff. Basically, the demographics are not any different but you find these programs in the Texas A&M, Baylor, University of Texas triangle. This increase the amount of interest on football programs and makes recruiting much easier. Therefore, student athletes are often much more motivated to perform and are more likely to be engrossed in football culture. With that being said, this area can be seen as consistent. There are no powerhouse teams to brag about and not much wow factor from the central part go the state.
With a staggering 62 championships between 1950 and 2009, Houston comes in fourth on the list. This is most likely attributed to a mother jump in economic factors, but not exclusively. Houston is Texas’ strongest economy and with the addition of green energy in the next ten years is likely to rival any market in the nation. The correlation between money and wins is obviously not as strong as it is in other identity factors. Houston is a great place with lots of culture and diversity. However, it has struggled to maintain an athletic identity in football at the professional level because it has always competed with the Cowboys from Dallas, America’s team. I can’t track it in numbers but I am betting that this has something to do with high school programs in the area and the way they view their location in the state’s sports history. Moreover, Houston is a talented area and has high college recruitment activity in many sports, but particularly in football. However, the area’s rapid growth often make it hard to establish programs before a district builds a new school and splits the population. This could be a reason why we do not see more championships from the area.
Dallas / Ft Worth
Coming in third among the seven, DFW can brag on their 74 state championships and believe me they will if you give them a chance. One of the biggest factors in the jump, which isn’t as large as DFW would like it to be, is training. Many of the student athletes in this area are bred and trained to perform. One of the major factors to masculinity in the Dallas area is your ability to play ball. Additionally, Dallas hosts the largest number of academy organizations in the state for pop warner and little league sports. Retired NFL star, Deion Sanders chose to make the area his home base for his charter schools named Prime Academy. Randy Allen’s Highland Park Scots will often hire extra strength and conditioning coaches and nutritionist as young as 12 to prepare for their four years of high school football. With these types of activities, I think I can say that money is a factor in the success of the area. Also, Dallas is the only city in the state to house a professional team in five major sports; hockey, football, basketball, baseball, and soccer. The Dallas Cowboys were the poster team for football during the Tom Landry years and again in the 90’s when the team won three Super Bowls. There is a lot to live up to in Dallas. If you’re a young man and you play for Highland Park, Southlake Carroll, or Celina, you’re something to be treasured. If you’re at Allen High School and played on Friday night before your senior year, you’re a demigod.
Covering the area ‘behind the pine curtain’ East Texas hosts 80 wins between 1950 and 2009. This place has produced talent like Earl Campbell, Jeremiah Trotter, LaMichael James, Billy Sims, Ryan Mallett, and Lovie Smith. It is never hard to find an East Texas player in each level of football across the nation. East Texas is serious about its football but only beats DFW by six titles because it grows slower. While East Texas is only about 75 miles from the edge of the DFW metroplex, they are easily 50 years behind in most ways. Once you hit the band of pine trees that encase the east region of the state, you might as well change the radio to the oldies and prepare to move a little slower. This ideology helps to make players tough and they show it every time they get to play the city boys. Football is hard-nosed and gritty in East Texas. The whole town comes out to support the team and the band plays louder than you can imagine. This unified tradition will probably always keep them a little ahead of the DFW area even as it grows. There is something about being an East Texas head coach that nobody can touch. There is even more to a being an East Texas powerhouse like Gilmer, Carthage, Tatum, Longview, John Tyler, Lufkin and Daingerfield to let people know who you are. Football is your identity in East Texas. This is probably the reason I chose East Texas for my label in the standoff with the pansy from Van.
Topping the charts with the most state titles between 1950 and 2009 is West Texas, everything west of Ft Worth, Austin and San Antonio, with 101 state championships. The highes concentratin of championships came in the 50s and 60s beating the other regions by double in those decades. During this time, the oilfields were booming and players were moved out there to play while daddy got a great paying job and mommy got a new house. This contributed to the domination of West Texas until the integration of schools in the 70s at which point West Texas and East Texas began to produce the same amount of numbers with the west only boasting two more wins in the 70s and 2 more than the east in the 80s. The oilfields of the west and the steel factories of the east proved to be major selling points to minority families who were looking for the fast track to equity. These recruitment devices helped build tradition and maintain record holders. More importantly, the deep desire to be a champion lead the way for a minority group of people to become dominant in a world that refused to acknowledge them. Football was king and for the young black man of the 70s and 80s it was power.
In the overhanging records since 2009, DFW is making a push to kill the identity of the west. With oilfields drying up and a turn to green energy in the next decade, DFW and Houston seem to be in prime locations for the largest population boom contributing to the best projected chances for state championships. With the building of Allen’s 65 million dollar stadium and the contracting of state championship games to be played at Jerry’s World for the next few years, it seems all eyes are on Dallas. More importantly, DFW has a way of making the win BIGGER than the others. Dallas identity has a way of always looking at even the guy with the state ring and saying, “Bless your heart!” It throws down the gauntlet on identity and prestige. Even if DFW doesn’t become the next powerhouse region, you will never convince them of it. Since 2010, DFW has secured 11 state championships ahead of the west and east who are tied with seven. Get ready folks, the city boys are about to be the tradition. Look to them to see how Texas football identity will be shaped in the next 25 years.
Moorea Coker teaches AP Literature and adjuncts at a Junior college in Texas. Follow her on Twitter @polypel88 or reach her by email: firstname.lastname@example.org