Conine, Chad S. The Republic of Football: Legends of the Texas High School Game. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2016. Pp. 288. Index, and 20 Photos. $24.95 hardcover.
Reviewed by Jorge Iber
Before proceeding with this brief essay, it is necessary for this reviewer to own up that he is not a native-born Texan; though, as a popular bumper sticker in the state notes, “I got here as fast as I could.” There were many social and other surprises encountered after transferring to Lubbock almost twenty years ago. One of these should not have been: the obsession with the sport of high school football. It was my misguided and simplistic assumption, from having lived most of my life in southern Florida, that that particular neck of the woods was the epicenter of high school football mania. Sure, we’d hear about the successes of the De La Salle’s (California), Massillon Washingtons (Ohio), and Southlake Carrolls (Texas) of the world, but did they really stack up, both on the field and in terms of fanaticism, to the likes of St. Thomas Aquinas (Ft. Lauderdale), Miami Northwestern, Miami Carol City, and, going back further in time, the tremendous run of Miami High and Coral Gables High which produced six national champions between the years of 1962 and 1969? Additionally, all one has to do is to examine the rosters of most major collegiate powers and it becomes apparent rather quickly that the southern portion of the Sunshine State (as well as the rest of Florida) is more than just “competitive” with Texas and California when it comes to generating gridiron talent.
Still, all of this background did not prepare me for what I encountered in west (as well as the rest of) Texas. To put it succinctly, if the rest of the country is mad about high school football, Texans are unabashedly fanatical about the sport. One key trend that became quickly apparent to this historian is that the story of the game in Florida has not received a massive amount of attention. Certainly, there are great books (recent) such as Bryan Mealer’s Muck City: Winning and Losing in Football’s Forgotten Town which focuses on the game in Belle Glades as well as Robert Andrew Powell’s We Own This Game: A Season in the Adult World of Youth Football focused on inner city Miami. A quick search on Amazon with the key terms “Florida” and “Football” produces a slew of works dealing with individual coaches as well as “coffee table” type entries on the state’s major collegiate programs. The pickings are slim if one wishes to find works that discusses the totality (or even individual stories) about the state’s high school gridiron history. Compare and contrast those results with the plethora of works available on the game in Texas. Of course, one would have to start with H.G. Bissinger’s Friday Night Lights. Other notable works are (to name just a few): Carlton Stower’s Where Dreams Die Hard; Mike Bynum’ (editor), King Football: Greatest Moments in Texas High School Football History; Al Pickett’s Team of the Century: The Greatest High School Football Team in Texas; and Geoff Winningham’s Rites of Fall: High School Football in Texas. This listing barely scratches the surface of the offerings on this topic, as there are many, many more. I am certain that, upon reading this review, some of our readers from the Lone Star State would most likely chastise this writer for not including important author X and his/her fascinating work, Y on such and such high school or era.
To this extensive collection, the University of Texas Press adds yet another worthy addition: The Republic of Football: Legends of the Texas High School Game by Chad D. Conine. Inside, readers will find 41 chapters focused on specific games, teams, seasons, and players. The time period covered runs from the early post-War years to the early 2010s. In all cases, Conine was able to conduct personal interviews with either participants, family members, or opponents of the central personages of the individual stories. The writer succeeds in presenting tales that cover most of the state’s vast territory. Many of these shed light on developments of specific defenses (such as Chapter 8 dealing with Celina’s 10-1 formation) and offenses (for example, Chapter 11 that focuses on the offense developed by the late Spike Dykes at Midland Lee and eventually transferred to my institution—Texas Tech University).
Other chapters, more meaty in historical substance, focus on racial issues. Here, we find in Chapter 5 the story of “The Game” between San Antonio Brackenridge and San Antonio Robert E. Lee. This game was significant not just because it was played shortly after the assassination of JFK, but also because of the issues of integration concerning that city at this moment in time. The action of the field was quite fantastic as well, with Lee pulling out a 55-48 triumph. The very next chapter deals with the establishment of Estacado High School in the eastern part of another city dealing with integration in the late 1960s: Lubbock. This school’s team, nicknamed the Matadors, was comprised of mostly African Americans, Mexican Americans, and poorer whites. The school opened in 1967 and played its first varsity season in 1968. Picked to finish last in their district, the Matadors won the state title, and even defeated legendary coach Gordon Wood and his Brownwood Lions (look them up, if you are not familiar with this story) in the playoffs. In this story, we see the power that sports can have in breaking down barriers among races. There are several other tales along these lines, but the overall thrust of these sections is clear.
While there is much to praise in The Republic of Football, there are key problems. First, Conine really does not clearly articulate the selection process for these 41 topics selected. How did he happen to come up with these individual stories? In his introduction he argues that his purpose is “to capture as many angles as possible from as many points of the high school football experience as I could” (p. x). Later, he acknowledges that he “certainly did not set out to write a comprehensive account” of the topic (p. xi). That is all well and good, but a more distinct argumentation for the stories selected would have provided readers with valuable guidance. Second, one of the key games that should have been included (and which I have researched extensively) is the contest between Donna High School and Quanah High School in 1961. Here, the Redskins of Donna won the only state title ever earned by a Mexican American majority team in the history of Texas gridiron. If stories with racial issues as part of the tale were significant, why was this not considered? There are other works, such as Border Ball: The History of High School Football in the Rio Grande Valley by Greg Selber that would have shed light on such matters.
More generally, it is problematic that Conine almost completely overlooked the participation and story of Mexican Americans in regard to high school football in the state of Texas. There is hardly a mention of the Valley, El Paso, and Laredo in the work. Given that these regions are all Latino majority, this constitutes a serious lacunae of parts of the football story in this state. This faux pas is not unique to Conine as these regions are almost always overlooked when writing about the Texas high school gridiron; see, for example, the “bible” of the sport in Texas, Dave Campbell’s Texas Football to get a sense of what I mean. If it was possible to write about the experiences of African Americans and Vietnamese Americans (the story of Texas A&M and Dallas Cowboy great Dat Nguyen is covered in Chapter 17), surely that “other” substantial population base in Texas merited more than just a passing mention?
In summary, The Republic of Football does have some serious flaws, but it is also a worthwhile read. Herein, readers are exposed to a vast array of the legendary players, coaches and teams of the sport in this football-mad state. It is a vehicle that will, hopefully, encourage others to continue to seek out such tales, and with any luck, force future writers to cast an even wider net for extraordinary narratives of the Texas gridiron.
Jorge Iber is a Professor of History and Associate Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Texas Tech University in Lubbock. His area of specialization is the study of Latino/a participation in the history of American sports. He is the author/co-author/editor of nine books. His most recent work, Mike Torrez: A Baseball Biography, is a biography of former Major Leaguer Mike Torrez (he of the pitch to Bucky “Bleeping” Dent in the 1978 playoff game between the Red Sox and Yankees) published by McFarland.