The 2009 Abilene High School Eagles hold their championship trophy and celebrate in the aftermath of their 28-17 victory over the Katy High School Tigers.
On Saturday night, tens of thousands of fans filled the Alamodome in San Antonio for the Texas 5A Division II state championship, which pitted the Abilene High School Eagles against the Katy High School Tigers.
NPR sports correspondents Mike Pesca and Tom Goldman spent a week with the teams and the towns and met up in San Antonio for the big game. Their report is the final installment of our Friday Night Lives series on high school football.
Much about the Texas 5A Division II state championship Saturday was big — the stakes, the schools, the stadium and the expectations. Abilene High School, which hadn't been in the state championship game since 1956, took on Katy High School, the two-time defending champion.
Katy was ranked No. 3 in a USA Today national poll and was winner of the past two titles in the biggest classification in the toughest state to play football. A 200-member band blasted news of the team's arrival into the stadium Saturday, and 10,000 or so Katy football fans rolled into San Antonio's Alamodome. Katy had only one thing in its way to its third state championship title in a row: the No. 4-ranked Abilene Eagles.
Packed into the other side of the stands, an equal number of black and gold-clad Abilene High School fans chanted their beloved team name all night long.
"Eagles! Eagles! Eagles!"
Abilene came into the game undefeated and undersized, according to Texas football watchers. Yet they were also fast and furious.
The young men who spark the Eagles' potent running attack are Herschel Sims, a speedy star running back, and his cousin, quarterback Ronnell Sims. The two Simses got going quickly on championship night. Ronnell broke a 47-yard touchdown run on just the second play of the game.
Another run by Ronnell made it 14-0 in favor of Abilene in just the first quarter.
Katy's coach was not surprised to face an early deficit.
"That's my job — to make sure the team can deal with" an early Abilene lead, said Katy coach Gary Joseph. "We have the fight in us to make sure that if something like that happens we don't panic, that we have enough composure about ourselves to step up our level of play."
Katy: A Reflection Of The Town
Composure. An even keel. Commitment. These are buzzwords for every football team. But with Katy, they're real. This particular team didn't settle on a starting quarterback until the state semifinals.
And no one was fazed.
The school district's athletic director, Rusty Dowling, says Katy's attitude is a reflection of the town.
"The Katy kids are a tremendously focused bunch of individuals," Dowling says. "I'll say this: Katy High School reminds me of a throwback school. Old Katy pretty much has stayed intact."
Katy is a friendly town nucleus inside the sprawling exurb. The Katy Prayer Room shares a strip mall with the town barber, barbecue and deer-processing businesses. There's a small water tower in town, and etched on the sides are the words, "State Champs: '59, '97, '00, '03, '07 and '08.
Katy Tigers fans were hopeful their team would join only a handful of Texas high school football teams that have won three straight state championships.
Katy Tigers fans were hopeful their team would join only a handful of Texas high school football teams that have won three straight state championships. Tom Goldman/NPR
If the current Katy team, down two scores at the Alamodome on Saturday, wanted to put '09 up there, they had to regain that famous composure.
Abilene: Remembering 1956
Midway through the third quarter, Katy kicked a field goal to pull within four points, making it a 14-10 game. Coach Joseph's words about "not panicking" were coming true. The momentum had swung.
The Abilene Eagles got their all-important running game going again. With about 10 minutes left in the fourth quarter, the Eagles found themselves with a first down just nine yards from the Katy end zone. A score would give the Eagles a significant lead down the stretch. If Katy's defense held, it could turn around the game.
At that moment, with a teenage quarterback toeing the line of scrimmage, it was hard not to think of a half-century of history that bubbled up in Abilene as the team prepared to head to the championship.
The memory of 1956 is just one of the things the team was playing for Saturday. There was also all of West Texas.
Winning high school football championships, traditionally, was a fact of life in West Texas, Abilene's region of the state. It's chock-full of small- to mid-range towns where Texas football madness always was a little more mad. But West Texas high school teams haven't won the state's highest classification in recent years.
That's a lot to live up to, but current head coach Steve Warren doesn't seem at least to have been burdened by huge expectations. He had been steadily getting the Eagles closer to football greatness over the past 10 years. Part of the reason was Warren's commitment to teaching winning everywhere.
"If I had a football player that won a band contest, we made a big deal out of it. If I had a football player who had an animal in ag that won in a stock show, we made a big deal out of it," Warren says. "We wanted to make them understand that success breeds success no matter what it is."
At the Eagles' last full team practice before the title game, Warren read a letter, written anonymously, that served as a kind of ode to the players from loyal fans.
"We are your moms, we are your dads, we're your nanas, we're your granddads," the letter reads.
Warren said he fought back tears as he talked to his team after reading the letter.
"To you seniors, I can't say enough about you. What you sacrificed to be where you are, to where you put the bar and everything you've done," Warren said. "When I end up breaking you out in a minute [from practice], you young guys, you find a senior and you hug him and you tell him how proud you are to be his teammate."
Sure enough, the practice ended with a massive hug-in.
'One Last Push'
And so we return to Saturday's game. Abilene was facing a second down and two yards to go for a first down deep inside Katy territory. The Eagles clung to a four-point lead.
Two stars of the Abilene Eagles' offense take a break during the championship game. Running back Herschel Sims (left) and quarterback Ronnell Sims are cousins.
Two stars of the Abilene Eagles' offense take a break during the championship game. Running back Herschel Sims (left) and quarterback Ronnell Sims are cousins. Tom Goldman/NPR
Then Ronnell Sims rushed for yet another touchdown, his third of the game. The black and gold side of the Alamodome stands erupted in screams and cheers. The cheering would continue as Abilene scored another touchdown, a long run by Sims' cousin, Herschel.
Katy certainly didn't give up, but the game was over. Abilene was the state champion for the first time in 53 years.
Eagles' players ran around the field — yes, hugging -– and some cried.
Senior defensive back Eric Gemberling was elated.
"They were everything we expected and more," Eric Gemberling said. "But we push until our heart gives out and then we give it one last push, and that's how the Eagles do it."
On the other side, of course, there was the agony of defeat. Outside his team's locker room, Katy senior defensive back Sam Holl reflected on the last of his three trips to the finals.
"It was a great career," Holl said. "You couldn't ask for anything better — except for another state championship."
Holl may be at the end of his football career, but Katy's future is promising. The Tiger's junior varsity, sophomore and freshman football teams all were undefeated this year.
At Abilene, the Sims cousins, who combined for well over 300 rushing yards in the championship game, are only juniors.