MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

For high school football, it was as big as it gets. On Saturday, Texas crowned the new state class 5A champions. Class 5A is so big, it's split into two divisions. And in division two, the Katy Tigers took on the Abilene Eagles. That's the matchup we picked to be the finale in our series, Friday Night Lives.

We sent NPR's Mike Pesca to Katy and NPR's Tom Goldman to Abilene, and they met up in San Antonio for the championship game and they put this story together.

(Soundbite of marching band)

MIKE PESCA: You hear the train a rumbling? It's the soundtrack to kickoff for the Katy Tigers, as provided by the over 200 members of the unit that goes by...

Mr. BILL COOK: The roaring band from Tiger land.

PESCA: Bill Cook and 10,000 or so fellow Katy fans rolled into the San Antonio Alamodome on the Tiger train. This locomotive ranked number three in the USA Today national poll, winner of the last two titles in the biggest classification, in the toughest state to play football, had only one thing in its way.

(Soundbite of chanting)

Unidentified People: Eagles. Eagles. Eagles.

TOM GOLDMAN: The Abilene Eagles ranked number four in that poll, undefeated, undersized, but fast and furious on defense and, oh boy, on offense - a speedy star running back Herschel Sims and his cousin - a speedy star quarterback Ronnell Sims, who broke a broke a 47-yard touchdown run on the second play of the game.

(Soundbite of cheering)

GOLDMAN: Another run by Ronnell made it 14-nothing just in the first quarter.

PESCA: It's got to be said that the Eagles swooping down on the team early was no surprise, even a team as well-prepared as Katy. Two days before the game, head coach Gary Joseph said his Tigers would be ready.

Have you talked to them specifically, look, this is such a high-power offense, you might get behind by a couple scores early?

Mr. GARY JOSEPH (Head Coach, Katy Tigers): Well, you know, that's my job is to make sure they can deal with it. We have the fight in us to make sure that if something like that happened that we don't, you know, panic. That we, you know, have enough composure about ourselves to step up our level of play.

PESCA: Composure, an even keel, commitment - these are buzzwords for every football team. But with Katy, they're real. The district's athletic director, Rusty Dowling, says Katy's attitude is a reflection of the town.

Mr. RUSTY DOWLING (Athletic Director, Katy Tigers): The Katy kids are a tremendously focused bunch of individuals, you know. And I would even say this: Katy High School reminds me of a throwback school. Old Katy has pretty much stayed intact.

PESCA: What Dowling means can't be seen on a map or discerned from the sign on the highway outside of Houston that says: Next nine exits, Katy. But Katy proper, old Katy, as Dowling says, is different. It's a friendly town nucleus inside the sprawling exurb.

The Katy Prayer Room shares a strip mall with the town barber, barbecue and deer processing business. There's a small water tower etched on the sides with the words: State Champs, '59, '97, '00, '03, '07 and '08. But 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, even in the face of bad penalty calls.

Mr. ZACK SWANSON(ph): The ball was 10 yards overthrown. Ten yards, ref. It's overthrown.

PESCA: Senior Zack Swanson was outraged, but his emotions never teetered over into desperation.

GOLDMAN: And soon, Abilene's ground assault almost ground to a halt. The Katy defense toughened and the offense started clicking.

(Soundbite of cheering)

Unidentified Man #1: Let's go. Hurry up.

Unidentified Man #2: One, 48, 49...

Unidentified Man #1: Go.

PESCA: Midway through the third quarter, Katy kicked a field goal to pull within four points, 14 to 10. Coach Joseph's words about not panicking were coming true. The momentum had swung.

GOLDMAN: But Abilene started running well again and with about 10 minutes left in the game, the Eagles had a first down just nine yards from the Katy end zone. The 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, it was hard not to think of a half-century of history that bubbled up in Abilene the week before the game.

Mr. WALLY BULLINGTON (Former Assistant Coach, Abilene Eagles): Hey, I want to ask one thing: Who are you?

Unidentified People: Eagles.

Mr. BULLINGTON: Who are you?

Unidentified People: Eagles.

Mr. BULLINGTON: Okay. We have a number of guys here representing the 1956 state champion Abilene High School Eagles. We have...

(Soundbite of cheering)

GOLDMAN: Wally Bullington is pushing 80 years old, but at a pep rally in Abilene the night before the championship game, he still sounded as if he could lead the Eagles onto the field, like he did as an assistant coach on that 1956 team, the last Eagles team to win the state title.

Current coach Steve Warren has been getting Abilene closer over the past 10 years. Part of the reason: teaching, winning everywhere.

Mr. STEVE WARREN (Head Coach, Abilene Eagles): 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 at a stock show, we made a big deal out of it. We wanted to make them understand that success breeds success no matter what it is.

GOLDMAN: Winning high school football championships traditionally was a fact of life in Abilene's region of the state, West Texas. Chock full of small to mid-range towns where Texas football madness always was a little madder. But West Texas high school teams haven't won the state's highest classification in recent years. So, as Abilene prepared for Katy, the list of who the players were playing for grew - for the memory of 1956, for West Texas, for all of Abilene.

Mr. WARREN: We are your loyal fans. We are your moms. We're your dads. We're your nanas. We're your granddads. I love some of these. We are your aunties, your uncles.

GOLDMAN: At the team's last practice before the title game, Coach Warren read a letter written anonymously, kind of an ode to the players from the loving locals in Abilene.

PESCA: Yeah, Tom, but did you see what those loving nanas were saying on the Internet message boards - because Katy saw it. One phrase that wound up on Katy's bulletin boards called the Tiger offense big, fat and slow. We will destroy those useless slobs.

GOLDMAN: Yeah, well, okay. You know, football is an emotional game. Listen to what Abilene Coach Warren said, choking back tears even, after he read the town's letter to his team.

Mr. WARREN: To you seniors, I can't say enough about you. What you sacrificed to be where you are, for where you put the bar and everything you've done. When I end up breaking you out in a minute, you young guys, you find a senior and you hug him and you tell him how proud you are to be his teammate, because it's special.

(Soundbite of applause)

GOLDMAN: And sure enough, Mike, a big old group hug followed.

PESCA: And did you get a hug, Tom?

GOLDMAN: No, I was working.

PESCA: Of course, Katy also got an earful of inspiration during the week of preparation. Who knows if any of it made any difference once helmets started cracking inside the Alamodome in the fourth quarter of the championship game.

GOLDMAN: And remember where we left the Eagles, deep inside Katy territory clinging to a four-point lead? Chuck Statler on Abilene station KZQQ made the call.

Mr. CHUCK STATLER (KZQQ Radio): Ronnell takes a snap. Ronnell steps inside the 10, the five into the end zone for another Abilene Eagles touchdown.

(Soundbite of cheering)

PESCA: And after that, another Abilene Eagle touchdown. Katy didn't give up, but, really, the game was over.

GOLDMAN: And Abilene was the state champion.

(Soundbite of cheering)

PESCA: Senior defensive back Eric Gemberling was one elated Eagle.

Mr. ERIC GEMBERLING (Senior Defensive Back, Abilene Eagles): Yeah, they were everything we expected and more. But we push until our heart gives out and then we give it one last push, and that's how the Eagles do it.

PESCA: At the same time, outside his team's deflated locker room, Katy senior defensive back, Sam Holl, reflected on the last of his three trips to the finals.

Mr. SAM HOLL (Senior Defensive Back, Katy High School): It was a great career. Couldn't ask for anything better, except for another state championship.

PESCA: Holl spoke of the end of his football career, but Katy's future is promising. In fact, their JV sophomore and freshmen teams were all undefeated this year.

GOLDMAN: Yeah, but there's plenty of competition out there, Mike. Take Abilene, the cousins who combined for well over 300 yards in the championship game, Hershel and Ronnell Sims, are only juniors. But right now the Eagles are enjoying that group hug.

PESCA: Quite a few embraces were spied inside the Katy locker room, too, as players buried their heads in their teammates' should pads. That's perhaps one underrated aspect of high school football: Win or lose, play it the right way, it often ends in a hug.

Mike Pesca, NPR News.

GOLDMAN: And Tom Goldman, NPR News, San Antonio.

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