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School CP - October 1983


The New York Times, 30 October 1983

High-School Football

Playing for Keeps


By Craig Wolff

EVERY MORNING, BEFORE SCHOOL STARTS, Gordon Wood shows up at the Palace Drugstore on Austin Avenue. There, in the back room, between shelves of shampoo and toothpaste, the head coach of the Brownwood High School Lions relaxes over coffee and holds court. Those present include not only his assistants but a collection of old friends and leading citizens -- Jack Pike, a former Lion and former Chief of Police; James Hallum, a former Lion and a florist; Royce Blackburn, the principal of the high school.

The conversation wanders slowly. Are these crazy afternoon showers never going to stop? How's coach so-and-so doing at such-and-such school? Eventually, somebody mentions the Lions, and then everyone waits for any piece of information Coach Wood is willing to surrender. "I'm worried about the offensive line," the coach says one morning, "but the Isom boy is looking good." The men in the drugstore are aware that co-captain Ronald Isom has just been given a new position as offensive guard, and they nod their heads seriously.

More than 972,000 young men across the country are playing high-school football this autumn; so are 300,000 junior-high-school students. It is played at a feverish pitch and to win. But in Brownwood and in some other small towns in and out of Texas, the game represents something different. Parents hold their sons back a grade in grammar school so they will be bigger and stronger when they finally try out for the team. Physical punishment is applied routinely when players break training rules. And towns compete for high-school prospects with offers of new jobs for a player's parents or maybe a new house rent-free.

The coach is the most important man in town. He is teacher and counselor. He is role model and, in the case of Gordon Wood, the winningest coach in the history of high-school football, he is legend. Brownwood co-captain Tommy Smith, 18 years old, was only 4 when he first heard of Coach Wood. "I knew that some people called him God," Smith said. "And I thought it was funny. But then, the more you hear it, the more it becomes part of your thinking."


THE BROWNWOOD LIONS began the season in a hot August rain. ... For two and a half weeks, twice a day, two and a half hours at a time, five days a week and once more on Saturday, they ran, kicked, tumbled and snapped their knees high. As in other states, coaches in Texas cannot send their teams out onto the field more than twice a day, but the rule says nothing about the length of each practice. In football-conscious towns like Brownwood, two hours of indoor blackboard instruction and six hours of drills outside in the 100-degree Texas summer is standard.

These exercises are designed to build endurance and teach obedience. Football, by its nature, is a sport that demands a singular kind of strength. Only six out of 22 players on the field actually run and throw and do the scoring. Everyone else's task is to move bodies from one space to another, play after play. What's more, the game demands self-sacrifice. ... Players are expected to conform to orders from the coach, to act as instruments in his master plan. "There's not a lot of fun in it," said Jonathan A. Brower, professor of sociology at California State University at Fullerton. "It is discipline for discipline's sake. The athletic field is where a student is going to be brought into line."


Off the field, Tommy Smith presents a self-contained, quiet, unassuming personality. Yet he has trouble sleeping the night before a game, and as player and co-captain of the Lions, he is totally involved. He calls meetings to chastise the other players when he feels they are not hustling enough. He accepts without question the physical punishment of players who break training rules. He takes part in the initiation of younger players into the Lions.

During the ritual, the newcomers are stripped and forced to run about the field until they are chased down by six or seven senior players. A cream that produces a burning sensation, generally used to soothe sore muscles, is applied to the genitals of the new players.

For Tommy Smith, the best part of practice is the hitting. For him and his teammates, it is the primary attraction, to give and absorb punishment.


Mr Wood has lately altered some of his coaching techniques. He now allows players to drink water during breaks in practice and this year, for the first time, calisthenics during preseason practice were done to disco music. But there are ways in which he might be considered old-fashioned. He still, for instance, uses the Wing-T offensive alignment. And he still relies on physical punishment when his players disobey rules. In Texas, where corporal punishment is permitted in the public schools, there are no specific regulations governing hitting as a measure of discipline.

At Brownwood, the punishment is administered -- sometimes by the coach himself; sometimes by his assistants -- and accepted in a fraternal spirit. The two most serious infractions are beer drinking and poor grades. According to some of the players, the punishment for either is six hard whacks on the buttocks with a flat wooden board and 40 laps around the quarter-mile track for 40 days. Sometimes the hitting is a private matter between coach and player. Occasionally the whole team watches.

"We really don't like to publicize it," says Coach Wood about physical discipline, "but when a kid drinks and gets bad grades, it bothers me. Especially drinking. I don't know what else to do. It's very frustrating."


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