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Friday, January 23, 2009

Not Your Typical Sports Story...

Okay, I heard parts of this on a radio station this morning as my girls flipped through the stations--I finally asked they leave it on. I'm glad I did. I was moved to tears and thought I'd pass it along if I could find the story on the Internet. I did and here it is. The story was written by Rick Reilly of Sports Illustrated:

High school football is big in America, but I suppose there is no place where it is bigger than in Texas. Friday nights there are legend.

The fans scream; the stands are packed; cheerleaders with pom-poms jump and sway to the beat of the school bandand everybody joins in the chants and stomps their feet on the metal stands until you are sure they will collapse.

This is the frenzy of Texas high school football.

But there is one football team in Texas that is a little different. When they play on Friday night, their stands are empty, no band, no cheerleaders, no mass of parents or townsfolk wearing the school colors and waving banners and flags. They take the field without anyone cheering them on. When they score a touchdown, which rarely happens, there is no wild celebration behind them… All of it seems hollow and muffled in contrast to the tidal wave of roars and drums and chants that come from the opposing side.

They are the Tornadoes of the Gainesville State School, a fenced, maximum-security facility. The young men who go to Gainesville State are there because they have made some major mistakes in their lives. But the players who are on the team are there because they have worked hard and have earned enough good behavior points that gives them the privilege to leave the facility and play football on Friday nights—always an away game for them—always a home game for their opponents—and almost always a loss. They don’t have a weight program or training equipment or high-paid coaches and assistants. They don’t have a large pool of players to draw from. The school has 275 boys, but many are too old or too young or can’t or don’t meet the “criteria” to play. And they don’t have the support of a town and a mass of parents and family and reporters and bands and cheerleaders.

That is, until November 7th. Something changed. They played Grapevine Faith Christian School.

A few days before the game, the Gainesville coach, Mark Williams, received a call from Faith Christian coach, Kris Hogan, asking him if it would be okay if Faith formed a “spirit” line for his team when they ran on the field. Mark said, “Sure, that would be a real encouragement to the kids.” He thought that the line would consist of a couple of the JV cheerleaders, but when they took the field, there were a hundred people in it and it stretched to the 40-yard line, filled with Faith Christian parents, fans and varsity cheerleaders, complete with a banner at the end for them to burst through that read “Go Tornadoes!”. And then, those parents and fans sat in the stands behind the Gainesville players and when the Tornadoes broke the huddle and went up to the line they could hear people cheering for them, by name. When they got a first down, “their” fans erupted.

You see, Coach Hogan had sent an email out to the Faith Christian parents and students asking them to consider doing something kind for these young men, many who didn’t know what it meant to have a mom and dad who cared, many who felt the world was against them, not for them. Hogan asked that they simply send a message that these boys were “just as valuable as any other person on earth.”

So half of the Faith Christian fans were now sitting on the visitor’s side of the field, cheering for the Gainesville team, and in some cases, against their own sons. Cheering for a team decked out in mismatched old uniforms and helmets. Cheering for boys who wouldn’t go home that night and have a smiling dad slap him on the back and feel his mom put her arms around him and say “I’m so proud of you son!” Cheering for the underdog.

This was a Friday night like no other for the Tornadoes. In the locker room, the players were confused.“Why are they cheerin’ for us, coach?”

“Because, men, they want to encourage you. They want you to know that they care about you…that you have value.”

Coach Williams said the boys were stunned. For many of these kids, it may have been the first time that anyone had shown them, so visibly, unconditional love.

They were down 33 to nothing at the half. Williams encouraged his team to set a goal for the second half: to score a touchdown against this vastly superior team. And when the boys from the state school took the field again, with their fans cheering them on, everything started to click. And they did score. Not once but twice.

And the fans went wild.

Coach Williams was asked what the bus ride was like on the way home and he laughed and said that they were all asleep—their bellies were full. That’s because after the game, the parents brought a whole bunch of food over to the guys: hamburgers, fries, candy, sodas…and included in the meal sack was a Bible and a personal letter of encouragement from a Faith Christian player. But then, he said, they formed a line for us out to the bus. And the parents patted them on the back and said, “Nice game” and “Look forward to seeing you guys next time.”

As they left the field that night, Coach Williams grabbed Coach Hogan and said to him: “You’ll never know what your people did for these kids tonight. You’ll never, ever know.”

2 comments:

L.A. Mitchell said...

What an uplifting story, Jen. Thanks so much for that :)

mtnchild said...

Wonderful! Sniff, sniff, snuffle, snuffle . . .

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Jen FitzGerald
Thanks for stopping by one of my little corners of the world wide web. So, a little about me...My husband and I have been married for twenty years and we have three adult children although our youngest is still in high school. We've lived in Texas for fifteen years and for the rest of the story, click here.
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  • DH = my husband
  • my Brown Eyed Girl = my oldest daughter
  • DD = my Darling Daughter (the younger one)
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  • NT = the North Texas chapter of RWA
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