What makes Texas “Texas”? • Friday Night Lights

TEXAS FOOTBALL MATH: Two Texas high schools, each in a town with 6,000 residents, play football against each other. Equals 20,000 screaming fans in the stadium.

Some say football is a religion. Others believe it is the closest sport to War… …and Texans DID FIGHT a War just to form Texas.  

Football wasn’t invented here, but for more than a century, Texas football has been part of the state’s cultural DNA, and a national fixation in sports. 

Texans First

From big-city bankers to farmers in the valley, every Texas student studies Texas history and understands the gravity of high school football. The unique history of the state is a strong bond among Texans, and football is part of the “glue” that makes people feel Texan first, with whatever differences we may have coming in second.

Texans have always enjoyed, and generally perpetuated, the reputation of being bigger and tougher; ideally suited for a rough and high-speed game like football. Since the early days, even high school teams received the same love and attention as other football divisions, particularly because at the high school level, it was personal. Friday nights were consistently filled with tailgates, packed bleachers, screaming fans, and appreciation for players out on the field. And, for better or worse, many a young athlete could strive to be a star on the field, to perhaps enjoy similar adoration (or perks) in school, church, at the barber shop, or anywhere in town. 

Texas is also known for dynasty teams that have gone multiple seasons with almost no losses. College teams include UT and Texas A&M; high schools like Abilene, Wichita Falls, John H. Reagan, and (Friday Night Lights) Permian are all in the record books. As well, although not all the NFL Cowboys are born here, they have still brought five Super Bowl trophies back to Texas. 

Plus, more than entertainment value, for decades, teams have provided community pride and a means for many to get a higher education. Their popularity often also provides plenty of revenue to enable and grow myriad other sports in the districts. 

Early Days

It all began in the 1890s, when private football clubs began springing up in Texas towns. As football’s popularity grew, and following more than 20 years of intercollegiate games to the East, the University of Texas fielded its first permanent college team in 1893. Those first Longhorns played and won all four games, against independent clubs, in shutouts. 

The following year, UT hired their first full-time coach, R.D. Wentworth, for a whopping $325 plus expenses. That season, Texas A&M fielded its first team, the first Texas intercollegiate game took place, and a great sports rivalry was born.  Today, UT vs. A&M, and the Red River Rivalry (UT vs. Oklahoma) are two of the nation’s top 25 greatest rivalries. 

The Pros

In 1952, Texas transformed the NFL New York Yanks into the Dallas Texans, who won one game in that first season. In 1959, Bud Adams and Lamar Hunt founded the American Football League (AFL), and created the Houston Oilers. The following year, the Dallas Cowboys were formed, and although they didn’t win any games in their first season, they were popular in the league. 

Following the merge of the AFL and NFL in 1969, the Cowboys made it into their first Super Bowl but lost to the Baltimore Colts. During the 1971 season, the Cowboys took home their first Super Bowl trophy, winning 24-3 against the Miami Dolphins. 

Texas even briefly had its own semi-professional league. The Texas Football League was a minor league from 1966 through 1971 and included six teams from Texas and Oklahoma. 

It’s really about high school

The University Interscholastic League (UIL) organized the structure of high school football in 1920, in response to growing popularity. Thanks to football, everyone in the family, in the schools, and in the towns could be involved. 

That involvement was ingrained long before H.G. Bissinger wrote “Friday Night Lights”. Fans in Texas have enjoyed football as a cumulative social experience and something to do when other diversions weren’t available. Most small schools did not have other sports programs, and many Texas towns had plenty of open space, dirt, and dry weather; perfect for football. So, when Friday night arrived, if people couldn’t afford to take the family to the movies, or a restaurant, or the town didn’t have either of those things… everyone went to the game. 

Another book, “High School Football in Texas: Amazing Football Stories from the Greatest Players of Texas” by former NFL Head Coach Jeff Fisher tells about some of the greatest players in NFL history. People like Drew Brees, “Mean Joe” Greene, Bob Lilly, Andrew Luck, Mike Singletary, and Sammy Baugh were all from Texas. Texas has also had five Heisman Trophy winners, including Baker Mayfield, Johnny Manziel, and Robert Griffin III. At the time Fisher’s book went to print, Texas had sent 2,488 players to the NFL, the most of all-time.

By the numbers

  • Texas is home to some of the largest—if not the largest—high school football stadiums. San Antonio’s newly renovated Alamo Stadium seats 23,000 fans. In Allen, the $60 million Eagle Stadium took two years to build.
  • Not only are homecoming mums a Texas-based tradition, no other place has them this big. 
  • We found custom mums at a modest $348 from Margie Gonzalez’ Etsy store. 
  • Don’t forget the band—since 1935, high school marching bands have had their own chance to duel on the field during San Antonio’s Battle of the Flowers Band Festival. In 2019, nearly 5,000 marchers participated in the on-field finale.  
  • Nothing like pride and positivity! In 2014, Apollos Hester of East View High School, gave a postgame interview with TWC News that got six million views on YouTube, and hundreds of replays everywhere from ESPN to Time magazine. 
Video: Lauren Mickler on Vimeo

Perhaps no discussion about Texas football would be complete without a note about “America’s Sweethearts.” 

The Cowboys cheerleaders were not the first in the NFL; they were the 8th, but they have been with the team since its founding. They were the first team to hire professional dancers to replace the co-ed high school cheerleading team (Beaux and Belles) they began with in 1960. Team owners tried using models, but they were not athletically inclined and sideline performances were lackluster.

In 1967, when the team’s owner saw the crowd reaction to [exotic dancer] Bubbles Cash walking down the stadium steps in a miniskirt, he realized traditional cheerleaders were not the optimal way to entertain paying customers from the sidelines. 

Until that time, the cheerleaders had worn modest skirts and hats, and yelled, “Defense!” etc. but Ms. Cash changed all that. Two-piece (and now trademarked) outfits replaced jumpers, bigger poms replaced megaphones, and choreography replaced arm motions and “Go team!” They set the new trend for sexy sideline entertainment, and throughout the 1970s, the Cowboys had consistently great teams, so the whole program got attention. Other NFL franchises followed suit, but nothing ever tops a groundbreaker.

Today, more than 600 women audition for the team annually, for a chance to perform, travel, and be a part of televisions shows and world tours. 

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