Friday night high school football: As big time as small town gets
By Shehan Jeyarajah
From the boom of the opening kickoff to the final whistle’s shriek, time stops on Friday nights in towns across Texas. By this point, football is a way of life.
But while financial and population behemoths like Lake Travis or Allen are always looking toward sending athletes to the next level, Texas small town football is where legends are made.
“You don’t catch many people around here wearing Tony Romo or Peyton Manning jerseys,” Rusty Nail said, head coach of 2A powerhouse Mart High School. “Here, everyone wears Mart purple.”
WELCOME TO MART
Mart is a small town, the type that hasn’t changed much in a generation. The only visible chains are a Dairy Queen near the school and a few gas stations near the entrance to the town, adorned by silos on the other side. Drivers traveling down Highway 164 pass Leon’s Junction Country Store on one side and Read’s Food Shop on the other.
“We’ve been here for eight years, and people still consider us ‘New Mart,’” Mart High School principal Betsy Burnett said. “I’m originally from Marlin, but the town looks almost the same as when I visited in high school. Anytime development comes, it’s a big deal.”
The town itself is only 1.3 square miles and houses fewer than 2,000 residents according to recent estimates, down almost 16 percent from the 2000 census. The average income is under $31,000, and the biggest employer in the town is the local juvenile correctional facility.
“We don’t have much; Mart’s on the lower end of the socioeconomic ladder,” Burnett said. “There’s a lot of shift workers. Others work in Waco and may be gone during the week and only here every other weekend.”
But there are many things that set Mart apart. Despite the economic downturn, unemployment stayed right around 5 to 6 percent. Thanks to its blue-collar nature and homey feel, Mart boasts crime rates well below other comparable cities, earning it the nickname, “the city with a heart.”
“It’s just home,” said Willie Joiner, who’s lived in Mart for almost 70 years. “But more than anything, it’s a football town.”
FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS
In a town where the school structure is built like a sturdy late-model Honda, the football field glimmers like a new Porsche. The complex is about a quarter of a mile down the road from the high school, but the stadium lights are readily visible from down the road.
When walking into the stadium gates, fans are greeted by decals listing state championships, state runners-up and the names of coaches who led them there. They’re guarded by a ferocious statue of a panther, Mart’s mascot.
The stadium rivals any other from around the state. The metal bleachers are well-maintained, the press box is clean and the field is impeccable, with “Mart” emblazoned in the north end zone and “Panthers” in the south.
“We built this field only seven years ago, two years after I arrived in town,” Nail said. “And this wasn’t oil money or outside donors; hardworking people around here gave donations to build this. And we also got a grant from the government to help. But this is where it all happens.”
Where it all happens is right.
On Friday nights during football season, the town virtually shuts down as everyone makes their way to the stadium.
“Even though the town is under 2,000, we pack this place,” Nail said with a grin. “We have people filling up the stands and standing all the way along the fences.”
He estimates around 3,500 people come to every game to watch the Panthers go to work. Almost everyone in the town is there, but people drive from as far as Dallas to get a glimpse of the action.
“There are people here all the time who don’t have connections to Mart, who just come here on Friday nights and want to see some great high school football,” Burnett said.
In a school of only 170 students, more than 50 play football. When taking into account half the students being girls, around 60 percent of the boys at Mart are involved with the football team.
“Sometimes I don’t know how we have the manpower to do it on Friday nights,” Burnett said. “In addition to the players, we have a marching band, cheerleaders and flag twirlers. We have students in the agricultural program running concessions and other students running the parking lot.
“And if they’re not involved in the logistics, I’d guess almost all the rest of them are in the stands cheering along.”
But the biggest draw is simply the product on the field. The Mart Panthers are consistently one of the best teams in the state at their level. The team has qualified for the state semifinal five years running and has won two state championships under Nail.
“You’re expected to do well,” said Michael Terry, a 1986 graduate who played offensive line and linebacker. “It’s tradition.”
DEFENDING A LEGACY
Every Mart resident brings up that same word: tradition.
“Nobody takes it lightly; you grow up dreaming of playing for Mart football,” Terry said. “You don’t just play football just to do it, you play because you want to win.”
Walking the grounds at Mart High School is like having a history lesson. Around every corner, there are reminders of Mart greats.
Outside the school, a giant purple sign proclaims the lofty accomplishments of the program, including state championships in golf (1961), track (1970, 1973), basketball (1976) and five in football (1957, 1969, 1999, 2006, 2010).
All over town, it’s impossible to hide the success Mart football has accumulated over the years. A mural on the side of the local Cozy Café reads “Home of the Panthers,” with a list of the state championship years. There is still plenty of room to add more.
The lessons start at a young age. Mart’s elementary and high schools are connected by a mutual lunch room, so the youngest children get plenty of interaction with the high schoolers.
“They idolize the older students,” Burnett said. “And if you’re a football player, you’re a superhero. You don’t have to be [Super Centex Offensive Player of the Year] De’Narian Thomas. You may play only a couple of series. It doesn’t matter.”
From there, the kids go to Mart Middle School, which is behind the school’s stadium. Those who sign up for athletics train in the same on-site weight room and track as the high school, while wearing shirts adorned with “P.I.T.” for Panthers in Training.
Then in high school, there are reminders everywhere.
At the entrance to the basketball gym, Mart’s state championship trophies are displayed prominently. On the opposite wall, there are references to players who eventually went on to play at the next level, including former Texas Longhorns’ great Quan Cosby. On the wall of the gym, there are blown-up pictures of the state championship winning football teams.
In addition, Nail likes to keep Mart legends involved. On occasion, he’ll bring out former state championship teams (almost completely intact) to come and impart wisdom to current players. Even 1969 state championship head coach Cotton Lindloff, now 97, has been known to frequent Mart games.
Nail often brings these former champions to practice to give their own bits of advice. The alumni also hold an annual golf tournament to bring together Panthers of yore.
“We want to keep people involved,” Nail said. “We want people to come back.”
Even with tradition, sustaining a program at Mart is not getting any easier. The school continues to get smaller; the Panthers were just relegated to 2A-Division II, the smallest level of Texas high school football.
The team is only about 30 kids each year, which means that several will play on both offense and defense. Even the star quarterback doubled as a free safety in 2014, Nail said.
“When kids get hurt, it’s mostly stress-related injuries,” Nail said. “So many of them are just playing and training all year long.”
But even though the numbers are limited, the program keeps pushing out more successful players.
“These kids just love to play and all of them seem to have talent around here,” Richard Green said, a 1995 graduate who played running back and linebacker.
Not surprisingly, tradition is at the forefront of training too. The sign in the weight room reads: “We play for those who came before, we set the standard for those who follow.”
To keep every kid accountable, aspiring athletes wear white t-shirts whenever they go and lift. On the shirt, each student has his maximum lifts written in Sharpie.
Building continuity is important, Nail explained. Many of the coaches who lead Mart’s varsity team will show up at 8:15 a.m. to work with the middle school students to try and mold them into varsity greats.
The coaching continues straight through junior varsity and to the highest level of high school football. The head coach also keeps a watchful eye over his future stars, a level of hands-on leadership that really cannot be paralleled at bigger institutions.
In fall 2015, Mart will take the field with a new head coach for the first time in a decade. Nail announced in January that he is leaving the football program to go into private business. The Panthers also lost several key senior leaders, so Mart has a new team on the horizon.
Nail’s replacement, offensive coordinator Kevin Hoffman, has been a part of Nail’s staff for years and emphasized early that most of his job will be simply continuing the groundwork that has already been set into place.
As the sun sets on Nail’s tenure, all can be certain Mart’s football success isn’t going anywhere.