To play football at Gainesville State in Texas you gotta’ be a tough kid. You also must be a convicted felon. Truth is Gainesville State is a reform school for “troubled youth.” They don’t play any home games and, when they travel, the only crowd that comes with the Tornadoes are 12 deputy sheriffs.
Several years ago they wiggled onto Grapevine Faith’s schedule. The two teams played late in the season and Gainesville was 0-8 and every bit as ragged as their 10-year old shoulder pads. Grapevine is at the far end of the spectrum – everything is new every year. Over 70 players are coached by 11 – eleven – assistant coaches and high school ball at the top level is every bit as big as the state itself.
The game against Gainesville State started gnawing on the Grapevine coach – Kris Hogan – long before the season began. Oh, he knew his players would beat the stuffing out of kids who are locked down in maximum security all day long but what could he do – as a human being – that might make it a little different?
Coach Hogan split Grapevine Faith in half.
He told half of his huge parents’ organization to dress in Gainesville colors. He told half of his cheerleaders that they would cheer for Gainesville. He had each of his players write an inspirational letter to a kid on the visiting team. And then he did a little snooping, passing around copies of each Gainesville player’s picture with (only) the kid’s first name on it so everybody could cheer for them by name.
Well, a couple of the Grapevine players weren’t exactly … er, that “Christian” and went to have a shut-door meeting with their coach, saying they don’t practice all summer in the hot sun to dilute any Friday night under the lights.
“I want you to think for a minute. What if you woke up every morning in a jail?” Coach Hogan replied. “You already know you messed up bad but you didn’t realize you would not have any home life, that not one person cares a thing about you after what you’ve done and ain’t nobody gonna’ be there when you cry.
“Here’s the message everybody connected with our football program must send on Friday night – ‘You are just as valuable as any other person on planet earth!”
When the prison bus pulled up to the stadium, the Gainesville players immediately sensed sometime wasn’t right. And when they came out on the field, there was a 40-yard spirit line, with people on both sides cheering and calling the players by their names. The Gainesville kids actually had to be encouraged to run through the spirit line and high-five the fans.
“No, we weren’t ready for this at all … we can tell people are always a little afraid of us. You can see it in their eyes ‘cause they know we are criminals,” said one player, Gerald, “but these people were like that, not at all. I never been cheered for or heard my name …”
Another, Alex, first thought some Grapevine fans were confused. “They were hollering ‘Dee-fense … Dee-fense’ when they had the ball. It was crazy. We’re going, ‘What? Why are they cheering for us?’”
As you might suspect Grapevine clobbered the Tornadoes pretty good, 33-14, but Gainesville played its most inspired game ever, as the two touchdowns they scored show. It is tradition at Grapevine Faith for the players and fans to come together at the middle of the field but the Gainesville guys were eager to join.
One, a big guy named Isaiah, blurted, “Mind if I lead …” and Coach Hogan, the mastermind of a night not one player on either team will ever forget, nodded his head. Isaiah’s prayer went something like this, “Lord, I don’t know how this happened so I don’t know who to thank but You. I would have never known so many people would care about us … Lord, just thanks so much … “
As the visitors went to the bus, all of them got some hugs and each got a bag with homemade burgers, fries, candy, a couple of Cokes, a Bible and – best of all – a couple of letters from the guys they had just played.
The Gainesville coach wrapped his arms around Coach Hogan and said, “You will never, ever, know what you have done for these boys tonight, there are no words …”
Well, I wouldn’t have gone that far. I mean, when NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell heard about it he gave Coach Hogan and his wife a paid trip to the Super Bowl. ESPN did a pretty big story on it and right now there’s a big-budget movie being made.
Gainesville State and Grapevine Faith now play every year and the game is called “The One Heart Bowl” where everybody brings socks, gloves and other things the visiting team might need besides, you know … those 12 deputy sheriffs.