Carter High Is a Firsthand Account of Triumph and Tragedy

Arthur Muhammad on the set of Carter High.EXPAND
Arthur Muhammad on the set of Carter High.
Kim Alexander

Arthur Muhammad made a movie about what happened to him in high school. Carter High is now playing in Texas theaters and will expand to screens in other cities over the next two weekends. The film tells the emotionally charged story of one of the greatest — and most infamous — high school football teams of all time, an enduring chapter of local history. But for Muhammad, it’s a personal story. He actually played on the team.

“What took place was so strange that I didn’t really have to dramatize it or use creative license,” Muhammad says. He told the story exactly as he saw it. What starts as an intense sports drama suddenly shifts gears and becomes a tragedy. “That’s life,” Muhammad says. “Sometimes your life is going in one direction. But one decision or choice can turn it in another direction. That’s Carter High. You can have the whole world at your feet and lose it.”

If you weren’t around when these events unfolded over 25 years ago, it’s best to get the story from someone who was there. Researching the facts fails to scratch the surface of the sacrifice, achievement and loss felt by a community. The fictionalized portrayal of Carter High in the film Friday Night Lights certainly hasn’t helped. With this in mind, it is very appropriate to have someone who was there writing and directing this film.

Muhammad was a receiver for the team and eventually went to SMU with a football scholarship. During the 1988-89 season, the football team was about to enter the playoffs in an effort to win the state finals for the DISD for the first time in 50 years. The No Pass No Play policy was fairly new and the coach received a call shortly before the game informing him that the team was disqualified for having an ineligible player. “But on his report card he was passing,” says Muhammad.

But an anonymous tip to the UIL had investigators recalculating the student’s grade; he was failing an algebra class. But things didn’t add up. The anonymous call was strange, the teacher’s background was questionable, his grading scale was confusing and students who took the course with different instructors were about six times more likely to pass. Parents suspected that the football team had been affected by an orchestrated attack on the school’s principal. They put their money together and hired attorney Royce West, who went on to become a member of the Texas Senate. West was able to secure an injunction that allowed the football team to continue.

But the perception that Carter High had found a way to circumvent the No Pass No Play policy quickly gathered momentum. Under intense scrutiny from the media and other schools, the Carter Cowboys rallied together in the face of incredible adversity and won the state finals. Several members of the team received scholarships, but some of them weren’t able to use them because they went to prison.

“Unfortunately some of the guys went on a criminal robbing spree,” says Muhammad. The reason why several young men from middle-class backgrounds with scholarships would risk everything is the million-dollar question. Many of them had brand new cars, expensive clothes and beepers long before they ever committed a crime. But they robbed over 20 businesses, even if they often used guns that were fake or unloaded. “The essence of the crime was the same,” Muhammad says.

But he insists that the typical situation was that someone would have a job at a restaurant and one of his friends would show up and stage a robbery. These are serious charges, but a far cry from a six-month crime spree that would make Bonnie and Clyde proud, to paraphrase a State District Judge. At one hearing in 1989, 10 teenagers who were former or current Carter High football players were sentenced to prison terms of up to 25 years. In 1991, Carter High was stripped of its championship.

After tearing his ACL in his freshman year of college, Muhammad focused on studying filmmaking. Thirteen years ago, he wrote the Carter High script in a month. After making a few feature films, Muhammad started working with Greg Ellis on some projects a couple years ago after the former NFL player started a production company. Ellis was interested in making a movie with Muhammad. He liked the Carter High script and became the executive producer.

Recreating events where they happened was a surreal experience for Muhammad, especially the courtroom scene. As a teen he was unaware of the criminal activity, didn’t believe the charges when his teammates were arrested, agreed to be a character witness for one of his friends, and was outraged at how severe their sentences were. This all came back to him when it came time to recreate the courtroom scene. Muhammad didn’t even call action; he just started rolling the cameras and told the actor playing the judge to start talking. “You could feel the tension in the courtroom,” says Muhammad. “This was real.”

Muhammad believes that the incarcerations were the straw that broke the camel’s back. The litigation against the questionable No Pass No Play violation charges was abandoned after it started to look like an attempt to protect criminals. He shakes his head at the ridiculousness of a title being stripped years later. He also believes the charges were trumped up to make examples out of these kids. “Nobody was hurt or killed,” Muhammad says. “That’s an extreme punishment.”

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