Football coaches, even the high school kind, can be angry men. This is especially true early in the season, when their lives, from their standpoint anyway, are just one big shit salad of false starts and bad reads.
Knowing all that, I would have forgiven Patrick Williams, the new coach of South Dallas's Carter High School, had I found him cursing some heat-exhausted teenager into the dirt the other morning. And I wouldn't have minded if he'd blown me off or forgot I was coming altogether.
But while his team's play sometimes earned his scorn, he somehow stayed upbeat until the end of the team's first practice, a two-hour cooker that ended at 9 a.m. And when it ended, and I found him in the middle of Carter's dusty field, he grabbed my outstretched hand and tugged me in for one of those half-man-hug things. This was a genuinely contented man, happy to be home.
By reputation, anyway, Carter is quite the program for a first-time head coach to take over. The Cowboys famously won a state title in 1988 (and were infamously banned from the playoffs the next year). In recent years, though, they've suffered the same fate as urban football programs everywhere: dwindling enrollment, budget cuts and community apathy.
The problem is easily diagnosed, according to pretty much everyone lurking on Williams's sideline this week, mostly old Carter grads whose memories have yet to loosen their grip on those glory days. Families in the neighborhood happily send their kids to the DISD elementary and middle schools that feed into Carter, they say. But when freshmen year comes, they suddenly live in DeSoto or Lancaster or head off to private school.
Everywhere but out here, those departures may be attributed to what's happening inside the beige expanse baking in the background. Carter, like so many of its DISD peers, is considered "academically unacceptable" by the state. But out here, it's football that's driving those kids to away. The guys on the sideline hope the new coach can bring them back, with help from a sexier offense and some neighborhood cred.
Williams, 38 and a married father of three, spent the last several years coaching defense at Lancaster High, one of those schools cutting into Carter's roster. But he lived those very glory days that his sideline-lurkers still crave. He was a running back on the 1988 title team and graduated in 1991.
"I'm here to gain the community's trust back," he said after practice. "Nobody has the tradition that we have."
Another problem, at least for the football-obsessed, has been Carter's offense. The last coach, Allen Wilson, was a state-title winner himself. He did plenty well in his eight seasons at Carter, where he won almost 80 percent of his games. But he did it with an offense, the Wing T, that's simple, conservative, and rare beyond youth football. It can be wildly effective at the high-school level, but there's a perception that some kids don't want to play in a system that doesn't show off their skills to recruiters.
It's probably a somewhat warped perception, but nevertheless Williams is switching to a college-style offense that makes a lot of use of a lot of receivers and makes a star of its quarterback. At practice this week, that QB, a wiry senior named Eddie, ran the same pass play over and over again while Williams bounced between encouragement and criticism.
It was rough. Balls fluttered into the dust, into the defense's hands, and only occasionally in the direct vicinity of the receivers. But Eddie was getting better, and he'll have plenty more chances. Williams' practices move like a nitro-charged assembly line, with him, the shift supervisor, yelling non-stop: "Run it, run it, run it, run-it. Run it. RUN IT EDDIE RUN IT."
There was some debate on the sidelines about the turnout. There were about 60 kids by my count, not a bad number for a school of 1,400 and falling, especially since Williams and his staff haven't had a chance to do what the best coaches do: recruit those hallways. Some people thought there were more kids than the last couple years; others, perhaps remembering too far back, swore there were fewer.
Either way, there were enough bodies that the in-unison "yes sirs" induced by Williams' post-practice invocation had that nice low pop, a reminder that Fridays are coming again soon.
"We're gonna kick some butt," Williams told them, retaining that unlikely cheer of his. "We're. Gonna. Kick. Some. Butt!"
It sort of seemed like they believed him.