THAT ELUSIVE CHAMPIONSHIP SEASON

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August 1, 2012 · Posted in Commentary 

A newspapering clipping that brings back memories

By Bob Vickrey

 

The cute girl sitting in the row of seats directly in front of us suddenly turned around and began hugging me in the wild jubilant celebration that ensued after our star running back crossed the goal line for the winning touchdown.

 

That moment more than 50 years ago is as vivid to me now as if it had happened yesterday. The combination of the thrilling playoff victory and a beautiful classmate whirling me in triumphant revelry was almost too head-spinning for a 17 year-old boy to fathom.

 

I grew up in the town of Galena Park and was a member of the senior class which got to live out the ultimate Texas dream when our high school football team advanced all the way to the state championship game.

 

Football had been a unifying thread in our community decades before Buzz Bissinger’s ‘Friday Night Lights’ ever hit bookstore shelves. Virtually anyone who had grown up in Texas already knew that cities across the state essentially shut down on Friday nights in support of their high school football teams.

 

We were certainly no different living in the small industrial town where our fathers worked in steel mills and toiled in the oil refineries that lined the Houston ship channel, leaving it with the residue of red dust and noxious odors which we hardly noticed.

 

Program announcing a state chamionship

The Yellow Jackets began the year with the highest preseason state ranking in school history. Banners and ribbons flourished in store windows as the season opened. Woody Thompson’s barbershop closed early on Fridays and you’d need some good luck picking up your prescription at the Corner Drugstore after sundown that day.

 

My thoughts that senior year had not only been about dreaming of a championship season, but the opportunity which Friday night games afforded me in finding a stadium seat directly behind a classmate named Gayla. I remember her wearing a white sweater with that flawless skin of hers, a perfectly turned-up nose– and one awe-inspiring bouncing ponytail.

 

That fall we all hung out at the Dairy Mart, played touch football after school, and talked about girls while listening to Dion warn us about “Runaround Sue.”  We gathered at the community center dances after games and the bravest of the boys fast-danced to Chubby Checker’s “Let’s Twist Again.”

 

Senior Year ribbons

Many of us dressed up for church the following Sunday morning and sat on the back row as near the exit as possible so we could replay the events of the Friday night dance.

 

When the season began, our team beat non-league foes just like it had been scripted, but in an early district showdown with Brazosport, many young dreams were shattered in one single painful moment by a missed extra point which ultimately became the difference in the game.

 

As we all walked dejectedly out of the dimly lit stadium, my best friend, Gary Burnett, mumbled: “What could the season possibly hold for us now?” At that moment it seemed that the months of anticipation about a championship year had evaporated before our very eyes. Soviet arms build-ups and world changing news events seemed inconsequential given the new development in next week’s district rankings which would be dropping our team into second place.

 

As Gary and I made our way to his car in the stadium parking lot, I reminded him of his dancing lesson the following week which had been offered him by the aforementioned Gayla (she, of the bouncing pony tail.) Shockingly, his spirits lifted immediately as my gesture of kindness backfired and I was left alone in my post-game funk.

 

Gary and I consoled our two best friends on the team as we drove to school the following Monday morning and assured them we could pick up the pieces and turn the season around. Sure enough, we got the help we needed in the season finale as arch-rival Baytown took care of our nemesis, and somewhat miraculously propelled Galena Park into the state playoffs.

 

Our team cruised past bi-district and quarterfinal opponents and set up a showdown with a big and talented Corpus Christi Ray team at our home stadium in the state semi-finals.

 

Playoff madness hit the community at a fever pitch and we knew that our modest little town had finally made the map when statewide press members began arriving for the game, replete with camera crews. Dement Field was overflowing with excited fans and several thousand more onlookers watched from behind the chain link fence that surrounded the field.

 

Galena Park prevailed that December afternoon against a splendidly white-clad Corpus Christi Ray team in a hard-fought game which vaulted our squad into the state finals. The following week the community mood was bordering on the delirious.

 

Amid the classroom hysteria, we spread newspaper clippings out on cafeteria tables and basked in the glory of statewide coverage of our players, coaches, and hometown.

 

However, the ultimate fairytale ending was not to be written as the Yellow Jackets came up short the following week in Ft. Worth by losing the state championship game to the perennial Northwest Texas power, Wichita Falls Coyotes.

 

Even though the team acquitted itself quite well that day, players and fans alike, replayed the game in conversations again and again during later years. We often pondered the “what if” factor and dreamily imagined a different outcome.

 

As Galena Park’s 50th reunion approaches this fall, we’ll gather and remember the excitement that a captivating high school football season generated for our senior class and the pure joy it brought to one small working class community.

 

I’ll also fondly remember sharing a moment of euphoric victory with a beautiful young girl in a white sweater on one unforgettable warm autumn Friday evening more than a half century ago.

 

Bob Vickrey is a freelance writer whose columns appear in several Southwestern daily newspapers including the Houston Chronicle and the Ft. Worth Star-Telegram. He is a member of the Board of Contributors for the Waco Tribune-Herald. He lives in Pacific Palisades, Ca.


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