It’s hard to define the feeling surrounding the start of football season in Texas.
It might as well be labeled a state holiday.
Hope springs eternal for hundreds of high school football teams and their fanbases across the Lone Star State. Even though very few will have what it takes to actually play in the state championship.
In Dillon, Texas the optimism was warranted. The townsfolk even felt entitled to it.
Game week started as it always had for what seemed like decades in the sleepy west Texas town. Residents called into the local radio station, 470 A.M., to make known their “expert” opinions on the crop of talent the Panthers had this year, how they (despite not having even played a game) can improve, and of course the new head coach.
Eric Taylor enters his first year as the head coach of the Dillon Panthers with higher expectations than most high school coaches will ever face in their career.
Taylor was promoted in the off-season from his position as the quarterbacks coach after the previous coach and the school district “mutually parted ways.”
The nature of that coach’s departure is still unclear, but what is clear is that responsibilities of this team now fall on Taylor’s shoulders.
Taylor did not make life easy for himself after he allowed a documentary film crew to follow the team and his staff this season. Many in the town feel it puts undue pressure on the the players as they try to win the first state championship for the school since the 1980’s.
But winning can cure all ills in Texas, and Taylor planned to do a lot of winning with players like Brain “Smash” Williams, Tim Riggins, and all-world quarterback, Jason Street.
That was until tragedy struck under the Friday night lights.
The Day Dillon Stood Still
The first game against Westerby started how everyone in the town and maybe even the state had predicted. The Panthers got out to an early 7-0 lead on a 35-yard dime from Street to Eugene Williams. The first of what was thought to be many touchdowns passes for the Notre Dame recruit.
Westerby would not go down without a fight. After a 40 yard kickoff return, the Chaps scored on their first play from scrimmage with a nifty double reverse. It was clear the Panthers would have their hands full.
In the second quarter Street would find Tony Golia in the flat for his second touchdown pass of the game to put the Panthers up 14-7.
Chaps would respond with a touchdown pass of their own to tie the game at 14 heading into half time.
The entire second half belonged to Westerby. With six minutes left in the game, the state champion hopeful Panthers found themselves down 24-14.
It was time for the their All-American QB to be the hero, just as he had done as dozen times before.
On a 3rd and 5 from the 38 yard line Jason Street dropped back to pass, the ball was a wounded duck and was picked off by Chandler.
Street was the only one with the opportunity to stop the interception from being returned the other way for six. Street was able to track down the safety and lay hit on him so loud, you could hear it in Bexar county. The hit was so massive, Chandler fumbled the ball and the Panthers were able to recover it, but something wasn’t right.
The best quarterback the town and maybe the state had ever seen lay motionless on the ground.
Except for the cries of Lyla Garrity begging her boyfriend to get up, you could hear a pin drop in the stadium that night.
As he was carried off the field on stretcher, it became increasingly clear to the attending doctors that Jason Street, the local hero, was paralyzed.
A glimpse of hope
Matt Saracen had barely taken a snap with the first team in practice let alone in a game. But now it was up to the skinny sophomore quarterback to lead his team to victory after just witnessing the team leader go down.
Things didn’t look good to start. Saracen was clearly rattled when he went in, missing a hand-off on his first play and hitting his center in the back of the head on the second.
But Taylor was able to settle the rookie QB down by calling screens to Smash Williams who was able to find the endzone.
The Panthers still needed a an onside kick to bounce their way. And as if it was out of movie, the Chaps had an incredible case of butterfingers on their hands team.
Riggins was able to recover the football, giving the Panthers one more shot at this miracle comeback.
With six seconds left Saracen, having never played meaningful minutes in his life, avoided two sacks and heaved a pass downfield to an inexplicably wide open wide receiver who raced in for the game winning touchdown.
Panthers 27 Chaps 24.
The crowd erupted in cheers. The hope of a state championship had been restored.
But while all was right with the world again inside the stadium, down the road at the local hospital one family’s world was falling apart.