Will Morris has been having a good season so far as the starting free safety for the McMurry War Hawks and is coming off one of his best games.
In last week's 63-31 victory over East Texas Baptist, Morris recorded seven tackles (six solo), a forced fumble, a fumble recovery and a pass breakup in addition to his second interception return for a touchdown. For his efforts, Morris was named American Southwest Conference co-Defensive Player of the Week as well as earning a spot on the D3football.com National Team of the Week. It marked the second time in four games he has received conference and national recognition.
But all that pales compared to what's up for Morris this week. By the time the War Hawks take the field Saturday against the Howard Payne Yellow Jackets at Brownwood's Gordon Wood Stadium, he will be a father. Morris' wife, Keaton, was scheduled to be induced Thursday night with the birth of son Ashton to follow.
"It's stressful, but it's a blessing as well," said of juggling classes, sports and family life. "A lot of it's just keeping that schoolwork intact, still being a hard worker on the field. I'm just praying I have a healthy kid and hoping my wife comes out OK. The Morris household is really excited right now and can't wait for Thursday to get here."
Just in time for the start of the Abilene High Eagles' 2010 football season comes a memoir of the team's run to the 2009 Class 5A Division II state championship.
Chad Mitchell and Al Pickett have co-authored "Brother's Keeper: The Story of the 2009 Abilene High State Championship," chronicling the Eagles' first state title in 53 years. Starting with Herschel Sims' return of the opening kickoff against Fort Worth Dunbar in the season opener through Ronnell Sims' three-touchdown performance in the championship game, the 166-page book offers a behind-the-scenes look at head coach Steve Warren and players such as tight end Parker McCay, running back Tony Curtis, linebacker Sawyer Tallant and safety Gibson Aguirre.
The book also includes a team roster, box scores from all 15 games and season statistics. The boxes and stats were compiled by yours truly, and I even got mentioned in the book a time or two.
Both Mitchell, the team chaplain as well as pastor at Abilene Mission Church, and Pickett, the color analyst on Abilene High radio broadcasts, have long-standing ties to the program.
For the past decade, Mitchell has met privately with the team each Thursday afternoon during the season. The book's title came from the theme he came up with for the 2009 season.
"It's really neat," he said. "Obviously, I can't share everything that we talk about in there. I've been following the team a long time and to see them come together and truly become their brother's keeper is really neat. Abilene High's had a lot of great talent, but to really come together as a brotherhood, I think you see the result of it this year."
Pickett has also authored "Team of the Century" about Abilene High's run of three consecutive state championships under Chuck Moser in the 1950s and "Wishbone Wisdom: Emory Bellard, Texas Football Visionary."
"The idea was Chad's," Pickett said of the new publication. "Chad called me. Several people had mentioned to me because I wrote 'Team of the Century' about the teams of the '50s, after they won the state championship that 'you've got another book.' I didn't need another book. I had one coming out.
"Then Chad called me and told me the whole Brother's Keeper theme that I really didn't even know. I thought that was a great idea, and then as it evolved I was just tickled to death. Chad did most of the interviewing with the kids, who he had a great relationship with, and I did the writing. We just took the season and incorporated the kids' comments of the behind-the-scenes story. I'm really proud of what the finished product turned out to be."
Mitchell has provided a different theme each season, but he said Brother's Keeper has taken on a life of its own.
"I struggle each year and I asked Coach Warren about it because he has a theme, as well," Mitchell said. "I was reading the Bible, the Cain and Abel story, and he asks 'Am I my brother's keeper?' I thought that's really it. We've done Band of Brothers, Unforgettable, Team of One and those kinds of things. This year, I really struggled almost up until the last moment to come up with a theme.
"Some of the guys didn't get it early, but by the end of the season. I give them a wristband with the theme. They were really big this year, larger than every before. I wanted to remind them of the Brother's Keeper Idea. I was with four of them at lunch and they won't take them off. We're going to have some issues when the new season comes around. And they want to keep the theme, obviously, this coming season."
Which relieves Mitchell of trying to come up with a theme of at least equal impact for the 2010 season.
That's been the question that's been asked, but they want to keep it," he said. "The challenge this year will be for them to not live in the past but to create history themselves. I'm a little bit leery of keeping the same theme, but everybody's really enjoyed it.
"They kept it private. Most of the people of the city didn't know the theme, so for it to come about the way it did was really neat."
Pickett said even with his association with the program, there was plenty he didn't know about the season before writing the book.
"Besides the theme itself, I didn't know Ronnell Sims put Parker McCay's number and initials on his helmet after Parker was injured," Pickett said. "We have six of Coach Warren's pregame talks and I was never in the locker room to hear one of those. The anonymous letter that he read the night before they left for the state championship game was really powerful (Chapter 12), and I had never seen that before we prepared for it.
"Then just a lot of the comments where the players would talk about what they were thinking in a situation -- when Karsten Goodman chased a guy down at the 1-yard line against Cedar Hill -- I talked to the players to get that kind of reaction."
Mitchell said one of his favorite episodes was when linebacker Boo Barrientes, who was named defensive MVP of the championship game, addressed the team in one of those Thursday meetings.
"He stood up and talked about his past life of drug use and being affiliated with a gang," Mitchell said. "He said, 'This is now my second family. This is what I live for.' To see him battle week in and week out and become the defensive MVP is just beautiful, to see him become a great role model and use his past and use it for good."
After a disappointing first-round loss in the 2008 playoffs, it wasn't until the Eagles beat top-ranked Cedar Hill 41-17 in the third round that observers around the state began to consider Abilene High a serious title contender. That Thanksgiving weekend game was followed by victories over Arlington Bowie and Klein before the Eagles completed their journey with a 28-17 decision over two-time defending champion Katy in the finals on Dec. 19 at the Alamodome in San Antonio.
"Each week, I would close out or team meeting and tell them, 'You're not great, but you can take one step closer to greatness,'" Mitchell said. "I think that's what happened (in 2008), maybe we became a little overconfident. A lot of the star was around one or two people. This year, there was a different star or hero each week.
"I asked Coach Warren the week of state if I could actually talk about state now. That was like a cuss word around there. You couldn't talk about state until the week of. They just focused on each game. After the Cedar Hill game -- and that was a huge game -- there was no letup. They kept pressing and were ready for more."
Mitchell said the team was determined not to let another early playoff exit happen in 2009.
"I think it comes form them truly being humble and being focused on that game," he said. "In the past, the had a lot of great talent and a lot of great stars, but some of them acted like that. This year, that wasn't the case. The truly loved each other.
"There were times Herschel was supposed to get the ball to run for a touchdown, and he moved Tony without the coach's permission. It's really neat to see stuff like that, and then when Parker went down for Ronnell to wear his number. The same thing happened in the state game. Sawyer go hurt and Gibson took his number and wore it the rest of the game.
"I was truly honored to be able to watch and see what happened and transpired. They love each other. I think football is one of the unique things that brings all races and all economic statuses together for one reason, and they achieved that this year."
Pickett said it took some work to get the book turned around so quickly.
"I don't think we started writing until March," he said. "We turned it around incredibly quickly. I spent most of my spare time writing. I could have never done it had I been doing the interviewing, too. But Chad did the interviewing and both of us have more-than-full-time jobs, so it was done on extra, but it really turned out terrific.
"I'm still doing book signings with Coach Bellard. I was at coaching school with him and we've got two more the next two weeks. Trying to juggle two, I don't know if I want to do that in the future."
Dealing with both the Abilene Ruff Riders and Abilene High Eagles this week, it suddenly struck me just how influential the Ruff Riders have apparently been during their brief history.
The franchise began in 2007 as the Katy Ruff Riders and played its first two seasons at Katy's Merrell Center, which is located right next to the Katy High School campus. As some of you may recall, the Katy Tigers won the Class 5A Division II state championship in 2007 and 2008.
The Ruff Riders moved to Abilene in 2009 and now play at Taylor Cunty Coliseum, right next door to Shotwell Stadium, home of the Abilene High Eagles. Remember who won the 2009 Class 5A Division II state title?
I believe the saying is "once is hapenstance, twice is coincidence and three times is enemy action." I'm not really sure that applies here, but if I'm Ruff Riders coach Gerald Dockery, I'm looking for a way to take advantage of this situation. I can see some towns getting into a bidding war for the right to be the next home of the Ruff Riders if the trend continues in 2010.
I think we now know why a group of locals has agreed to purchase the franchise.
While having the Little Southwest Conference regrouped with Monday's announcement of the University Interscholastic League's biennial realignment undoubtedly pleased throusands of fans in Abilene, Midland and Odessa, it is going to cause me some personal hardships.
Having Abilene High in a Fort Worth-area district meant I headed east for road games these past two years. That took me right past the exit for Strawn, and Stawn just happens to be home to one of the best chicken fried steaks on the face of the Earth.
In case you didn't know, the first rule of sports journalism is "Find the Food." Us ink-stained wretches follow this rule religiously. Just look at a photo of the ARN sports staff.
Not only was the five-mile detour off I-20 convenient (and deliciously filling; I recommend the medium CFS), it appeared to bring good fortune for the Eagles. During the 2009 football season and playoffs -- I drove east eight times -- AHS was undefeated on days I stopped off for a bite in southeast Palo Pinto County. Of course, the Eagles were also undefeated on those rare occasions I didn't make it to Strawn, so maybe it wasn't all that important (my taste buds and stomach politely disagree).
The good news is that AHS coach Steve Warren has at least one East Texas team scheduled for the next two years and with a couple of holes remaining in the schedule, could add other opponents in a direction that will allow me to again partake of this delicacy.
Also good is that in returning to the Permian Basin for games over the next two seasons, there are ample establishments that provide suitable fare in their own right. I'm particularly eager to again visit a certain Mexican food place in northeast Odessa that features pescado y camarones con salsa de ajo y limon (that's grilled fish and shrimp in a garlic-lemon sauce).
Oh, yeah. I expect the football to be pretty good out west, too.
Saturday night marked the end of my 21st season covering high school football, but it was the first time I ever covered an entire season for a team that won a state championship.
Watching Abilene High's 28-17 victory over Katy in the Class 5A Division II final at the Alamodome was quite a treat for someone who grew up in the Big Country and understands the significance high school football has in West Texas.
I've covered a number of teams that have reached championship games and a couple that came out with the big prize, but this was the first time I've charted every play of a championship season.
This season was certainly a special one for the Big Country with seven teams playing for titles. Goldthwaite and AHS were the only ones to have a happy ending, but Wylie, Graham, Albany, Strawn and Highland all enjoyed remarkable postseason runs. As intense as the excitement was around Abilene, it must have been even moreso in the smaller communities where everyone knows everyone.
Even the 5A Division I final, played earlier in the day at the Alamodome, had an Abilene flavor with Abilene High grad Steve Lineweaver's Euless Trinity Trojans winning in overtime against the Austin Westlake Chaparrals coached by Hardin-Simmons graduate Darren Allman.
I've had the pleasure of covering teams coached by both over the years. I witnessed Lineweaver's Commerce Tigers beat Sealy for a state title in 1999 after losing two previous championship meetings. I covered Allman's first three seasons at Odessa Permian, where he ended a seven-year playoff drought and returned the Panthers to relevance.
I find it interesting that both Allman and I had to leave Odessa to get our shots at a championship. I'm sure he'll get back to the finals. Maybe I will, too, if Herschel Sims doesn't forgo his senior season and turn pro.
As many Wallers as have gone through Albany High School, and as many times as the Lions have made the state finals, you'd think at least one of my relatives would have played for a state football championship by now.
Unfortunately, that hasn't been the case.
For three generations, Wallers and the state finals just haven't crossed paths. That's finally going to change -- well, sort of -- Saturday as the Lions take on Cayuga for the Class 1A Division II title.
First, a little background. Starting in the 1940s, six of my close relatives and a few more distant ones have suited up for the Lions with varying degrees of success. They are, in order:
Clarence Waller (my uncle), Class of '46: Clarence played on the first Albany team to play a full schedule following the end of the war. Albany canceled its 1943 season and went 3-5 in 1944. With Clarence on the team, the Lions finished 2-8 in 1945, but one of the wins was over archrival Baird.
While the war was over, there were still shortages and good equipment was hard to find. According to Clarence, every player on the team used duct tape to cover the rips in their uniform pants. I don't know what the Lions would have done had duct tape been rationed like gas, meat and sugar.
Weldon "Jigger" Waller (my dad), Class of '50: Dad played in 1948-49 and helped Albany go 9-1 both seasons, but that still wasn't good enough for the Lions to make the playoffs. A 19-13 loss to Anson kept the Albany at home in 1948, while a 20-7 loss to Haskell did them in the next year.
In what was to become something of a trend where my family is concerned, Albany did make the playoffs the season after Dad graduated. That started a string of 11 district championships in 14 years. Along the way, the Lions made the state finals three times, winning Class 1A titles in 1960 and '61.
It was a few years before any more Wallers attended Albany High School, but there was still a family connection as my Aunt Winifred (Clarence's wife) taught in the school system for a decade or three. The next generation was their kids.
Melissa Waller, Class of '70: A cheerleader (this is important for later on) in the late '60s, Melissa saw Albany post winning records each of her last three years in high school, but the Lions never made the playoffs. A six-year postseason drought ended the fall after she graduated, which brings us to ...
Steve Waller, Class of '73: Albany made the playoffs both his sophomore and junior years, reaching the 1A state quarterfinals in 1971, but limped to a 6-3-1 record his senior season with district losses to Wylie and Baird. Naturally, the Lions went back to the playoffs the season after he graduated with a roster that included ...
Jim Waller, Class of '76: Jim was a sophomore when Albany made the 1973 playoffs, but the Lions posted losing records the next two years. Jim's senior season ended early when he suffered a broken collarbone in a preseason scrimmage.
In something of an upset, the Lions did not make the playoffs the season after Jim graduated. They waited until the next one, 1977. Unfortunately, that was the last postseason appearance for Albany until 1989, the drought finally ending in Denney Faith's third season as coach.
Which brings us to the next generation, Steve's kids.
Andy Waller, Class of '03: Andy got to stand on the sidelines in 1999 and 2000 as freshman and sophomore. The 2000 team, Albany's last qualifier in Class 2A, reached the Division II quarterfinals, then the Lions dropped off to 3-7 the next year.
Andy started at fullback on the 2002 team, which lost to eventual state champion Petrolia in the first round. That team also included the more-distantly related Will Waller (second cousin twice removed, or something like that) at linebacker, making it what is believed to be the only Albany team to reach the playoffs with two Wallers on the roster. You may draw your own conclusions.
David Waller, Class of '07: The first Waller to never miss the playoffs, but the Lions' best showing during his high school years was the quarterfinals in 2003 when he was a freshman (that's a variation on the trend mentioned earlier). Albany was eliminated in the third round each of the next two years and in the second round his senior season.
Which finally brings us to the point of all this:
Katie Waller, Class of '10: No, Katie doesn't play for the Lions. She's a cheerleader (I told you that was important), and has been for the past three seasons. But she's the first family member to represent Albany on the field at a state championship game, so I'll take it.
And just like the players she'll be cheering on Saturday afternoon, she's ready to go.
"It's pretty amazing," Katie said of her team, which has been ranked No. 1 in the state most of the season, reaching the finals. "All these years in football, everybody's said we're taking it to state. But nobody's done it in a long time. Being a senior and it's actually happening is awesome because I get to be there right on the field with our guys cheering them on."
(A quick aside: I must chalk up Katie's "in a long time" comment to her youth. For some of us, 1991 was not all that long ago. For Katie, it was a whole lifetime ago.)
As a native West Texan and, by extension, expert on football, Katie quickly pinpointed the reason this year's Albany team has made it to the finals.
"I just think these guys have so much heart," she said. "Years before, our football guys have had heart, but these guys ... you can just tell they want it so much more.
"They put everything on the line every single week. They don't do anything to mess it up during the week. They're always focused. They just want it so bad, more than any other team that I've seen while I've been in high school."
Katie's mom, Susan, provided a little tidbit that should be of interest to the Lion faithful. Susan's mom, Sharon Hooks Siewert Knaus, was a senior varsity cheerleader at Abilene High in 1955 when the Eagles won a state championship. Sharon still lives in Abilene.
Molly Ann Galbraith (Katie's cousin, Susan's niece, Sharon's first granddaughter) was a senior varsity cheerleader at Wylie in 2004 when the Bulldogs won their state title. The recent Texas Tech grad was on hand last week to lend her support as Albany beat Stratford in the semifinals at Wolfforth.
Which makes Katie the third senior varsity cheerleader on the Siewert side of the family to cheer in the state finals. Does that mean it's preordained that the Lions will bring home the big prize?
"I hope so," Katie said. "It seems like it's in our blood. I just feel like we're going, we might as well win."
Another nugget courtesy of Susan would also suggest that Albany is a team of destiny. During the Lions' run to the 1991 finals, most of this year's Albany senior players and cheerleaders were newborns at the playoff games or (Susan's words here) "momma was preggers!"
If that formula holds up in the future, then 2027 should be another special season for the Lions. And if everything goes just right, there could finally be a Waller playing for the title. My nephew Eli is almost four months old now and would be a senior that fall. I just have to convince my brother to move his family to Shackelford County and teach the boy to deep snap.
Way back in the day, it was something of an accomplishment for a high school football team to not only make the playoffs, but survive long enough to play at one of the state's top venues.
In the days before Texas Stadium and the Astrodome (and by extension, waaaaay before Cowboys Stadium, Reliant or the Alamodome), playing at the home of a Southwest Conference member was a big deal.
This weekend, six of the nine former SWC schools are playing host to playoffs. In addition to Abilene High's Class 5A Division II semifinal game against Klein at Baylor's Floyd Casey Stadium, fans can also watch Big Country teams playing for state championships at SMU (Wylie vs. Gilmer) and Texas Tech (Goldthwaite vs. Canadian).
Then there are Class 5A games at Rice (Katy vs. New Braunfels) and THE University of Texas (Austin Westlake vs. Katy Cinco Ranch), as well as a 4A game at Texas A&M's Kyle Field (Pearland Dwson vs. Lake Travis).
Too bad we couldn't get a game at TCU's Amon Carter Stadium, but I wasn't really surprised no one wanted to play at Razorback Stadium.
With the number of offensive records the Abilene High Eagles are setting this season, it's pretty obvious the team has something special going on.
Running back Herschel Sims is already rewriting the school rushing and scoring records, but it's way more than a one-man show. And Sims will be the first to say as much.
As good as Sims is in his own right, he's had the benefit of running behind and offensive line that would make a lot of backs productive.
"They're just a bunch of overachievers up front," AHS coach Steve Warren said. "They get after you and play hard every play. You go back and watch the tape, and they're just staying with it every single play.
"Most games we're outmatched as far as physical traits go, but our guys up front have a lot of heart. We've stayed healthy, knock on wood, and played together. That makes a difference.
"It's kind of a family within a family. Those guys are a different animal. They're great kids and they just play hard. That, to me, is the secret to our success all season long."
About the only thing missing for th OL this season is that signature moment -- a long, time-consuming drive to take control of a game with the season on the line. The Eagles were in position for just that in last week's win over Cedar Hill, taking over at their own 5-yard line with about five minutes to go.
But rather than a 95-yard drive, Sims covered the distance in one shot. Call it the perfect storm of blockers and rusher.
"We haven't had a lot of long drives because we haven't had to," Warren said. "When you have skill guys like we do, if the offensive linemen give those guys a crease and they get in the secondary, they're dangerous.
"The key is giving them that initial place to run. Not many times this year have our running backs been bouncing around looking for a place to go. They see a hole because it's there."
Saturday's game between McMurry and Hardin-Simmons was the final installment of something that had become a regular occurence for me over the past two football seasons.
McMurry tight end/deep snapper Seth Waller was one of six seniors making his final appearance at Wilford Moore Stadium and had a whole bunch of relatives in attendance. I don't count myself in that group since I haven't done any research (I'm figuring we'd have to go back at least five or six generations to find a connection), but it didn't take long for me to make an acquaintance last year with Seth's parents, Jimmy and Ruth Waller of Bryan. It was a lot of fun to ask Ruth why she had my name on the back of her shirt.
In addition to the parents, Seth also had big brother Cody and Cody's daughter Madelyn on hand Saturday. With me there as well, it must have been the largest collection of Wallers at a football game since ... well, the last time the Albany Lions played at home.
And Madelyn was certainly the cutest Waller to attend a game since ... well, the last time Katie Waller led cheers for Albany. OK, that was Friday night over at Bronte, but Madelyn's still pretty cute. Just ask her grandmother.
I enjoyed chatting with Ruth, an assistant principal at Bryan High School, before each game the last couple of seasons. She wasted no time in letting me know whether or not she agreed with my predictions for each game. I was just glad to correctly pick a few wins for the Nation this year.
Toughness is a pretty much a necessary quality for a football player. Coaches especially like to see it in their defensive players.
At McMurry, coach Hal mumme doesn't need to worry about whether or not safety Jimmy Terrell is tough.
As a senior at Lexington High School in 2006, suffered an injury in practice that would have caused most to hang up their helmets without a second thought.
"We were working on our two-minute offense," said Terrell, who played wide receiver in high school. "I ran a post route and the quarterback overthrew the football. I was just running and watching the ball, not really paying attention to where I was on the field.
"At the end of our end zone, there's a big wheel that held the water hose that we used to water our practice field. Hanging off that wheel was about a 2½-foot metal bar with a hook on the end of it that they used to tow the wheel around. I'm running and watching the ball and I dive for it. That bar goes under my facemask, into my mouth and smashes everything."
Terrell's injuries included a smashed papate, dislocated jaw and four missing teeth.
"I could look down and see my two front teeth hanging out in front of my face," he said.
Told he would be out eight weeks, Terrell was back in three. He helped Lexington win the District 26-2A title and advance to the Division II semifinals before the Eagles lost to eventual state champion Mart.
At McMurry, Terrell was among a large group that didn't join the team until the start of fall drills. Originally planning to play receiver in Mumme's Air Raid offense, Terrell wound up winning the starting job at strong safety.
"We could tell he was such a physical player," Mumme said. "He's got good skills, good speed and good strength. He was kind of a natural on defense. We felt like we were wasting him at receiver. He's really done a good job so far."
In two games, Terrell has nine solo tackles and eight assists with 2½ tackles for loss, an interception and a pass breakup. Whether offense or defense, he said, playing for McMurry is exactly where he wants to be.
"With these coaches, you can learn a lot from them," he said. "I couldn't ask for anything better than an opportunity like we have here."
Terrell especially looks forward to helping the Nation end a losing streak that has grown to 15 games entering Saturday's American Southwest Conference opener against Mississippi College. That task has been all the harder with the late hiring of Mumme and his staff, not to mention the large number of new players trying to learn the system while also developing chemistry that comes from playing together.
"I don't take that as an excuse, being rushed with everything and trying to get everything together," Terrell said. "I feel like we're good enough. We definitely have a good enough staff that we ought to be winning these games. It's tough to deal with these two close losses, but we learned a lot of good lessons. Things are definitely going to start turning around."