Chapter Two covers the Carthage Bulldogs. Maybe the most depressing thing I witnessed last season was the way the Bulldogs’ season ended against El Campo. It’s exciting to see the run Carthage is making this year. I’m really hoping I can see them play when I get down there for the semis.
…Driving in this part of Texas, there’s much more you can’t see than what you can. East Texas is very different than the part of the state I’d just left. Houston-Galveston was coastal plains; flat but big horizons. Leaving Houston, I was quickly swallowed by the trees, with strips cut for power lines, natural gas installations and the occasional town. Heading up to Carthage through Cleveland and Nacogdoches, I passed swampy ponds and endless expanses of trees, but never got a view of the surroundings. The flat topography and the trees keep the horizons very close. This forest is different than those I know out west. In the West, forests and mountains share the countryside, even in Central Texas, hills allow one a sense of the surroundings. Here, the feeling was claustrophobic, like looking up from the bottom of a shallow canyon, except the canyon was made of trees. I could never see more than a few hundred yards into the distance. As a trainer from East Texas told me, “The difference between West Texas and East Texas is that in West Texas people like to see what’s coming at them.” During the evening and early afternoon, the sound of the bugs is so steady that I quickly stopped hearing it.
` East Texas is truly part of the South in a way the rest of Texas isn’t. The culture of the place is more in line with neighboring Louisiana and Arkansas than the rest of the state. Unlike the big Texas cities, the speech patterns are southern. The people in Carthage go to Shreveport to do their shopping, not Dallas or Houston. The local sports section covers the New Orleans Saints and LSU along with the Texas teams.
I arrive in Carthage on Saturday of Labor Day weekend. The players have three days off from school so the Bulldog coaches have decided to stretch out the weekend, giving the players Saturday and Sunday off before getting back to work. For the coaches, however, this is anything but an easy weekend. The extra day simply gives the coaches’ 24 extra hours to fix the problems they saw the night before.
Carthage lost a heartbreaking upset to Jacksonville the night before. After the game, as usual, the coaches went straight to work breaking down the film, finishing up around 4:30 in the morning. Now, at 9:00 Saturday morning, defensive coordinator Darrin Preston, another coach and a few of the linebackers are in the fieldhouse watching the film again. Preston is in a very down mood, clearly disgusted as he runs key plays from the Jacksonville game over and over on the screen in front of the room. The linebackers and safeties are especially bad. The starting safety has a hairline fracture and won’t be back for three weeks, and the kid who replaced him isn’t working out. The young replacement looks completely lost; dropping deep when he should come up and coming up when he needs to stay behind streaking receivers. The linebackers look tentative, going around blockers instead of taking them on and getting fooled by play action, looking into the backfield. The DC looks pained, watching such poor execution, knowing the blown assignments were a factor in turning a very winnable game into a loss. Preston has been around long enough to know that the first game is usually one full of glaring mistakes. Coaches often don’t really know what they have until they see the kids in a game situation, so there’s a lot of trial and error involved in finding the right eleven to put on the field. But knowing this doesn’t make watching the Bulldogs blow the game any easier.
The staff worked so hard to put the Bulldogs in position to win and somehow the Bulldogs couldn’t find a way to finish, giving the game away over and over. The backbreaker came during the final minute. With a three-point lead, a sophomore Carthage DB intercepted a pass along the sideline that should have ended the game. Instead of going down or out of bounds, as he should have, the young Bulldog ran the ball back, cut across the field and was stripped. Jacksonville recovered and a few plays later, scored the winning touchdown. The coaches can’t help but question themselves. With all the hours they put in and all the situations they prepared the team for, they’d never coached the defense about what to do when picking off a pass during the final minute and a lead.
Yes, the cornerback should have understood the situation, but the coaches know better than to expect a sophomore playing his first varsity game to be football savvy. Carthage just gave this game away and the loss shows on Preston’s face and in his body language. He sits hunched over and speaks slowly and sadly as though more than a zero-week non-district game was lost. After about an hour of watching the film, the DC slowly tells the kids, with long pauses between phrases, “We gotta play aggressive…play assignments… and make plays…we’re looking for the best eleven… we were up here half the night…juggling names…if you can’t get it done in practice…” He leaves the last phrase hanging. Everyone knows changes will be made Monday…