Chapter three covers the Calhoun Sandcrabs. This is a unique program in many ways. It’s the only large school Texas program I’ve seen where players all work both sides of the ball, pounding the line with the triple option, very rarely putting the ball in the air. The Sandcrabs are currently on a remarkable run, upsetting their last two opponents to advance to the semifinals, but their successes are somewhat recent. This excerpt discusses the turnaround at Calhoun and what it’s meant to Port Lavaca.
… Coach Whitaker quickly went to work on changing the school culture. His approach has three basic tenets: create a brotherhood, build a better work ethic and implement his offensive philosophy. It takes time turning around a traditional loser. Change doesn’t happen overnight. During Whitaker’s first season in 2005, the Sandcrabs finished 2-8 and had just 83 players in the program, very low numbers for the 4A.
Losing becomes a habit, just like winning, except losing is easier. Losing only requires the kids to keep doing what they’ve been doing for years. It’s incredibly difficult to convince kids who’ve never been successful to buy in and do things a new way. Heads are down and there’s often a deep belief that nothing will work. Convincing players that they’ll become successful by running a 1950s offense in the 21st century takes a great motivator and salesman. Fortunately, Whitaker was up to the task.
The program turned the corner in 2006. The clinching win over Beeville at Sandcrab Stadium to win the first district title since 1961 was truly a watershed moment for this community.
“I compare it to 1980.” Boyd told me, referring to the gold medal US Olympic hockey team. “You had a country that didn’t feel good about themselves and you had a bunch of kids at Lake Placid that lifted a nation. I compare these kids and what they did for this county to what that hockey team did for this nation. Right (after we won) a norther blew in and people always say that it was the wind of change.”
This football program had not had a winning season since 1991. Something fundamental changed when the Sandcrabs won that first title, and there was no going back. Since 2005, the Sandcrabs have been to the playoffs seven straight years, winning five district titles, and the number of kids playing football has doubled. Before 2006, the seats at the Stadium were often empty, and fans didn’t go on the road to follow the Sandcrabs. Since 2006, locals began to arrive hours before games, just to get a seat. Now people try to get off of work early to make the trip to road games. On the road, Port Lavaca fans often outnumber those of the home team.
The change hasn’t been limited to the football field. That first taste of success affected the town in a number of ways. As the rising tide lifts all boats, Calhoun’s other programs began to see success as well. During the five years before the Whitaker era, volleyball was the only sport to make the playoffs. Since 2005, athletics at the school have completely changed; boy’s basketball has been in the playoffs seven straight years, the girls made their first playoff trip in 12 years. Softball has five playoffs appearances, baseball has three. The boys’ track team has won three district titles and the girls have finished second in district twice. Golf, cross county and powerlifting have also shown big gains.
The morale of Port Lavaca benefitted as well. Lina Moore, principal at Travis Middle School told me, “Everything about our community has totally changed across the board, girls, boys, everything. The football program was absolutely the beginning of the change. Kids used to skip practices and the parents made excuses, now the parents drag their kids there. Everybody is supportive of whatever needs to be done. It’s been very exciting to watch the change. It has to do with doing the best at whatever. That atmosphere and that feeling is just everywhere. I can only see that it benefits the community in every shape, form and fashion.”
Sandcrab games have become important rallying points for the community and playoff games take this to a whole other level. Calhoun has played at the Alamodome a number of times over the last five years.
“It’s become like a second home, “one booster proudly told me.
Moore says the atmosphere for these big games brings the town together like nothing else.
“It’s amazing what this has done for our community. It’s like a class reunion from every year, people from all over the state of Texas come.”
Small Texas towns like Port Lavaca don’t have enough jobs for all their graduates. This forces many former residents to move. Big games become important rallying points for small towns, even better when played in a centrally located city like San Antonio, allowing former Port Lavacans to come together. Boyd tells me about the Uvalde game several years ago, “It was tremendous to look up and see between eight to 10,000 from a county that has less than 20,000.”
Finally, improved athletics have positively impacted education as well. “We’ve always had good academics. Has it gotten better? I have to say yes.” Mrs. Moore tells me what football has done for her middle school. “My kids (Travis Middle School kids) when they’re in football, they behave better, their grades are better…it’s a huge help, I wish the season was longer, to be honest.”
The elementary school kids are included. They decorate the buses for the team for road games. Moore tells me how the young kids respond when the ‘Crabs visit,
“It’s like a superstar just walked in. Those little ones love being a part of it.”
That kids can be successful without having tremendous talent is what drew me to high school football. As an undersized lineman during my high school years the game allowed me to earn respect with work ethic and tenacity, something I never could have done with athletic ability. To me, what makes high school football the greatest game in the world is how it rewards effort. The turnaround at Port Lavaca is a perfect example of this.
Hard work, guts, teamwork and smart organization can often overcome better athletes in the high school game. In football, more than any other sport, the program that pays the higher price for success is likely to win. It’s basic mathematics; factor in man-hours of practice, team building activities, scouting, offseason lifting, lower level preparation, net coaching experience and booster club support and the program that puts in more hours usually beats the team that puts in fewer.
To some extent, the same could be said for any sport or activity, but the numbers of people involved makes the correlation between work and winning stronger in football than any other sport.
One great basketball player can take over a game in a way one football player never could. In baseball the law of averages means the superior team will win a higher percentage of time over a long season, but anyone can win on a given day. Of course, luck is always involved, especially between evenly matched teams. Any sport has the element of chance built in. The ball bounces funny, quarterbacks can be “off,” weather can impact results, and kickers can have a huge impact. But of all the team sports, football has the highest parallel between preparation and success.
While football may be the fairest of sports, it’s a brutal, merciless fairness for the team on the wrong end of the equation. There are no second chances and usually no quick fixes. In most cases the adjustments to the program must be implemented during the offseason and it may take years to determine whether they’re effective. For the coaches, the absolute nature of the game causes sleepless nights. The success or failure of a coach is determined on 10 Friday nights a year, success on those nights are decided by decisions made during the other 355 days.
For me, and I’m sure most coaches, what makes the wins so rewarding and the losses so crushing is that football wins take so much preparation. More than most sports, a single game is a test that exposes the overall quality of a program. When a coach wins, he knows he’s accomplished something. The win proves he’s taking things in the right direction. A loss means he must reevaluate what he does. For the players, it’s an amazing feeling when all the sweat and blood they invested in the sport over the years pays off and they walk off the field knowing they’ve earned their triumph.
Randy Boyd spoke to me about what a playoff win meant to his son.
“I’ll never forget walking out into that field and looking into my son’s eyes, just an exuberation of how happy you are yet how exhausted…he had just given his all, he looked at me and said, ‘Dad, I love this feeling.’ What was brought to this town more than anything was the knowledge and understanding of what that drug of achievement is…all these kids who have played understand what it takes to achieve.”….