Big & Bright Excerpt: Chapter Six–Abilene High Eagles

With biannual realignment likely throwing a monkey wrench into the historic Little Southwest Conference next month, the first two pages of my Abilene chapter seemed appropriate at this time. As a amateur history buff, West Texas and Abilene in particular were just fascinating for me. There is so much history there. The AHS program itself is arguably the most historically important HS program in the state and a really cool thing is that, I’m guessing, much of what made it great in the 20s and the 50s is still there today. Hope you Enjoy.

West Texas is the birthplace of Texas football culture. Businesses close on Friday nights. Everyone’s at the game. The populations of entire towns caravan hundreds of miles across the prairies and plains following their boys from game to game. This is where high school football is not just a thing to do during fall weekends, but a way of life. This fervor has been adopted in parts of the Metroplex as well as suburban Houston, Austin and San Antonio, but the foundation and the much of the history of Texas football culture is in West Texas.

The tradition of West Texas football stretches back nearly 100 years, through towns across this huge swath of the state. Places like Odessa, Sweetwater, Midland, Brownwood, Breckenridge, Lubbock, Amarillo and Stamford have all contributed to the tradition. In the big school ranks, West Texas football has been encapsulated by schools in what’s known as the Little Southwest Conference.

            Due to biannual UIL redistricting, the Little Southwest Conference has come, gone and come again, with teams dropping out and joining. Breckenridge and Sweetwater were once members, eventually dropping to lower classifications. The schools in Lubbock and Amarillo have played in this conference from time to time, other years they’ve formed their own district. The charter members and core of the Little Southwest Conference are the big schools from Odessa, Midland, San Angelo and Abilene.

During the past three years District 2-5A has been the home of the LSC. Besides winning, if the Little Southwest Conference is known for anything, it’s the hardnosed style of play. Made up entirely of towns that traditionally rely on ranching, the oilfield and farming, this district plays a brand of football that fits the character of their part of the state. They win through discipline and determination, often against programs with more athleticism and speed.  From the early days of this district up through the turn of this century, the Little Southwest Conference may have been the toughest district in the country with teams from Odessa, Midland and San Angelo winning multiple championships.

Besides the play, history and success of this district, the other defining characteristic of the Little Southwest are the distances. The 87 miles from Abilene to San Angelo is a ‘short’ trip by district standards. The conference stretches west to east 170 miles from Abilene to Odessa and north to south 307 miles from Amarillo to San Angelo. No other big school district in the state comes close to covering the real estate of the Little Southwest Conference.

            Abilene High is the first Class 5A program I visit. My first look at the school and kids in this highly ranked program is somewhat surprising. There’s nothing impressive about the campus: Several practice fields, a small turf room about 20 yards long and 10 yards wide and a humble fieldhouse containing the coaches’ offices.  Little touches, however, remind one of the tradition of this place. A bell sits on a low table in the foyer of Chuck Moser Fieldhouse, it’s the trophy traditionally given to conference champions. On the wall of the lobby team photos of each of the Eagle state championship teams are on display, some are old black-and-whites showing players from the leather helmet era.  Finally, hanging on the wall is a picture showing three hands, one black, one brown and one Anglo, holding a football high in the air; Head Coach Steve Warren tells me this picture means the most to him, that it best exemplifies how this program has found success.        

            The weight room is dark and cramped. Its equipment has seen better days. Warren doesn’t seem to care that the facilities aren’t on a par with many other Texas schools. He talks about a visit to a school trying to hire him away a few years back.”I could tell there wasn’t a lot of work going on there.” He said of the shiny, clean weight room. “At Abilene High we have rusty bars and it smells like work… that’s what a weight room should be like.”

            Abilene itself doesn’t look as though it’s changed much in fifty years. The downtown blocks are clean and well maintained, but there’s none of the bustle and new construction seen in other Texas cities. In a state defined by the growth of its cities and the drain of the rural population, Abilene has remained remarkably steady. In 1990, Abilene had a population of 106,000, today 118,000 people call the city home.

Despite its small population, Abilene is home to three Christian colleges: McMurry University, Hardin-Simmons University and Abilene Christian University. Abilene is a God-fearing place with a church for every 100 residents. The religious, social and political conservatism of West Texas is well known, but whatever negative stereotypes may be associated with these belief systems, they fit here.

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One thought on “Big & Bright Excerpt: Chapter Six–Abilene High Eagles

  1. Joyce Saffel

    Awesome. Cant wait for the book!

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