Big & Bright Chapter 10 Excerpt: Harlingen Cardinals

Texas is the most diverse state in the country, but I don’t think people who live elsewhere are aware of this fact.  The common stereotypical Texas of oil-wells, cowboy hats and Longhorn cattle does exist, but it is only a small part of the picture. One of the fascinating aspects of my journey was seeing the different parts that make up this huge state.

South Texas is unique as is the passion this part of the state has for high school football. These two exempts, I hope, captures some of what Texas really is and  what a rivalry game can be like.

When Texas was admitted into the union in 1845, the United States Congress offered the new state a unique option. If the legislature ever chose to, the state was given permission to separate into five separate states, thereby increasing its representation in congress. Texas Pride being what it is, the likelihood of this happening is remote, but the option is there.

In many ways, Texas might as well already be multiple states. Texas State University geography professor Donald Huebner pointed out that Texas is one of a few states that describes its regions in terms usually reserved for separate states. There is no North California, West Tennessee or South Nevada; instead the suffix –ern is usually included.  In this state however, North Texas, West Texas, East Texas and South Texas are the correct usages. The terminology recognizes these regions as very distinct places.

            In essence, Texas is a borderland where four separate cultures meet. The American Southwest enters Texas from the west, the Midwest from the north and the South from the east. Mexican culture comes from the south.

To confuse things even more, the Gulf Coast crescent from Beaumont through Houston and around to Galveston is part of the Tidewater South, stretching east to New Orleans and Gulf Coast Mississippi and Alabama, while the rest of East Texas is effectively part of the ‘Old South.’

 The Metroplex is its own little world. Dallas is almost like a northeastern city stuck in the middle of Texas, while Fort Worth, just 50 miles away, belongs to West Texas. Central Texas is an entirely different mess, with the crashing together of cultures from the four compass points on top of the academic-liberal enclave of Austin and the German and Czech influences of the Hill Country.

             Texans from other parts of the state hardly recognize South Texas as part of the United States, much less Texas. Every Texan loves San Antonio, but the triangle of land to the south of Alamo City is described as North Mexico as often as South Texas. At the bottom of this triangle is the Rio Grande Valley, often referred to within the state simply as “The Valley.”  One cannot go further south in Texas and still be in the United States. West and south of the Valley is the Rio Grande River, and Mexico; east is South Padre Island and the Gulf of Mexico. To the north, 250 miles of sparsely populated farmland and desert separates the Valley from San Antonio…

South’s buses arrive right behind the Cardinals’ as they pull into the stadium parking lot at 5:30. The kids and coaches file off, but not a word is spoken between the players or coaches of either school. Harlingen is a small town, some of these coaches know each other and you’d usually expect them to shake hands and make a little small talk. Not tonight. A Harlingen assistant tells me about the relationship between the staffs: “There is no love lost between us.”

Kickoff is still two hours off and the Card players and coaches sprawl on the floor and on the bleachers around the gym next to the stadium. Position coaches with portable whiteboards meet with groups of players going over the adjustments for tonight. Trainers and student-trainers tape ankles on the tables they’ve brought for this purpose.

The stadium is buzzing tonight, and the crowd arrives early. By 7:00, with a half hour to go until kickoff, most of the 9,000 seats are full. Harlingen South is dressed in white tops and white pants, the Hawk uniforms resemble the University of Miami Hurricanes’, with orange and aqua trim. Even the “S” decal is reminiscent of Miami’s two-toned “U.” As the Cardinal players stretch, Coach Gomez walks though, shaking every player’s hand and giving final words of encouragement. The sun is setting as the two squads line up back to back right up to the 50-yard line, neither team willing to give up an inch of real estate.

Before heading out, Gomez addressed the team, reminding them of the intensity it will take to stop the Hawks.

 “Put that cage on their freakin’ ass over and over and over until you break their will to compete and we ain’t going to slow down. Live up to the hype of this football game.”

When the teams rush onto the new artificial turf after the National Anthem, they’re joined by middle school players wearing their football jerseys. It’s a Bird Bowl tradition for these future Hawks and Cardinals to take the field with the varsity kids, giving them an early taste of running into a packed Boggus Stadium for a big game. Tonight the excitement is electric. This isn’t only a standing room crowd, but an intense one. For the next three hours, the fans will be on their feet as much as in their seats. South fans are chanting “Red is dead.” Banners wave on both the red-clad home side and the aqua and orange visiting stands…

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