Monday, October 19, 2009

High School Homecoming: The nation's best runningback, the guy from Spoon and giant Mums

That blue hair is on purpose to support the team.

Britt Danial of Spoon in the 1989 class photo.
Wildcat Stadium is bigger than some college stadiums.
Cameras follow Lache Seastrunk after he scores.

Mum is the word!

(You can also find this at the Austin Chronicle sports blog.)

Going to someone else's high school reunion/homecoming is sort of like looking at friends’ vacation slides or being asked to say something nice about their ugly baby. The iceberg of the story is hidden from you – who was cool, who was a fool, who was an angry young woman. The slate instead is wiped clean, leaving the outsider to make it up as he goes along.

But I had two strong lures to tag along for my wife's 20th Temple High School nostalgia fest: a chance to see the guy calls the best running back in the country – the second best player period – and a hazy hint of a surprise performance by fellow alum Britt Daniel's band Spoon at halftime.
No Homecoming can begin before the Frito Pie is served. Big heaping chunks of corn chip were plopped on our plates in the cafeteria line (my wife swears she never ate there during high school) then smothered in chili and laid to rest next to a pile of wilted lettuce and topped with plenty of onions and jalapeƱos. The older woman at the next table had blue hair – on purpose to support the team – and the junior-high band pumped out a ditty that didn’t sound half bad. We chowed down as fellow alumni settled in around us.

I pointed at a white-haired guy in a Temple High T-shirt as we exited toward the massive 13,000-capacity stadium as if to say to my wife, “Meet your people grown old,” and discovered later I was correct when the same guy babbled drunkenly toward us shortly after midnight in a downtown Temple bar.

What you have to know about Temple and football is it’s been a relationship of ups and downs. Back when Coach Bob McQueen was elected God, the Wildcats were a power to be reckoned with. McQueen’s teams in Temple and before that in Mexia had an amazing combined record of 276-86-9. The Temple school district has repeatedly quashed any efforts to build a second high school, reportedly out of fears it might thin the football pickings. And until not too many years ago, the district didn’t provide buses for its students (the story I heard was a bus system would somehow require that dreaded new high school be built). Students had to trudge from mostly black East Temple past crack houses and a row of run-down bars to the high school near I-35.

The banner year was 1979, the year of Kenneth Davis, the speedy back who went on to success and scandal at TCU where he and six other teammates were kicked off the team Davis’ senior year by Coach Jim Wacker after confessing to accepting cash from boosters. Davis went on to play for the Green Bay Packers from 1986-1988 and the Buffalo Bills from 1989-1994. The 1979 Wildcats had a bruising defense and additional offensive firepower was provided by tight end Albert Reese who also went on to an NFL career.

McQueen’s teams dominated district play in the early ‘80s and in 1992 beat defending state champion Odessa Permian 20-14 en route to a 15-1 record and a second 5A Division II state title. McQueen was pulled out of retirement to “advise” current Coach Bryce Monsen, who must now deal with the monster memory of the McQueen-Davis 1979 squad that Rivals ranks as one of the top 10 Texas high school football teams ever.

Enter Lache Seastrunk, the lanky speedster and cousin of Terrell Jackson, a wide receiver at Buffalo. Could Seastrunk bring the Temple football dynasty back to prominence? He’s already had offers from a dozen or more schools, including the University of Texas, and is said to be leaning toward Auburn. What if you threw in stouter fullback Derrick Davis (Kenneth’s nephew) to take some of the pressure off? The answer so far is mixed. The Wildcats went into the game 2-4 for the season and 1-2 in district play.

Through the stadium gates, amid the giant, beribboned flowers every Texas girl knows and dreams of as a mum, Sam Hill, the quarterback for the rebuilding 1989 Wildcats (class motto: 1 and 9 in ’89) poses for a photo. He shakes his head and tells us Lache (pronounced “Lake”) is a good kid who is a bit of a straight-line-if-not-deep-thinker — give him the ball and tell him to run and he will. Tonight they would face Harker Heights, a team going in at 1-5 that seemed a perfect Homecoming patsy.

We searched for a roped-off area of the stadium reserved for the ’89 class (perhaps in the reserved chair-back section for season ticket holders?), but found none and instead made our own space in the bleachers. Most of the alumni had never heard of Spoon, the alternative band that has risen to national prominence behind the singing and songwriting of their classmate Daniel, who they instead remember as artsy and quiet. But a rumor circulated on Facebook in the weeks before the reunion: expect a special surprise performance by a member of the class at halftime. We put our hands over our hearts for the National Anthem and watched the flag on the jumbotron and wondered what it would be.

Seastrunk looked smaller on the field than I’d expected. Reports list him as everything from 180 to 195 pounds on a 5’ 10” to 5’ 11” frame. Davis appeared sturdier and ripped through the line. Harker Heights quarterback Brandon Bullock stole the show early with a 50-yard breakaway run for a touchdown. But Seastrunk’s feet got up to speed soon after and he disappeared down the sidelines on a 32-yard blur in the first quarter.

Yet it was clear we weren’t reliving 1979, back when the D sealed the deal for Bob McQueen’s boys. The Wildcat defense of old has turned decidedly mild. Heights ball carrier Kerry Sloan scored on a 15-yard run to give the Knights a 14-7 halftime edge. Derrick Davis put on his crown and was named Homecoming King. Was it time for the real show? We scanned the sidelines for Daniel (perhaps that was him on the sidelines in a hoodie?), but came up empty. Then whispers around me revealed the truth. One of the Beazer brothers, clean-cut twins who remained boyish behind dark-framed glasses that gave them a Proclaimers “I would walk 500 miles” vibe, was down there. See? In the Wildcat mascot outfit. Notice how it’s worn and retro? A Beazer is in there. Not a Spoon in sight.

The third quarter began with the Temple Wildcats looking just as dated as their mascot’s costume. Somewhere along the way, Seastrunk had squirted through the line and finessed for more than 50 yards, but the ball squeezed loose and was recovered by the Knights. Sloan soon scored again from three yards out making it 21-7. The Class of ’89 began to filter toward their cars as the lure of drinks and relived memories called. As we descended the stairs, the Beazer-filled mascot approached. I told my wife to pose with him and the Beazer stole a fake-furry kiss.

At the bottom of the stands I looked down as Seastrunk streaked toward the end zone for a 23-yard score. He was indeed for real and finished the night with 113 yards on 15 carries. But it would be Homecoming King Davis (101 yards on 14 carries) who would do the family proud and pull the Wildcats to a 21-21 tie with his 13-yard TD run. In overtime Davis did it again, scoring from nine yards out.

From downtown at Cheeves Bros. Steak House, a swanky restaurant that would look at home on Austin’s Sixth Street, 1989 quarterback turned Navy man Sam Hill announced the final score as reported to him via cell phone: 29-28. Harker Heights had gone for two after matching Temple’s overtime score. The Heights coach, who later said he feared Temple’s relentless running attack, chose to gamble and it paid off.

Daniel wouldn’t show until the next night when he quietly entered a Knights of Columbus Hall and tried his best to shake off a celebrity that was all but invisible at the class’ 10-year reunion. There he was on the wall – top row of the Class of ’89 photo – sweeping bird’s wing of blond hair and a thrift store trench coat. This night he would snap as many photos of his classmates as they would of him. They would dance, drink too much, hug a lot, and remember (1 and 9 in ’89). Lache Seastrunk can take some solace. His team has already won two games in ’09, and his future is a shining unknown awaiting the flash of a future camera. Click.


Todd said...

Made me long for Football Friday nights at the Telegram. Tension as 11:30 deadline neared and game stories were being written and called in, and I sat quietly in my corner and edited weddings for Sunday's lifestyle page.

Joe M. O'Connell said...

Todd, I actually look back fondly on the days when I had to rush out to Bartlett or Little River to watch high school football games on a Friday night. The "real" sports reporters got the bigger cities.

It was a rush to have to take the stats myself, race back to the newsroom and crank it all out.

Anonymous said...

Wow all I can say is that you are a great writer! Where can I contact you if I want to hire you?

Joe M. O'Connell said...

Maybe through my blog. Wait! You're there!