When the game ended and they had won, the boys who play football for the Killeen High School Kangaroos took off their helmets, jerseys and shoulder pads and walked to midfield, carrying their equipment like cowboys bringing in their saddles after a hard ride on the range.
The "Roos," as they are called in this agricultural and military city of 50,000 near Fort Hood, were joined at the 30-yard line by cheerleaders, drill team Kangerettes, drummers, tuba players and fans of all ages. Several hundred Friday night victors gathered in a joyous semicircle under the blackland prairie moon.
They hooked pinky fingers and sang the school anthem, facing the west stands where their words echoed back from several thousand more Killeen loyalists. Then the players formed an inner circle and slapped their thigh pads in syncopated rhythm to the chants: Hee-roes, Hee-roes. Hee-roes.
The head coach entered the circle carrying his young child in one hand and, when he fell to his knees, the players joined him, heads bowed. They began reciting the Lord's Prayer, tentatively at first, out of unison, but then louder and more surely, their voices merging until, at the end, the kingdom, the power and the glory resounded through the stadium with spine-tingling force.
In twos and threes, the young heroes strolled off the field, followed by their girlfriends and little kids deking imaginary tacklers in the dark shadows. The procession moved out the gates and up a hill 100 yards or so to a one-story brick building, the home-team dressing room. The lights were dimming over the playing field below. The night air was sweet, ecstatic, and the boys wanted more of it. For the first time in their careers, they had defeated crosstown rival Ellison. They were unbeaten and untied.
They lingered outside the dressing room, slowly removing shoes and socks as they sat at a long wooden bench paralleling the outer wall of their athletic sanctuary. Down the hill, a drum beat sounded, and soon the marching band appeared in formation, six abreast, playing a fight song. Then the drummers started a jazz beat and the horns started jamming. The players, black and white, in white pants and T-shirts, danced on this hill in the heart of Baptist Texas, swaying in and out of the moonlight with a haunting effect of sensuality and violence.
A place defines itself by its rituals. In Texas, football is a ritual. It reveals more than the game, the scores and statistics. When Killeen faced Ellison on a recent Friday night, the city closed an hour before kickoff, and pregame traffic crawled for more than a mile toward Leo Buckley Athletic Complex. All of the 10,000 seats were sold, and hundreds of fans lined fences beyond the end zones.
This was just an average game in Texas, nothing special. In Odessa -- where if a linebacker goes on to play at a medium-sized college, he is taking a step down -- a recent game was moved to Thursday night to accommodate television coverage. Up in Crowley, the focus was on Brownwood Coach Gordon Wood, who gained his 400th career victory, a national record at any level. There were 964 Texas high school football teams in action that week, more than in any other state.
Saying that cheating is part of the Texas football ritual would be unfair, but this year has been imperfect, particularly for the state's colleges. Five of the state's eight Southwest Conference schools have been accused of cheating or confessed to it. Players have been bought off with cold cash and sports cars.
One of the great American myths is that football builds character. People in the Midwest and South seem particularly susceptible to that idea. Many Texans are not, for better or worse.
In Texas, the traditions of teamwork and discipline compete with the frontier legacy of isolation and violence. The violence in Texas history has a direct connection to football, according to Bill O'Neal, a former football coach who became a scholar on gunfighters and Indian fighters in frontier Texas.
Frontier conditions prevailed in Texas for more than 50 years until about 1870, longer than in any other western state or territory, O'Neal said, and the violent nature of that frontier cannot be underestimated. There were 846 recorded violent clashes between whites and Indians during those years, more than twice the number in Arizona, the second most violent territory.
Of the 255 western gunfighters and 589 shootouts that O'Neal has documented in the frontier West, Texas accounted for nearly half. Ten of the top 16 gunfighters did their bloody work in Texas: Killin' Jim Miller, Wes Hardin, Bill Longley, Harvey Logan, John Selman, Dallas Stoudenmire, King Fisher, Ben Thompson, Cullen Baker, Jim Courtright, John Hughes.
"The tradition can be traced quite clearly from gunfighting and Indian fighting into football in the 20th century," O'Neal said. "Football deals with the same needs and outlets for manhood. And I suppose that one could make another correlation: If you didn't win on the frontier, you were dead. A lot of Texas coaches feel that way. It might account for some of the things that go on."
In his book, "Texas: A Sesquicentennial Celebration," O'Neal writes:
"The finest high school football in the United States is played in Texas. As a consequence, college recruiters from the across the nation raid the state of strapping young men who in an early time would have marched off eagerly to fight Indians or Mexicans or Yankees or each other. Thus, Texas has grudgingly adjusted to a more peaceful period, clinging unconsciously to the individualism of frontiersmen. The violent ways of a proud and harsh people have not yet vanished."
In Killeen when the fighting is over, the boys take off their saddles and walk back up the hill.