Mark White, the southpaw quarterback of Texas, stood tall in the pocket, protected by his desk table and two aides. He pumped an autographed football vigorously as he scanned the playing field, which in this case was the governor's office on the second floor of the State House.
"No-pass, no-play. What a story," the governor fairly shouted. "Let me tell you, it's been a great success. Good news! Good news! Eighty-five percent of the varsity athletes passed. It's just absolute proof positive of what we've been saying. Look at what we've done. Where else in the country could you say that 85 percent of all the varsity football players passed every course? That's the headline!"
That may have been the headline in the governor's office the day thehigh school grades came out and were tabulated from Beaumont to El Paso. It was not the headline in any of the newspapers in Texas, which, for the first time since the education reform package took effect last spring, felt its consequences on the revered institution of schoolboy football.
San Antonio: No Pass Sidelines 790 Athletes.
Dallas: No-Pass, No-Play Sacks Top Prep Football Players.
Houston: Grade Ruling Takes Severe Bite in Teams.
The headlines were mild, considering the statistics. Aldine Eisenhower High School led the state in number of football players lost -- 83 flunked at least one course and thus were declared ineligible for the next six weeks, by which time the season will be over. Corpus Christi King was suddenly minus 13 of its 22 starters. San Antonio Lanier was without 10. Dallas Thomas Jefferson, among the best teams in the state, lost its star quarterback and eight other starters.
The losses at the junior varsity and freshman level were far more severe. About 40 percent flunked at least one course, forcing dozens of schools around the state to cancel the rest of their games. Bands, debate teams and 4-H clubs were wiped out, as more than 50 percent of the students in public schools were barred from extracurricular activity. Last spring, when the state law took effect for the first time, about 46 percent of the students did not pass.
But White, the political point man of the reform package conceived by a blue-ribbon committee chaired by Dallas billionaire H. Ross Perot, could not be deterred from his optimistic appraisal. He fielded telephone calls Thursday afternoon as though he had just led his old college team, the Baylor Bears, to glory in the Cotton Bowl.
"Joe Greene! How are you, my friend?"
The first call was Mean Joe Greene, the great defensive tackle from North Texas State who led the Pittsburgh Steelers to four Super Bowl victories and then became really famous on television by saying "Hey, kid, catch," as he threw his jersey to a youngster who had given him a Coca-Cola in the stadium tunnel.
White was thanking Mean Joe, who the night before had defended the no-pass law in front of a Corpus Christi crowd of area high school coaches. Greene has been one of White's important backers on the issue: Together they made a public service television commercial that played around the state earlier this month. In Corpus Christi, Greene told White, he was lucky to come out alive.
"Joe," said White, taking the call from one of the three telephones on his high-tech console. "I tell you it's just the most remarkable thing. Eighty-five percent of the varsity players passed. That's incredible . . . . Yeah . . . . Yeah . . . . They're the winners in our society. The greatest thing a kid can have happen to him is to see that he can win . . . . It's a slam-dunk, Joe. I want to tell you it's going right through the bottom of the net. Joe, those kids are going to thank you for a long time to come."
White hung up, beaming.
"That was Mean Joe," he said.
A few minutes later, the phone flashed again. White pounced on it.
"Ross, my friend, it's a great day in Texas." At the end of the line was Perot, the conservative Republican who has emerged as a sort of one-man shadow government in Texas, using his money and prestige to push for reform on issues ranging from public education to water.
Perot is even more closely identified with the No-Pass law than is White, but he has the advantage of not having to run for reelection next year.
"Yes sir, Ross, 85 percent passed," said White. "I think it's a great thing. The new system's going great. Hey, listen, times are tough for you, huh? What's this about you coming in second in the high money stakes? Last week Forbes magazine listed Perot as the country's second-richest man, worth $1.8 billion. And to some fella Wal-Mart's Sam M. Walton, $2.8 billion from Arkansas! See what you can do about that, Ross. I'm going to be speaking to the governor of Arkansas, and he'll be hootin' and hollerin' about it."
White hung up and said to an aide, "Get me Clinton." Soon Bill Clinton, the Democratic governor of Arkansas was on the line.
"Bill," said White, nearly manic after working so hard to be on the bright side of things. "I just got talking to Perot, and I chewed him out for being poorer than some guy from Arkansas. But I told him I'd put that guy on a committee and see what happens to his money."
Before hanging up, White bet Clinton 10 pounds of Texas barbecue versus "10 pounds of that Arkansas stew" that Texas would beat Arkansas in the big-time college football matchup that weekend. (Texas won 15 to 13.)
Having finished his telephone blitz, White explained that he was so high on Texas' new law, in part because it was forcing high schools to pay more attention to athletes' classroom work, offering them special tutorial and remedial lessons to insure that they passed all of their courses. The governor took special note of Belton High School, between Austin and Waco, where tutoring was so successful that no varsity football players failed.
Dick Stafford, the head football coach at Belton, said he was proud of the achievement but opposed the rule nonetheless.
"All of us probably stubbed our toes on one course or another in college," said Stafford. "But we did all right because our grades were averaged. The way this works, is if you fall behind in one course, that's it. You're out. It's not fair to the kids. A lot of schools had to cancel their junior varsity programs for the rest of the year. How can that be fair to the kid who gets all As?"
Stafford, who teaches one history course each day and spends the rest of his time studying game films and analyzing playbooks at the school's field house, said he went to extraordinary lengths to make sure none of his players failed this fall.
"At the three-week point, we knew that 10 of our 30 varsity players were in danger of flunking a course," said Stafford.
"So we split it up by subject area among me and the assistants and we just tutored them ourselves. They'd come in off the practice field at 7 or 7:30 each night, and we'd just head over to my office and crack open the books and go at it till 10 or 10:30. That's the price we had to pay. Hell, we didn't want to lose our better athletes. I owed it to myself, the team and the community."