The Santa Maria Cougars made history Friday night -- not like Texas's renowned high school football powerhouses, but history nonetheless.
So big is high school football here that last month, the game between South Lake Carroll and Denton Ryan was nationally televised, and before that, the story of the Odessa-Permian Basin Panthers became the bestseller "Friday Night Lights," a story made into a movie released earlier this year. Now the ragtag Cougars -- outmanned, outsized, out-skilled and outspent -- have their second district win ever, defeating the Benavides Eagles, 36-33.
For the impoverished 164-student Santa Maria High School, long the laughingstock of football-crazy South Texas, this is big. The Cougars have won two district games for the first time ever in one season and are in a position to make the playoffs in their division of District 1A, the smallest conference in 11-man Texas high school football. They've come a long way.
Fresh are the memories of the 80-0 loss in the late 1990s when Santa Maria first played University Scholastic League-sanctioned varsity football. Raw is the ignominy of forfeiting the last two games in 1999 because there just weren't enough Cougars to field a team. Still painful is the shame that comes with paying the price for being a no-show and standing up an opponent on its homecoming Friday night.
"We got the death penalty," said Lamarr Hunter, Santa Maria's athletic director. "They kicked us out of the conference."
This year, little Santa Maria, with a football trophy case that holds nothing more than a picture of last year's junior varsity team, decided it was ready to try again.
The juniors and seniors who played football under Hunter when he was the junior high coach wanted to. Hunter wanted it as a condition of taking the job of high school athletic director, and principal Frank L. Garcia agreed. After much consultation, the Santa Maria superintendent and school board and the 1A District football executive committee consented, and league officials added Santa Maria to its roster. It is the only 1A team in deep South Texas. If the Cougars had to travel three or more hours by school bus to play their nearest district competitor, the Santa Maria athletic staff said they would.
In the small town of Santa Maria, there are three convenience stores, a laundromat and a little Catholic church that gets an itinerant priest to say Mass there every other month. Now Santa Maria has a varsity football team.
"We want to earn a little respect for this football team and this community," Hunter said.
As sophomore Jaime Perez, 15, a 130-pound defensive end, said: "If you're not good in football, nobody cares about you -- in Texas at least."
Completing this season and trying to rack up at least one or two wins have been Hunter's primary goals, not an easy task when the varsity players -- 26 students from every grade because there aren't enough seniors -- have to participate in most other activities, too. Almost all the football players play defense and offense, and nine of them shed their helmets at halftime to march with the band.
Five of the players run cross-country, which coincides with football season. Five of them participate in a federally funded tutoring program that pays them $1,900 stipends, money the players use to help support their families. To accommodate the tutoring and other activities, practice doesn't even start until 6:30 p.m. on Santa Maria's football field, a grassy area bordered by verdant fields of sugar cane to the east and the Rio Grande to the south.
Eighteen of the players will add hoop drills to their days this week when the basketball season starts before football finishes. Many care for their family's animals or their own livestock projects, and in this farming community, several boys break horses alongside their fathers on weekends. Three of the players are parents, juggling babies and relationships, along with school and athletics. Others are migrant workers who will leave school a week or two before year's end to travel north to pick cucumbers or apples.
These are not the Odessa-Permian Basin Panthers of "Friday Night Lights" fame, with a $6 million stadium, 20,000 fans in the stands, chartered airplanes, professional scouts and a coach who earns more than the principal. The Cougars' equipment budget is $4,000, the coaches do double duty as trainers, and the boys are playing on eight-year-old cleats.
"We're not very big, but we have a lot of heart on this team," assistant coach Lupe Perez said. "That heart takes us a long way."
The desire to play kept the Cougars going during the four years that Santa Maria had to sit out district play. Anybody from freshman to senior who wanted to played on a junior varsity team. Those games are played Thursday afternoons right after school, and the season ends with the last scheduled game. Opposing teams would schedule Santa Maria for special games. "We were the 'cupcake' team, the team they could run over on homecoming or parents night," Hunter said.
But playing junior varsity just wasn't enough. "We're playing for the sake of playing with no reward," said Adam Herrera, 16, a junior who plays right tackle for the Cougars. "In varsity, it's different. We can get to the district playoffs."
Besides, these boys -- scrappy, but mostly short and skinny -- will never get another chance to play competitively.
"This experience is something we'll treasure all our lives because not many of us are going to go on to play college ball, much less professional ball," said Alfonso Herrera, 16, a junior who plays center. "Everyone is going to be stronger and bigger and faster. You could say they're blessed with more talent."
This season, Santa Maria reentered district play with an overall 4-67 record. They played six non-district games against junior varsity teams in August and September and began district play Oct. 8 with an impressive 40-0 win. They lost their homecoming game Oct. 29, 20-0, and Friday's game against Benavides was "judgment day," as the coaches told the team. Win and they stayed in the running for district playoffs, to be decided with this Friday's game; lose and they were out of the running.
Last Friday, assistant coach Perez distributed his weekly motivational message to the players: "Don't Dream It. Live It! 11 Brothers -- 1 Dream. Cougar Pride!" Out went Santa Maria, against a bigger, faster, tougher Benavides squad. The Cougars fought back twice from 14-point deficits; scored their fifth touchdown and a two-point conversion with 5:14 left in the fourth quarter; recovered an Eagles fumble in the waning minutes of the game and held back Benavides to win 36-33.
Team captain Jerry Garcia, 17, a senior running back who scored the first Cougar touchdown and then got a helmet in the sternum, was taken off the field in an ambulance early on. His teammates yelled his name over and over after they won, then collapsed on bended knee on the field in front of Hunter. Elated and overwhelmed with emotion, the players sobbed as they looked up at their coach.
"We're going somewhere," Hunter yelled. "I don't know where, but somewhere. I've been telling you this since junior high. But we have one more game. Let's go! One more game." The coach broke down crying, too.
Maybe the Cougars will make the district playoffs; maybe they won't. But this season, they not only made school history, they made the big time. They played under Friday night lights.