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Freedom on a Texas Football Field

State correctional facility gives youthful felons a taste of teamwork

The Giddings State School Indians have few of the trappings associated with Texas high school football: no cheerleaders, no marching bands, and only a handful of supporters.

Their training equipment consists of a couple of ice chests and some tape, and their roster is so small that some players have to play both offense and defense all night long.

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Despite these humble conditions, Giddings has won six games and lost two, recently beating St. Michael's Academy of Austin by a score of 28-12. After the game, as their opponents went out for pizza, the players from Giddings returned to a compound surrounded by a 12-foot-high fence and security lights.

The athletes from Giddings - a reform school that holds 300 offenders ranging in age from 13 to 20 - have all committed violent crimes.

In an era of tougher punishment for youthful criminals, the Giddings school is one of a handful of youth correctional facilities in the country that field athletic teams as an incentive.

"These are the good behavior kids, not necessarily the good athletes," says Sandy Brown, the school's athletic director. In his 18 years at the school, Mr. Brown says his teams - including basketball and track - have never had an off-campus incident. During this time, Giddings's football team has never had a losing season.

Brown says juvenile offenders need an opportunity to act like regular teenagers. Participating in sports, he says, helps them learn teamwork and cooperation. "We are trying to turn these kids around, and you can't do that unless you involve them with normal kids who are doing things well," he says. "If you give them the chance, they are overanxious to prove themselves."

Shifting, shrinking roster

Brown's roster changes weekly as his athletes are released, paroled, or scheduled for court hearings. In mid-October, the team's starting quarterback was transferred to an adult prison.

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Giddings superintendent Stan DeGerolami says the school's sports program is "a sensitive issue. You don't want to do anything that would offend the people who have been victimized by these kids."

Mr. DeGerolami worries that any publicity about the team, particularly when public opinion seems to favor more punitive treatment of criminals regardless of their age, could force the school to shut the program down.

Troy and Hector (not their real names) are the co-captains of the Giddings team. Both are 17, of medium size and build, and fiercely competitive. Both committed murders involving crack cocaine.

"We care about how people feel about us and look at us," says Hector, a shy halfback and cornerback. "But that motivates us to want to go out there and show people that we can do something good, that we can be something in life."

There's no way to justify his crimes, Troy says, but "I've found something else I'm good at ... [the program gives] us the chance to be able to work with other people and be successful."

Town support

Residents in this town of 5,000 appear unconcerned by the school's sports program. Marion Muras, a local gas-station owner, says, "If they play football, it might keep them from doing something bad."

Despite local support, the coaches and administrators of the Texas Youth Commission (TYC), which operates Giddings, worry that their athletics program will be scuttled by an irate politician.

Lester Ward, who along with Brown coaches the football team, says there is no reason for the football team or any of the other teams at Giddings to be controversial. Noting that 91 percent of the juveniles assigned to the TYC are eventually released, he says these juveniles need to learn how to get along in society.

"Everybody wants to lock 'em up and throw away the key," Mr. Ward says. "But we haven't sentenced these kids to death. So we have to give them every opportunity to succeed."

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