After sunset the faithful gather, shoulder to shoulder, in floodlit sanctuaries across Texas. Throughout the night, they'll sing songs of praise, tremble with excitement, wince, weep, shield their eyes, and pray for salvation. Especially if it's fourth and long.
Call it the church of football.
Each year, 10 million Texans attend Friday night high-school football games, some of which take place in $6 million stadiums with air-conditioned sky boxes. Emotions run so deep that athletes will play with broken ankles, parents will engage in post-game fistfights, and a losing coach might wake up to a "for sale" sign in his yard.
This week, in the midst of the Texas state playoffs, towns whose teams remain in the championship chase will seemingly sprout wheels: crawling behind the team bus on game days in a raucous, horn-tooting, placard-waving convoy. But despite all the hoopla, there are indications that the Lone Star State's passion for schoolboy football may be cooling.
As demographics change and the state's oil-and-cowboy culture gives way to a more technology and service oriented economy, Texans are questioning football's exalted status. Critics say the 300,000 students who participate on teams, marching bands, and cheerleading squads each year are getting shortchanged in the classroom.
"There's no question that there's a heavy emphasis on football in Texas," says Don Albrecht, a professor of sociology at Texas A&M University.
"In some cases, football is taking up funds and resources that could be used to develop academic programs," Albrecht says.
The controversy is not new. In a popular 1990 book, "Friday Night Lights," journalist H.G. Bissinger exposed the depth of the football mania in Odessa, Texas, where the school district spent more money on medical supplies for football players than on library books. Although the Texas legislature adopted a "no pass no play" rule in 1984 requiring players to maintain a 70 average in all classes or sit out for six weeks, a 1994 amendment shortened the suspension period to 21 days.