18 Oct

Bartography Express: “Mommas would tell him, ‘just don’t kill him!'”

Every now and then, I like to throw my newsletter subscribers a curve – or, in this case, a spiral.

The Q&A for the October edition of my Bartography Express newsletter (which you can sign up for here) is with my friend Michael Hurd, author of the new nonfiction book Thursday Night Lights: The Story of Black High School Football in Texas (University of Texas Press). Michael is a longtime sportswriter as well as the director of the Texas Institute for the Preservation of History and Culture at Prairie View A&M University.

Thursday Night Lights is geared toward adults, but it’s accessible to high school- and middle school-aged lovers of football and history. It’s an eye-opener, and it definitely would have been a revelation to the adolescent version of me, who played University Interscholastic League football in Texas without ever giving a thought to the story or structure (overseen by the Prairie View Interscholastic League, or PVIL) of the sport as it was played at African American high schools in the decades before desegregation.

(I wonder if Michael’s book might inspire students in other states to research the history of pre-integration high school sports closer to home. Any educators out there want to take that idea and run with it?)

This month, one newsletter subscriber will win a signed copy of Thursday Night Lights. (If you’re not a subscriber yet, there’s still time.) In the meantime, please enjoy my two-question Q&A with Michael Hurd.

Chris: The influence on and involvement in students’ lives by their coaches was one of the most striking aspects of Thursday Night Lights. Was there a particular relationship between a coach and his player – or players – that was especially meaningful or moving to you?

Photo of Michael Hurd by Taylor Johnson

Michael: That’s a great observation. What immediately comes to mind is Houston Wheatley’s Frank Walker. In the book, his daughter, Frances, talks about how her dad was so committed to building the program and taking care of his players that it confused the family’s budget.

Out of his own pocket, Coach Walker would buy needed practice equipment, maybe provide a meal now and then, and for his graduating seniors going off to college, he’d purchase their bus tickets, clothing, and give them some pocket money.

But, I doubt he was the only coach in the PVIL who did those kinds of things for his players. There was a real symbiotic relationship between the players and coaches at the PVIL schools and those relationships extended well off the field as nurturing experiences. Many of the coaches were father figures for boys who may not have had a male parenting figure at home, and even some who did.

In regard to that, my favorite quote in the book is from Joe Washington, Sr. who coached in Bay City and Port Arthur. He talks about the trust that parents had in him, and black coaches in general, to discipline and essentially raise their sons. He said the mommas would tell him to take their son and do what they needed to do, “just don’t kill him!”

Chris: Your interview subjects were frank about the bittersweetness of integration as it affected black high school football programs and the people in those programs. How did what you learned from them square with your own recollections about integration and the waning days of segregation?

Michael: That was one of the things that I really enjoyed about researching and writing the book. A lot of my interviews turned into old home week discussions, reflecting on the Sixties and what that was like for black people as segregation slowly eased into integration.

One day there were all these places – theaters, restaurants, neighborhoods – that before, we couldn’t go here, we couldn’t go there, couldn’t do this or that, then the next day, no problem, more or less. So I talked about those kinds of things with a lot of my interview subjects, especially the Houston guys, and those conversations brought back a lot of memories for me.

An example: I had always gone to segregated schools, elementary and high school, and graduated in the spring of 1967. Then, in the fall of that year, black and white schools played against each other for the first time. So, when I went back for homecoming it had a totally different feel. We were playing at a different stadium and against a white team!