DIANA – An artificial fog drifted across Eagle Stadium a week ago.
The third quarter was under way — New Diana versus Sabine, Friday night football — and long passes and the smaller players were lost as the smoky haze settled on the field.
“It’s just hanging, but it’ll blow out,” said Tobie Turner, the Sabine athletic booster club president.
He grinned sheepishly. The smoke was his doing. Following halftime, he’d gotten a little carried away with the fog machine that he sprays when the players are running onto the field, and now the fans in the bleachers could barely follow the action.
“If we’d just get a little breeze, it would dissipate,” he said.
The best-laid plans
Even when they can’t see the playing field, East Texans are crazy about their high school football. Players, coaches and boosters devote countless hours in the pursuit of Friday night glory. They sweat and bleed and pray for wins.
But try as they might, sometimes a plan goes up in smoke.
For every team with a storied tradition of district titles and deep playoff runs, there is a high school with a less heralded history and a reputation for losing. For every Kilgore Bulldog, there is a Sabine Cardinal.
The Sabine team has posted three winning seasons in the past 30 years – once in the 1980s, once in the 1990s, and in 2002.
Twenty times in the past three decades – two out of every three seasons – the Cardinals have failed to win more than two games.
It makes for a long 10-game season, and it’s a history of losing that is unmatched in East Texas.
“Everybody loves a winner, and everyone wants to be a part of winning,” said Jerry Baker, in his first year as head coach. “Sabine’s kids over the course of a few years have learned, doggone, it’s not so much about winning as it is about surviving, because they’ve taken so many blows and been through so many coaches.”
And yet, hundreds of Liberty City residents made the 30-mile drive to support their Cardinals when the team played New Diana a week ago. Not everybody in the stands was kin to a player, band member or cheerleader. The fans were there because they wanted to be.
Remnants of glory
The old coach from Sabine’s glory days sat off to himself at the Friday game. He chewed on a toothpick as he watched “our little kids” from a lawn chair he had unfolded on the running track near the end zone.
“Of course, I can’t talk much about losing,” said Lonnie Fenton, who retired in 1979 and still lives in Liberty City. “I coached out there for 13 years and never had a losing season.”
Fenton, 78, said the crowds were bigger when the team was winning.
“They’ve still got a good following. They haven’t given up,” he said. “I still follow them, and they’re pretty competitive. It will just take a certain group of kids to overcome the idea that you can’t beat somebody.”
The announcer’s opinion
Keith Wilkerson leaned against the chainlink fence, not far from the old coach in his lawn chair.
Wilkerson, Sabine’s home game announcer for 16 years, said Cardinals fans focus more on community involvement than wins and losses.
“I think a lot of people in the community are interested in what a coach teaches the kids, more than his win-loss record,” he said. “At the end of the day, how many of these kids are going to play in college, much less at the next level? The life lessons are a whole lot more important than wins and losses. At the same time, I know coaches live by their win-loss record.”
Over the years, he said, the lack of success has discouraged participation in the football program.
“But the kids always come and play four quarters, and they play hard to the end of each season,” he said. “I don’t think you can say it’s the coaches or a lack of interest. The community offers its support. It’s all been there. It’s just an odd thing.”
Wilkerson’s neighbor, Bud Florence, offered his two cents: “A lot of kids don’t want to put in the effort to get hammered every week,” he said.
Sabine’s academic record is strong, Wilkerson noted, and the marching band is precise.
“A lot of times we’ll say, well, at least we won halftime,” he said.
The fog clears
The haze that blanketed the field in Diana came courtesy of a new, unexpectedly potent can of “fog juice.” Turner and other boosters run a fog machine at games with the hope that it will infuse school spirit and Cardinal pride in the team.
The players run through an inflatable tunnel shaped like a cardinal’s head, then burst through the fog on their way to the sideline before each half.
“We are trying to come out of the cellar and into the limelight, and I want to do what I can to help the program come forward and start doing things right,” Turner said.
The Cardinals started strong against the Eagles, with help from a couple of New Diana turnovers. But by the early fourth quarter, the fog had lifted and the Cardinals found themselves in a three-touchdown hole.
“This is the bad part of the game,” Turner said. “We should be knuckling down and getting after it. We just seem to get too afraid to make mistakes. Seems like a lot of (the other team’s) big plays take the wind out of your sails, but it’s not for a lack of effort. The kids are putting in everything they can.”
Sabine lost, 38-20, but the fans took it in stride. It’s a rebuilding year.
Since the Cardinals dropped to Class 2A, there have been fewer blowouts, they note.
The Cardinals face White Oak tonight in the final game of the season. Moving forward, Coach Baker has been drawing up plans for offseason workouts, and boosters are expressing high hopes for next year – and the years to come.
“The future’s looking very good,” Turner said. “The JV is on a four-game winning streak. The eighth grade is undefeated, and they’re beating people pretty handily.”