GRAPEVINE, Texas — A few days before playing a group of teenage prison inmates, Faith Christian School coach Kris Hogan sent an e-mail to every parent at his school.
Make a big pre-game “spirit line,” just like you do for your own kids, he asked. Then, sit behind the visitors’ bench and root for the Gainesville State School Tornadoes.
They did. And what Hogan saw in the faces of the Gainesville players was all the satisfaction he needed.
Yet he’s got so much more - including an invitation to the Super Bowl.
Hogan is headed to Tampa as a guest of USA Football, the American governing body for the sport at youth and amateur levels. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell will honour him at a news conference Friday, and he’ll attend the game itself.
“I hate it that this thing that we did is so rare,” Hogan said Monday. “Everybody views it as such a big deal.
“Shouldn’t that be the normal m.o., though?”
To Hogan’s team, it is. In fact, their treatment of the Gainesville squad was the fourth example this season of the way they blend faith and sportsmanship.
It started in late August, when a rival player died in a car accident a few days after playing Faith.
Hogan’s players went to the funeral as a group, standing side by side in their red jerseys on a strip of grass outside the chapel.
Soon after, the team from John Curtis Christian School near New Orleans borrowed one of Faith’s buses and a practice field while in the area for a Labour Day game at Texas Stadium against powerhouse Euless Trinity. At the same time, hurricane Ike was threatening to wipe out everything Curtis had rebuilt since hurricane Katrina.
Although disaster was avoided back home, Curtis’s trip was extended several days, pushing hotel and food bills way up. So Hogan organized a dinner and Curtis coaches left with a “love offering,” an envelope stuffed with cash and cheques from Faith boosters. In Faith’s next game, a rival player went down with a neck injury. As he was being loaded into an ambulance, Faith players went across the field to be with their foes, then all dropped to a knee in prayer. Faith’s cheerleaders did the same with their counterparts.
As for the football part of the season, Faith went 9-3, losing in the regional round of the private school playoffs. It was quite an achievement considering this was their first season in the largest classification.
“We’ve won nine state championships (in all sports) the last four years, so we obviously play to win,” Hogan said. “But on the other hand, we believe winning is not what you strive for, it’s simply a byproduct of doing things right.”
Hogan is the grandson of a preacher and has a grandmother whotaught Sunday school for 60 years, but he didn’t affirm his own Christian faith until 15 years ago, as a college sophomore.
Within weeks, he said, his life began falling into place. This is his sixth year as athletic director at Faith Christian, a school of 635 students from kindergarten through 12th grade in a residential neighbourhood of this Dallas-Fort Worth suburb.
The school was supposed to play this season in a district with schools in Midland and Lubbock, but when gas was US$4 per gallon school officials opted to move up to a bigger class, and a grouping with local schools - including the Gainesville facility run by the Texas Youth Commission.
At his first meeting of district ADs, Hogan and Mike Williams of Gainesville hit it off right away, and Hogan began planning for Gainesville’s visit.
“I could just feel it in my spirit. ... That is a ministry opportunity we’ve got to capture,” he said. Gainesville has about 260 boys, incarcerated for various reasons. Football is a privilege given only to juniors and seniors who’ve excelled in the classroom and obeyed everywhere else - the same requirements that can help speed their release. Williams calls the boys who suit up each week “our role models, the ones we’ve helped correct.”
“Some weeks I might take 25 or 28, sometimes 12 or 13,” Williams said. “We went through six quarterbacks this year.”
Between adult chaperones, the occasional relative and other supporters, Gainesville gets about 40 fans per game. Teams often greet them with a small banner, sometimes lending the junior varsity cheerleaders.
At Faith, two rows of 100 people lined up for them, stretching about 40 yards. They were connected by a banner roughly six yards wide.
“At first, our kids were scared. They were real anxious,” Williams said. “I said, ‘Burst through the banner and have fun!’"
Hogan saw Gainesville players scanning the stands “just to check the genuineness of what was going on.” With Faith players helping Gainesville players up after tackles, they realized the emotions were real; the 20-litre drums being pounded behind their bench really were thumping for them.
“Their eyes were just screaming gratitude,” Hogan said. Faith won 33-14, ending Gainesville’s season at 0-9. You couldn’t tell as both teams prayed together afterward, then left with a mixture of smiles and tears.
A story in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram the next day led to a column by ESPN’s Rick Reilly. Troy Aikman made sure Goodell read it, leading to the invitation for this weekend. The fallout has helped Gainesville, too, with Williams noticing warmer welcomes at basketball games and more kids wanting to play football.
“Coach Hogan inspired an entire community in an extraordinary way and gave those young men on the Gainesville team a chance to believe in themselves,” Goodell said. “It’s a powerful message and shows how football can be such a positive force in shaping values and building communities.”