By Chris Lane
By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
Dajleon Farr is sitting in a barbershop chair minding his own business when a stranger walks right up, thrusts out his hand and compliments the young man some consider the best 18-year-old tight end in the whole country.
"I didn't even know who he was," shrugs Farr. Such is life for a North Shore Mustang. As one fan says, the Mustangs are like a little college football team. These days, high school football programs operate more like college -- or even pro -- organizations than ever before.
"You really kind of get a chance to be a star before you even get to actually be a big-time star," says Farr. "Just 'cause you're on the team at North Shore. Kids'll be like, 'Oh, he plays for North Shore.' You know, 'Can I get your autograph?' "
Not that Farr doesn't deserve the flattery: The tight end's got the kind of raw power every Division I college coach lusts after. He's six foot six. Two- hundred-and-thirty-five pounds. Runs the 40 in four and a half seconds. He's gotten an avalanche of attention -- phone calls, letters, visits -- from reporters and recruiters this past year.
Like many kids, Dajleon Farr couldn't begin to think about college without a scholarship. Also like many kids, Farr entertains glittery dreams of "making it big" one day in the NFL -- that golden, if unlikely, ticket that would set his family up for good. God blessed the young man with the physical frame to have a shot at that; geography blessed him with the chance to take advantage of it at North Shore.
This summer, a national survey found that high schools in wealthier neighborhoods win a disproportionate share of state sports titles. In Texas, the survey calculated, it's even more pronounced, with the top quarter of rich schools taking home 41 percent of the championship hardware.
Perennial powerhouses like Katy and The Woodlands -- along with out-of-town programs such as Austin Westlake and Dallas's Southlake Carroll -- indicate that some of those patterns hold true for football. In sports, the playing field is not always as level as it appears.
Then there's North Shore, Houston's surprising exception to that trend. North Shore, that much-feared football institution beyond the twinkling smokestacks of the Ship Channel, lies just inside the east loop of Beltway 8. The blue-collar district has 88 percent minority students on its rolls, and 70 percent qualify for free or reduced-price meals. But in 2003, they won it all.
Forty miles in the opposite direction of North Shore, just off Interstate 10, the message on a painted water tower welcomes visitors to Katy and -- in the same breath -- announces the dominance of its prize high school football team. That same water tower overlooks a zip code whose median household income is approximately $86,000.
The Katy Tigers, named "team of the decade" in 1999 by the Houston Chronicle, won 5A state championships in 1997, 2000 and 2003. A Tigers Web site boasts an enviable 107-25 record during the '90s, along with ten district titles and 13 playoff bids over 15 seasons. At the entrance to the athletic field house, a huge trophy case spans the length of one wall, accompanied by a triumphant declaration: "When excellence becomes a tradition, greatness has no limits."
Ask coaches and experts about the athletic advantages of more affluent school districts, and the first thing that many mention is the role of booster clubs.
"The schools with the better football teams have very strong booster clubs," says Alan Zepeda, managing editor of TexasPrepXtra.com. "Some of the programs that struggle have very poor booster clubs, and they're in poorer districts usually."
Although Katy ISD does not maintain financial records for school-related parent groups, Sammy McDaniel, president of the Katy High School Athletics Booster Club, says that the 450-member group raises in the "hundreds of thousands" of dollars for its 16 varsity sports. Gary Joseph, head coach of the Tiger football program, says that they'll typically see about $80,000 of that in an average year.
"They're vital, because the school budget can give you the uniforms, travel, all the basic things. Booster clubs can give the additional things you need to be successful. The audiovisual equipment, the editing equipment, the weights, the field equipment -- things like that -- opportunities for coaches to go to clinics and learn," says Mike Johnston, the respected head coach who stepped down in February after 22 years with the team. He points out how the Dallas Cowboys have occasionally borrowed the NFL-worthy facilities at Southlake Carroll High School, where the median household income is $131,000.
"You have places like that with people with deep pockets," says Johnston, "and they're goin' give you what I call 'the toys,' and those are the fortunate programs. The unfortunate ones don't have those type of things."
On an afternoon in the week leading up to Katy's regional playoff final against Clear Lake, assistant coach Todd Thompson hunches over some of those toys in a video-editing suite adjacent to the field house offices.
He has eight VCRs stacked up in front of him and points out five digital cameras, editing software at three computer stations, five projectors, three camera tripods and hundreds of tapes in a video library that chronicles past games dating back to 1989. He can slice and dice Clear Lake footage like a trained sushi chef -- you want third-down conversions? you want punt coverage? -- breaking down plays, reads, patterns and formations in a way that, one would assume, his players will be capable of doing when they get out on the field. (The team's season ended, however, in a double-overtime loss to Clear Lake, a school with just 4.9 percent economically disadvantaged students -- even fewer than Katy.)