By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
Gold trophies are the first thing kids see inside the Katy High School field house, and that's by design.
"It's not all right to be mediocre, it's not all right to be average," says Gary Joseph, the school's head football coach since 2003. "They understand."
During the last three decades, few high school football teams anywhere have won as often as the Katy Tigers. The team has made it to the playoffs every year except twice since 1986, advancing to the state's final four teams nine times and winning the championship four of those years.
That résumé made Katy a perfect client for Titus Sports Marketing, a Dallas-based company founded in 2003 that makes its money by setting up big games between high schools, extending the media attention normally paid to college and pro teams to the secondary school level.
Titus brokered a deal in March to bring the football team from Cypress Bay High — a school in south Florida — to Katy's Rhodes Stadium during the first week of October.
The game was hyped as the "Battle at Rhodes" and sold to ESPN; it was the first time Katy would play on national TV.
It was exposure for the town and school, for the players hoping for college scholarships, and the district stood to make a bundle.
Then, a glitch — the Tigers opened the season with an out-of-district game against the North Shore Mustangs and lost.
It was unfamiliar ground. Last season, the team had gone undefeated and won state. Even after losing almost every starter to graduation, this year's team was ranked third in Texas in Associated Press preseason polls.
"You're expected to do good, expected to live up to a perfect season. With parents and teachers and stuff, they'll stop and ask you how it's going, and it gets overwhelming," says Parker Ray, a senior who started his first game at quarterback this year. "If someone would have told us before the season that we were ranked number three, we would have asked why."
Still, the team was resilient after North Shore; it wasn't a disaster to lose by four points to a state-ranked team that hadn't lost a regular season game since 2000. Anyway, everyone in town knew the Tigers should have won.
The "We're Katy" attitude was in full force during the next week, heading into a game against the Woodlands Highlanders.
"It was like we're not scared anymore, like we're not going to be timid," Ray says.
The feelings didn't last.
Early in the second quarter, Ray scrambled to the left sideline on a pass play, looked downfield, then tucked the ball in his gut and ran. A Woodlands player slammed into Ray's knees, flipping his feet straight up while another player launched into his chest, sending him back to the ground. Ray's body bounced off the turf, drawing roars from the Highlander crowd.
On the team's next possession, Ray sprinted up the middle of the field until a Woodlands player caused a violent collision, the crown of the defender's helmet popping the bend of his elbow.
Ray lay on the turf with an arm he couldn't move, and spent the rest of the game in the hospital with a pinched nerve and a concussion.
Katy lost 47-0, the team's worst defeat in more than a decade. The Tigers hadn't lost their first two games since 1984.
"We wanted to give the kids a chance to grow up, and they had to grow up in a hurry, grow up on the run," Joseph says. "But maybe we were asking our kids to do some things they weren't capable of doing."
In another four weeks, Katy was due to be on national television, playing a game at home against the Cypress Bay Lightning, a highly ranked Florida team that had demolished its first two opponents. No matter how bad Katy looked, ESPN was committed to airing the game, but the station had never guaranteed a prime-time slot and kickoff was changed to 2:30 in the afternoon.
"I think that hurts; when you play a night game you'll get more people out there," says Dave Stephenson, who runs Titus Sports Marketing. "We realized financially that that would cut into the gate...but you roll the dice when you do something like this."
Even worse, the team could end up getting whipped in front of a national audience, letting down Katy fans, with their devoted if sometimes oppressive allegiance.
A high school team from Miami traveled to the Dallas suburb of Southlake last year for what was ultimately an exhibition game. The Miami team won, ending Southlake's 49-game winning streak, but considering that more than 30,000 people attended, the real winner might have been Stephenson for arranging the whole thing.
"We had to shut off the ticket sales at halftime because we had maxed out," Stephenson says. "After that game, everyone was coming to us saying, 'Hey, can you do that for us?'"
Stephenson is a former president of Dave Campbell's Texas Football, a yearly magazine that previews every team in the state — professional, college and high school — and is often called the "bible of Texas football."
In 2003 he started Titus, naming it after a verse from the real Bible: "In everything set an example by doing what is good. In your teaching show integrity," Titus 2:17.
The first big deal was a ten-year, $1.9 million naming-rights contract between the Tyler Independent School District and an East Texas hospital system. The money allowed the district to upgrade its football stadium, and the facility now hosts more high school playoff games than anywhere else in the state except Texas Stadium, a National Football League venue.
The Texas Football Classic was also created, in part, by Stephenson, and in 2005 he brought in a team from Hollywood, Florida, coached by Mark Guandolo, the current head coach at Cypress Bay.
Titus has also connected Carroll ISD, Southlake's district, with The Performance Course, a private strength and conditioning company aimed at high school athletes, which put its name on Carroll's football practice facility.
The list of examples of Titus bringing money to schools is long, and some districts are so eager to cash in that blanket deals are signed with the company, allowing Titus to sell all district teams and events to advertisers, then splitting the revenues 50/50.
The role of Titus at schools across the state has mushroomed so fast and wide that in February of this year, Texas Monthly named Stephenson one of 35 people who will shape the future of Texas.
"If we can help out high schools to bring in more revenue, in this day and age where schools are hurting for money, that's huge," Stephenson says. "It's a little bit different if we were selling advertising in a classroom, if we were selling advertising on a blackboard or students' lockers, but we're selling advertising at a football venue."
Stephenson also sets up and promotes individual games, an idea that started amid the frenzy coaches go through to find non-district opponents.
That problem comes up every two years when the University Interscholastic League realigns districts, and football coaches and athletic directors meet in gymnasiums across the state to hear the morning announcement. The new districts are flashed on a screen and coaches scramble to find games, turning the gyms into a Wall Street-like trading atmosphere.
"The coaches all start moving to get closer so they can see, and all of a sudden — boom — it happens," says Rusty Dowling, athletic director of Katy Independent School District. "The guys will hold up two fingers yelling, 'I need two, I need two,' or 'I need two away.'"
Coaches from the powerhouse teams have trouble because no school wants to get rolled in a preseason, nondistrict game. Katy High School left this year's realignment with one nondistrict game and a six-game schedule.
There's little Stephenson won't do to help a school without an opponent. For example, earlier this season a high school in the Dallas suburb of Allen needed a game for the second week of the season.
"We tried for a couple weeks to help them find a game. We thought we had a team from Florida lined up, but that didn't work out," Stephenson says.
"It's almost like, not the dating game but Match.com, where you have a lot of coaches around the country that don't have the network we do, and they're really stuck," Stephenson says.
In the Southlake Carroll match, both teams were coming off undefeated seasons and state championships. Miami Northwestern was the top-ranked high school in an ESPN national poll; Southlake Carroll was first in a poll by USA Today.
In front of a packed house at Southern Methodist University's stadium in Dallas, Miami beat Southlake 29-21.
The Katy school district, which had already used Titus to negotiate a two-year, $200,000 contract with Memorial Hermann Katy Hospital, wanted a bigger deal. In November 2007, athletic director Dowling pitched the company to district board members, hoping to secure a blanket marketing contract.
"I'm not a business major, so it's nice to have some folks who are very well versed in that arena," Dowling says. "[The argument against] is the commercialization of high school sports. I understand that to a point, but I see our budgets, and we're not getting any more money. But we are adding so many kids and so many different teams that somehow we have to create some alternative revenue streams someplace."
Dowling says Titus "has the ESPN contacts, they have all that kind of stuff. That's their world, I know it, but I don't know all the stuff that goes in behind it, and you need to know that kind of stuff."
During the talks between Dowling and Titus, some of the heaviest, best organized opposition came from the Katy Citizens Watchdog$, a group started in 2005 after band boosters from Morton Ranch High School were charged an access fee to host a banquet at Katy's Leonard E. Merrell Center, a massive city-owned complex with a 7,200-seat arena.
"Some of the board members really wanted to enter this deal with Titus," says Chris Cottrell, a founder of the watchdog group. "I know that a lot of booster organizations around town were very concerned that doing something like this would cut into their fund-raising activities. We don't need help naming stadiums; we've got a district with 6,000 employees."
There are other detractors. Mike Miletic, a sports psychiatrist who collaborated with a New York Times columnist to write Raiders Night, a novel about a dysfunctional high school football team, says, "The expectations of the school that's going to receive the money, going to be on TV, the expectations of the kids aren't just local Friday night crowds. Everybody at the school has a stake in winning the game at a very high level."
"When they begin to do that on the backs of high school kids, because of the unprotected quality of youth, you're getting pretty close to exploiting these kids."
The larger deal was nixed by the school board, but in March of this year, Katy High School still didn't have a tenth football game. Stephenson knew his friend Guandolo at Cypress Bay needed a game for the first week of October, and according to Stephenson, Guandolo jumped at the chance to play Katy.
Titus would pay for the flights, food and hotel expenses of the Cypress Bay team — 100 people total including players, coaches and administrators — and Katy and Titus would share equally in the money from ticket sales and advertising.
"We're not billing the game as a matchup of the top two teams in the country," Stephenson says. "We're billing the game as, no matter how they start the season, Katy will be the defending state champion playing one of the top teams in Florida."
Some people in Katy say that winning at high school football is the way it's always been. Truth is, it hasn't.
Katy football as it is today started in 1982, when former head coach Mike Johnston was hired and Joseph came to the school as a defensive coordinator.
Katy High School had been a small 2A school, then a small 3A school, but by the time the new coaching staff arrived, Katy was a 5A school operating with a small-town mentality, according to Joseph.
There wasn't a weight room at the school; instead, weights lined the hallways of the small field house.
"The attitude of the kids, it was more a social thing than it was an athletic thing — kids worried about where the next party is going on. Athletics wasn't a priority," Joseph says.
Only about 25 students played varsity football in the early years, but the coaching staff decided to keep the classes together, even if a freshman or sophomore had the skill to play varsity. Weight training was emphasized, to get the kids big enough to play 5A, especially since most kids played offense and defense.
"There were times we thought about leaving, and times they probably thought about asking us to leave, but once we got to the point where all the kids had been part of the program, we started to see some change," Joseph says.
The team won the district championship in 1986 — its first in 22 years — and a state championship in 1997, the first of four in ten years.
The Tigers advanced to another championship in 1998, and was loaded on the bus to travel to the game, but a last-minute phone call forced Joseph to bring the players back to the field house so the head coach could tell them they had been disqualified.
A fourth-string tight end who had forged a progress report in the middle of the season played three snaps in the game before the championship, going in the game after Katy was winning 40-0. A teacher saw the player in the game and reported it.
"That's about as low as we've ever had," Joseph says.
The week after the Woodlands game, Ray was eating at a Mexican food restaurant in Katy, and a man he'd never met or seen walked over to his table.
He told Ray, "I haven't lost faith in you, Parker. Other people might have, but I haven't."
"I just told him, 'Well, thank you sir," Ray says.
Ray is a fourth-generation student at Katy High School; his great-grandfather moved to the town to build the elementary school. His grandfather played football for the Tigers, and so did his dad, and so did his older brother. Ray was a varsity ball boy in fourth grade.
"I try to stay out of the armchair coaching, although I do get caught up in it because I'm a pretty intense person. Both of my boys have accepted it pretty well," says Dudley Ray, Parker's dad. "Now my wife quizzes him all the time; she loves it and wants to know what's inside his head, too."
Sometimes Ray dreams about football. It's a game at night in a familiar stadium, and he's playing quarterback for Katy High School.
A play starts and Ray hands the ball to a teammate who gets grabbed by a defender and slammed to the ground. The player with the ball doesn't get up.
The nightmare always ends the same way — the teammate has his head knocked off.
Few things disappoint Joseph more than a player quitting his team, especially when the player doesn't tell him personally.
"Come in here and be a man, and that's my whole deal with this thing, learn how to be a man and grow up," Joseph says. "Sometimes they quit and they do it for the wrong reasons, and then where do they go after that?"
The program loses players each year, weeded out when the off-season gets too tough or when a player realizes if he makes varsity, his chance of playing is slim. After last season, however, several players who would have been returning starters quit, including an all-district defensive lineman.
"Some people, maybe they think about what they can be doing other than football, or what their life would be like if they didn't have football, and they see something better," says Elvin Tapong, a senior nose tackle and one of Katy's standout players.
Tapong moved to Katy after his freshman year, after his mom sent him to live with his dad. Making solid friends has been tough, even with other guys on the team. His dad is more concerned with academics and didn't want Tapong to play football when he first moved in; he doesn't go to his son's games.
Quitting the team has rarely been a thought for Tapong, never seriously. Not when teammates don't understand him or make him mad, and not when he's running the ropes after long practices with hundreds of repetitions.
"Looking at all the stuff on the wall, everyone's name and everyone's picture, I want to be one of the people that get my name up on that board," Tapong says. "It's pretty much going to last forever, you can tell it sticks, so I want to be one of those guys to be part of the tradition."
Katy and Cypress Bay are football powers in their states, and both teams were getting first-time national TV exposure at the Battle at Rhodes. Other than that, the schools couldn't be more different.
Cypress Bay opened in 2002, 104 years after Katy High and 73 years after Katy's first football team.
The high school campus at Katy is large but modest, on the western edge of the old side of town, its parking lot filled with pickups and Ford Mustangs.
The campus at Cypress Bay, in Weston, Florida, looks like a university or a military base, a web of pavement and colorful new buildings.
Last year, Viacom-owned MTV featured the school on its reality show The Paper. The football team is sponsored by Rolex and Outback Steakhouse, and a student once wore a T-shirt calling an opposing team "Trailer Bums."
The city of Weston has boomed in recent years, with streets dotted with cropped palm trees and bright green landscaping. More than 4,000 students attend Cypress Bay, and until last year, it was the largest high school in the country.
The student population at Katy High School — about 2,000 — has gotten smaller as the town grows, with newer high schools engulfing old zones. The district has grown to six high schools, covering an area with a population of about 210,000 people.
But "old Katy" has remained insulated from the area's growth, and the population within the city proper has stayed at about 12,000 people.
The business strip along Highway 90, which cuts through Katy along defunct railroad tracks, has kept the small-town atmosphere, with rice storage tanks and rice dryers as the only structures rising above the tree line.
Katy Mills Mall and Bass Pro Shops and acres of newer retail space line Interstate 10. A new shopping center, La Centerra at Cinco Ranch, was built within walking distance of Cinco Ranch High School, where some people wear T-shirts that say "Cinco Ranch, Texas."
"We call that the other side of the freeway. There's Katy, then there's everything else," says Sam Holl, a junior defensive back at Katy High.
Playing varsity football for the school was about the only thing Holl wanted growing up, from the day his dad signed him up for youth football in kindergarten. Even though his dad moved to nearby Bellville when Holl was a boy, his mom kept him surrounded with football.
"It became clear that we were in a big football town," says Holl's mother Nylene. "So we thought we'd let him excel in that."
His uncle was a football coach in Waller — now the head coach at Greenville High School — and Holl has cousins playing college football at the University of North Texas and Texas Christian University.
Holl worked out with the Katy varsity as a freshman and played on last year's state championship team. A playoff injury, a torn muscle in his thigh that ripped off a piece of bone in his hip, kept him out of the final games.
"State was still one of the best feelings of my life, but it would have been so much better if I'd been out there, actually playing," he says. "I was playing with them all season, and I miss a lot of the seniors from last year, and not being able to play the last two games, I was miserable."
A week before the Cypress Bay game, Katy was at Rhodes Stadium playing Oak Ridge High School, and late in the fourth quarter, Katy had secured a 27-3 blowout victory, its first big win of the season.
On the final kickoff, after Holl had played almost an entire game on defense, he sprinted down the field in front of the rest of his team and through a line of Oak Ridge blockers, hitting the Oak Ridge kick returner so hard that he knocked himself unconscious with a concussion.
"You have to be committed to Katy football, like nothing else matters. If you're not, then you're like a lot of kids and just quit," Holl says. "It's the way you live, it's what you know, and you realize you have to do it if you want to live up to the standards."
In Florida, the season couldn't have gone better for Cypress Bay until the week of the game.
Two days before the team was scheduled to leave for Texas, center Leslie Tripp came home from practice and found out his mom had died from a heart attack.
The entire team attended a chapel service the next day at a church by the high school, and wristbands were made that said "MOM." Tripp decided to make the trip and play.
The Katy Captains' Moms are usually the first at Rhodes Stadium on game days for the traditional decorating, hanging signs on walls and spelling out cheers in the chain-link fence with Dixie cups.
That wasn't the case on Saturday morning, October 4, the day of the Battle at Rhodes. The stadium and parking lot were completely empty, except for men and women spilling out of a production truck with television cables and electrical wires, setting up for the day's national television broadcast, being aired on ESPNU, a college-intensive division of the Disney-owned sports über-conglomerate.
Steve Melton, the on-site producer for the Katy game, normally works the prime-time broadcast for ESPNU. The week before, Melton produced the University of South Florida versus North Carolina State, and if he wasn't at Katy, he would've worked a night game at the University of Virginia.
Before the first Katy fans arrived, steel and wood scaffolding had been erected on either side of the stadium press box and topped with massive television cameras.
Another platform and camera were placed in the home end zone, not far from the Katy train carrying a fake tiger. Microphones and wires were installed along the sideline, for cameras on the field and easy access for the sideline reporter.
The booster club got to the stadium a little after noon, to set up folding tables with Katy merchandise — pom-poms and T-shirts and hats — about the same time as ESPNU commentators were climbing the stairs to the press box to rehearse for the game and prerecord voice-overs.
Since most high school stadiums aren't as equipped for TV as Division One college venues, broadcasting from them sometimes presents special challenges, Melton says.
The extra work is worth it. High school athletics as sports entertainment has exploded during this decade. This is the first season that ESPN has broadcast a full 19-week schedule of high school football.
"Go back to 2002, ESPN took a chance and aired a high school [basketball] game that LeBron James played in," Melton says. "The ratings for that game were huge, there was a lot of interest. Between that and different Internet hits, for ESPN it was determined that there was a huge audience out there."
A representative from ESPN stressed that the company doesn't pay high schools to broadcast games. Instead, ESPN pays Paragon Marketing Group to pay Titus, who in turn pays the school its share.
None of the three companies would disclose the terms of the agreement.
But the money is there. For instance, someone at the stadium the day of the game might have thought it was a military exercise, with all the U.S. Marines gear displayed — a Marine Hummer out front, an inflatable Marine towering over the booster club, and a chin-up bar for children to test their strength.
Another person from the broadcast crew spent a couple hours before the game hanging Old Spice and Nike signs on the stadium walls.
ESPN has made a significant investment during recent years, buying established brands to up its coverage of high school sports; it has purchased Scouts, Inc., Hoopgurlz.com, and Hardwood and Gridiron magazines.
ESPN RISE, a new company brand, is devoted to high schools.
"I think it's untapped on the sports side," says James Brown, the senior vice president at RISE, which is aimed at growing the station's 12- to 17-year-old audience. "It gives us an opportunity to not only talk about what they do on the field but also what's going on in their lifestyle, what shoes do they wear, what music they listen to, what kind of things they do in the community."
Again, sports psychiatrist Miletic sees trouble.
"The kids begin to have a feeling that they have to perform and win but it isn't all for them," he says. "Some of the downfalls of that, aside from the obvious, the kid begins to lose a sense of himself, as being able to be somebody who has the freedom to develop himself in other ways."
Corporate advertising in high school is such a new phenomenon that no solid research has been done, Miletic says, but he has seen the negatives for years.
"It's sad, but I've had successful, middle-aged executives, attorneys, whose strongest memory is a feeling of failure or badness about themselves because they weren't stars on the football team," he says. "These are heads of corporations, but you get them talking about bad experiences in high school football, and they'll start crying."
At the Battle at Rhodes, Ray's father stood at the top of the stadium, surrounded by his own father and wife and daughter, wearing a red #10 jersey, looking down to bleachers full of people in similar colors.
"I think it is bred in the old town of Katy, a very loyal football group; we love high school football," he said. "It makes it nicer when we're winning."
The Tigers ran on the field through a paper sign painted like a Texas flag, followed by the kickoff.
Tapong opened the game for Katy with a sack of the Cypress Bay quarterback, and Katy scored the first touchdown of the game on a long run.
The Lightning had the ball deep on Katy's side of the field, when its running back sprinted into an open field to the end zone. Holl tried tackling the player, but couldn't stop him from scoring.
Then a Katy fullback had a long run, dragging a Cypress Bay player into the end zone for a touchdown. Ray zipped a deep pass to a wide-open receiver for another score. Tapong and the other defenders crushed Cypress Bay runners all game — a team that had rushed for 700 yards in its previous two games — and held them to 82 yards.
As Tripp, the Lightning center, put it: "It was an amazing experience up until about 2:30 p.m. Then it was hell on Earth. I couldn't wait to get out of that God-forsaken state and get back home to Florida."
The Katy sideline buzzed with excitement most of the game, as the coaches tried to keep the players from surging onto the field. Holl paced from the edge of the sideline to the bench when he wasn't playing, pumping his fist or slapping teammates on their shoulder pads.
Late in the fourth quarter, Holl intercepted a pass and broke tackles by what seemed like every player on the Cypress Bay team before diving with the football to the corner of the end zone. The ESPN broadcasters called it their favorite play of the game, even though the referees called Holl out of bounds at the one-yard line.
Katy won 31-6, dominating every part of the game.
After Katy's school song, the fans and parents left through the stadium gates, some of them headed to a traditional after-game dinner at Cazadores, a Mexican food restaurant across the freeway.
Parker Ray sprinted off the field with his helmet off, smiling, and stopping only to shake hands with some adults standing on the empty sidelines.
Elvin Tapong left the field slowly, next to another player, and the two boys talked all the way to the locker room.
Holl was one of the last players to exit, and he hadn't bothered to wipe off the dirt and grass that stuck to the eye-black smeared on his face.
The team went into the locker room, then loaded on school buses for the ride back to Katy High School, and Holl never took off his pads or uniform.
Melton was headed to California next to cover a college game between Utah State and San Jose State, and the crew had wrapped up its cables and wires at Rhodes almost before the children in Katy T-shirts had stopped rolling down the stadium's grassy hills.
Afterward: Six days later, the Tigers opened district play against the undefeated Morton Ranch Mavericks, considered a contender for the district title. The Tigers won 44-14, and the game was never close after halftime.
Michael J. Mooney of the Broward-Palm Beach New Timescontributed to the reporting of this article.