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.)
"All this stuff has been bought by our booster club," says Thompson. "It's changed a lot since back in the day. You gotta stay up with the technology."
Yet even Katy boosters pale in comparison to that of The Woodlands High School. According to records received from Conroe ISD, The Woodlands Football Booster Club has seen its total annual income for grades seven through 12 grow in the past three years from $219,000 to $293,000 to $347,000 in 2003-2004. Just 1.2 percent of its students are classified by the state as economically disadvantaged -- the lowest ratio of any local 5A school that made the playoffs last year. During that run, The Woodlands Highlanders advanced to the Division I state championship against North Shore.
The Woodlands' most recent booster budget lists more than $30,000 for a banquet, $110,000 for field house improvements, $28,000 in scholarships, and $17,000 for travel and entertainment purposes.
"With the number of players we have, a booster club is vital to our existence," explains Woodlands head coach Mark Schmid. The program had 450 players this year on eight different teams, and he says their goal is to make sure every student who wants to play football at The Woodlands has that opportunity.
Ray Evans, head football coach at Yates High School for the past three years, can only shake his head and flash an easy smile when contemplating such resources.
Yates is a Third Ward school where 73 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, and the surrounding area has a median household income of $20,000. The Yates team has a booster club, too. In a normal year, Evans says, it will raise about $5,000.
Yates won its last state championship 20 years ago, and in a cramped, aging training room, the dusty trophies are lined up along a high shelf. The weights are browning with rust, the faded chalkboards come in a retro orange color, and the team gathers around one TV with two VCRs to watch tape. On Thursdays during the season, when the junior teams take up the practice field for home games, Evans says, the varsity team has to practice on a baseball field full of divots.
Then there's the issue of coaching staff.
"We have eight coaches, counting myself. Foster High School's got, like, 15 coaches," Evans says of their first-round opponent. He later adds, "Back two or three weeks ago, Foster, they were sending their [coaches] out, scouting our games. And we don't have the money or the means to do anything like that. Boy, I could go on and on. It's just a big, big discrepancy."
As it turned out, the Yates Lions got past Foster, 21-17. (And, technically, Foster has only 13 coaches.) One week later, though, the Lions fell to Marshall High School of East Texas in a game where Evans says he counted more than 20 coaches and 110 players suited up.
"I don't even have 110 uniforms to suit them all out in the same color," he says.
Cory Jiles, head football coach at HISD's Stephen F. Austin High School, faces the same uphill battle. "Just from the coaching aspect, look at that individual attention that those kids are getting from having such a large manpower number, as opposed to trying to spread out six guys among a freshman, JV and a varsity team," says Jiles.
Compensation may be another factor in the coaching disparity. At Katy High School, according to the district's communications director, the stipends range from $2,800 for assistants to $10,000 for the head coach on top of their teaching salaries. By comparison, the head coach at Yates receives about a $5,000 stipend.
Without question, the size of a program makes a huge difference in both the depth of the talent pool and the needs of the team. Katy averages 310 players across its varsity, JV, sophomore and two freshman teams, as opposed to Yates, which has one-third of those bodies lined up at three levels.
Evans flatly links Yates's football decline from previous decades to dwindling enrollment. The school once had more than 3,000 students on its rolls, but now there are only 1,400. Yates was recently dropped from 5A-level competition (for schools with more than 1,925 students) to 4A.
Beyond the numbers, though, there are other, intangible factors that lend themselves to sports success in well-to-do communities.
"I think you see it when you look at a program like Southlake Carroll," says Dave Stephenson, a contributor to Dave Campbell's Texas Football magazine. "It's a very wealthy suburb, and they're the No. 1 school in 5A. They're the No. 1 school in the country. The demographics are very high income, upper-class income. What you find in a suburb like that, when your parents are in an income bracket like that, you're able to pay for more summer camps, conditioning. You often have a two-parent household that can be more conducive to success. I think you see that at Katy, The Woodlands, Southlake Carroll, Austin Westlake."
Coaches say that at less wealthy schools, many students have to work part-time jobs on top of school and sports. "That's almost 90 percent of my team," says Jiles. "They have to help out, supplement income in their homes." His Austin High School has a 92 percent rate of economically disadvantaged students. In 2004, they finished 0-10 in District 21-5A football. At Katy, on the other hand, coach Gary Joseph says that no more than a dozen of his kids work during the year.
Having two parents around, with the luxury and freedom to accommodate the often-ridiculous scheduling demands that accompany youth sports (see: bleary-eyed hockey mom driving to the rink at 2 a.m.), is a factor not easily quantifiable.
"I'll say this, we've scouted HISD for several years, 'cause we always wind up playing 'em, you know, in the playoffs, and you look up in the stands and there's not a whole lotta support," says Mike Johnston, who now coaches at Houston Christian. "But they're playing out there for the love of the game. And you gotta take your hat off to those kids."
Certainly no one would claim that wealth automatically wins ball games. Exceptional facilities and an army of coaches can't make up for inept players. Conversely, the hardscrabble underdog overcoming long odds is as much a part of the American myth as Horatio Alger bedtime stories. But -- bottom line -- if you think money doesn't matter at all in sports, just ask whatever team the New York Yankees are playing on a given day.
The football facilities at North Shore Senior High School today look a lot more like those of a Katy or a Woodlands than those of a Yates. At the very least, the sprawling, sparkling athletic complex for Galena Park ISD would seem impressive for a surrounding zip code whose median household income is less than both the state and national averages. The stadium seats more than 10,000; the scoreboard features video replay and animation; and the turf is state-of-the-art Astro Play.
Ten years ago, North Shore's facilities did not look like this.
"It's just a world of difference," says Neal Quillin, a veteran Houston high school football coach. GPISD athletic director "Ed Warken and [North Shore head coach] David Aymond have really taken it to another level."
Donnie Lyle, the sports medicine coordinator for North Shore, remembers going in for his interview in May 1989. He found the head coach in a back room of the baseball stadium at the old campus. "I say, 'Well, Coach, where's the training room?' " says Lyle. "He said, 'You just came in through it.' It was a closet. It is a closet today." The practice fields were as much dirt as they were grass and had water sprinklers sticking an inch out of the ground.
North Shore didn't have the competitive salaries either. Mike Coker, who came to the program in 1994 as Aymond's first defensive coordinator, says he took a pay cut of several thousand dollars in accepting the job.
Fan support was a fraction of what the team sees today. "Back in like '90, '91, there was no packing the stands. Ever," says Lyle. "And then at the homecoming game, like I say, the band and the Scarlets [dance team] would perform at halftime and then everybody would get up and leave. I'm not kidding."
There wasn't a whole lot to cheer for.
When David Aymond was hired as head coach in February 1994, the varsity team hadn't made the playoffs in more than 30 years.
"I really felt that it was a diamond in the rough," says Warken, who arrived as athletic director in the spring of 1991. "I think we had some talent."
"We had athletes," says Joe Walker, who was a sophomore player in the program in 1994. "We had guys that people would never hear about. It was just, before Aymond got here, you didn't have the drive."
Aymond took immediate, firm control of the North Shore football program, installing a strict discipline and regimen and playing a greater role in the players' lives. His and Warken's efforts got quick results.
The team made the playoffs the year Aymond was hired, 1994, as bi-district champions. Two years later, it advanced all the way to the state semifinals following an undefeated regular season. Walker tries to articulate the halcyon rush of being on those first competitive North Shore football teams.
"I can't explain the feeling," he says. "It was the selling of tickets, the pep rallies, the people that hasn't been involved or coming to watch the games that came out of the woodworks. You know, families, friends, people driving here and driving there. It was just a whole big, whole movie high school football type of thing going on that we had working that year. And it was a good roller coaster for us."
It's helpful, too, if you're trying to get a $120 million bond referendum passed that includes $21 million for the stadium complex. Galena Park ISD already had been on the march after voters consented to an $80 million bond in 1995 for new schools and campus improvements. The 1999 bond passed by 126 votes.
"When the bond was being passed, they sent out all these flyers throughout all the area, and on the back was the high school football team. And they started winning, and it just perpetuated throughout the community," says Matt Malatesta, a writer who covers Texas football for Rivals.com.
No one familiar with the Friday Night Lights atmosphere of Texas football needs to be told of the redemptive and transcendent power that can reverberate through a community when its high school team gets to winning. North Shore just came off its fourth straight undefeated regular season. More than 80 players have gotten college scholarships -- some filling the ranks of Division I rosters like Oklahoma, Miami and Texas.
One former coach with the program sums it up: "It's a machine now."
Matt Malatesta, as much as anyone, should understand North Shore's ascendancy. He quite literally wrote the book on North Shore. An engaging read, It's My Life covers last season's championship run. On a Friday morning in November he stands outside the field house entrance and offers a thumbnail sketch of the alpha and omega of North Shore football.
"Aymond we kind of monikered the Godfather or, no, actually the Kingfish, 'cause he's a Louisiana guy. And he controls the lives of all these kids basically," says Malatesta. "It's a super-military-type situation. No facial hair, no earrings, no grills, nothing. Once you step in these doors, he's got these kids by the balls."
Inside those doors, with his feet kicked up on the desk, wearing the usual black North Shore sweat suit, David Aymond playfully purrs into his cell phone, "You know, those who slip toil in the doldrums of mediocrity." The 59-year-old talks with a native Louisiana accent that lops the ends off of words and occasionally mashes them together.
A coach for 35 years, Aymond says one of the reasons he took the job at North Shore in 1994 was the fact that it was the only 5A program in the district.
"We would get the kids we were supposed to get. And I could coordinate my middle school programs," he says. "In other words, the system could be in from the second grade on up." Other coaches agree that having this control over the system and culture of football in a whole district -- having the ability to standardize and coordinate at multiple tiers -- is a key factor for success. By the time players hit the varsity ranks, the terminology and expectations are as drilled into their heads as their home addresses.
That need for absolute power is probably partly why North Shore has no booster club.
"Don't care for one, don't want one," Aymond says with a tight lip and a hint of a grin. Other coaches say playing politician to pushy parents can be a maddening process. The school doesn't field a seven-on-seven summer league team, either.
"In order to play in those leagues, it requires fees. You gotta come up with some money. You gotta come up with uniforms, shoes, the whole works in addition to that," he says of the off-season games that are not part of the University Interscholastic League, the statewide school sports regulating body. "So that's more funding that would be needed."
"And you can't coach 'em. So who's gonna coach 'em?"
The control thing again. More than anything else, Aymond relentlessly sings the praises of discipline within the program. "That's living the life of football at North Shore high school, which is, No. 1, academics. Take care of your academics," he says. "We have grade sheets that you're going to see these coaches pick up in the next few minutes from every player."
He continues, "We check that every day We feel like it has to be a day-to-day. Then like that, it becomes a way of life. And yes, it is about facial hair. And it is about length of hair and whether you tint your hair. It's about all of those things."
He reverts to abstraction: "It's hard for me to tell you, to describe to you your well-being if I don't feel your pulse."
A few minutes later he marches into the study hall and checks a few pulses. The room is chopped into offense and defense, and the two respective coordinators are carefully inspecting grade-sheet signatures.
"Listen up, men," Aymond barks, flashing embers of fire. He asks if anyone has any academic problems to report. Noticing the stubble of one young man -- a kid with glasses and a gray sweatshirt hood pulled over his head -- he jams a finger toward him. "You're not gonna dress out tonight if you're not shaved," he warns. There's some chatter in the back. Aymond stomps on it.
"What part of shut up do you not understand when I asked you a minute ago?" He pulls a dozen teens outside the building into the blinding morning sunlight, eyeballing for any trace of whiskers on their chins. He gives the last guy a gentle pat on the head. "You're ugly, but you're okay," he teases with a smile.
The tenderness that alternates with Aymond's stern side is probably why some players in the program say they consider him a "father figure" of sorts.
"My mother raised me on her own," says Joe Walker, the Mustang alum who graduated in 1997 but returned to work as the secondary coach. "I knew that whatever time, whatever day it was, that I could call Coach Aymond or I could call some of the other coaches that would be there for me."
That legacy continues today.
"He understands what it's like to be in our predicament, 'cause the situation he came up in," says Dajleon Farr, who will graduate in May. "It's like everybody don't have a father figure they can go talk to about some problems, and he's always there and he always opens the door for you, so, man, it's a big difference to a lotta people."
Aymond is careful to point out that his players come from a variety of circumstances -- ranging from comfortably middle class to those with greater economic needs. What he offers them is a personal story of going from humble means to a master's degree in education.
"[My parents] were illiterate. Both of mine. My parents couldn't sign their name to anything, couldn't read anything," says Aymond. "I remember tryin' to teach my mother to read when I was a kid."
If anything, Aymond's experience growing up runs contrary to the notion that success requires money. At a time when the wealthiest schools in the nation are racking up a majority of sports titles, that might make him the perfect fit for the North Shore Mustangs, 2003 champions for the state of Texas.
But this is where it ends: on the soggy turf of a dark afternoon at Leonard George Stadium in Spring. In this second round of the Class 5A Division I playoffs, the North Shore Mustangs face Westfield High School. The visitor grandstands are packed to capacity -- a sea of red spilling over with signs sporting slogans like "East Side Powerhouse." But as their boys slink into the locker room at halftime, dejected faces look toward a scoreboard that has Westfield on top 21-7.
For many, this will be their last 24 minutes in a North Shore uniform. But David Aymond isn't finished yet. He jumps on a bench, standing above the shoulder pads and helmets in the crowded locker room, and lights the fuse.
"Hey, men! Last time, if you didn't check, we are the state champions right here!" He draws a chorus of wild cheers. "You're still state champions! You understand? This game ain't over! They don't know what it's like to piss you off!" The players lather up in a frenzy of hoots and hollers.
"We're not gonna be pushed around!" Aymond booms. "This is a new game! This is the champion you, right here!" A bulky lineman breathlessly reads off a prayer from memory. The chant that breaks the huddle is the chant that breaks all the huddles, the team motto: "One, two, three -- it'smylife!" The words come out as one syllable.
The second half gets uglier. North Shore goes three and out, and Westfield follows up with a long, steady drive that eats up clock like a cow chewing cud. A fumble leads to another Westfield score, and pretty soon it's a 56-7 deficit with 5:12 left in the fourth quarter. A cheerleader is grousing, "Only a miracle'll help y'all out."
The band plays on, even as the players cross the field to shake hands. Aymond gathers his team at the 40-yard line. Each of the young men takes a knee.
"Men," he begins, a show of tenderness returning to his voice, "you got to where you are because you got great class I know you aren't happy. Hell, I'm hurt," he says. "You had a great championship run. You walk off this field with your heads up."
One player steps forward, his eyes glassy. He asks the coach if he can say something.
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"I had a good-ass run." His voice chokes up. "If it was gonna be with anybody, it was gonna be with y'all."
Aymond jumps right in: "That's a man that said that." His voice is firm. "Get in here and touch somebody you love." They place their arms on one another's shoulders and pray.
The lights have come on in the stadium. The stands have thinned out. From here, the team will dissolve into history.
Just this week, Dajleon Farr committed to LSU. On the sidelines, a coach wishes him good luck, and he replies with an inadvertently fitting comment on this era of sports economics: "Nice doin' business with you, coach."