Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Book Review: Prairie Blitz: High School Football on America's 50 Yard Line

 It’s about time for the “Friday night lights.”
All up and down Highway 83, from Westhope, N.D, to Brownsville, Texas, high school football teams are practicing for their first games of the year. It is something every community on the road shares.
Teams will be traveling 83 for away games, with marching bands, cheerleaders, teachers and fans following them in caravans. Home games are an opportunity to see old friends and catch up on all the news as locals huddle on bleacher seats.
These high schools may have basketball, track and volleyball teams, but none of the other sports seem to hold the same place in the hearts of the local citizens as football.
Former football coach, turned writer, David Almany, documented the meaning of football in three towns on Highway 83 in his 2011 book: Prairie Blitz: High School Football on America’s 50 Yard Line.
This is the second book (that I know of) published about Highway 83, following A Whole Lot of Nothing published in Dutch by photographer Maarten Laupman and writer Rob Daniels, two men from the Netherlands. To read an interview with Laupamn, CLICK HERE. 
Almany spent a fall following the fortunes of three teams on Highway 83, Linton, N.D., McCook, Neb., and Canadian, Texas.
“All three have amazing successful teams and thriving economies. There is a connection,” he states on the cover of the book.
Unlike Laupman, Daniels and myself, who have traveled Highway 83 in what can only be described as whirlwind tours, Almany had the opportunity to reside, at least temporarily, in these three towns and really understand what makes them tick.
He rightly notes that small towns all up and down the highway, particularly on the Northern and Southern Plains, are dying slow deaths. Why are Linton, Canadian and McCook doing relatively well as compared to other towns? he asks.
He grew to know the coaches, players, and administrators of the schools, but didn’t stop there, and interviewed movers and shakers in these towns to seek an answer.
His thesis is that a strong, successful football team is an indicator of a thriving town. He goes in depth into what makes the towns economically successful, and looks at their individual histories.
One particularly poignant story is of a black man he encountered in a Highway 83 town, which he chooses to keep unidentified. The man showed up through happenstance in the small town when he was a teenager, having not played football in the big city where he grew up. He joined the team, and soon became, for one brief season, the team star and local hero.
But he was never able to parlay his high school success into a college career, and by the time Almany encountered him, he was working as a convenience store clerk.
He begins the book with another fellow he met on a Highway 83 town football field, whose light shined even briefer. He had caught one touch down pass — not even intended for him — decades ago, but he could still recount every moment of his fleeting moment of glory.
Although the book I am writing and Prairie Blitz are quite different, I did share one similar experience with Almany. When I arrived in Junction, Texas, I wanted to see the spot where legendary Texas A&M coach Paul “Bear” Bryant brought a little less than 100 players to a camp on Sept. 1, 1954 during a drought and heat wave to train them because he felt that they were “soft.” He drilled them night and day with no water breaks. Only 27 or so survived the ordeal. That brutal training camp resulted in the book and movie, The Junction Boys.
Almany had a hard time finding someone in Junction who knew where this had taken place, and found the spot in ragged shape.
The first person I asked about the location, a cashier at a diner, pointed me in the right direction. Similarly, when I arrived at the campus, which now belongs to Texas Tech., there was no signs or marker about the event. I found one fellow who confirmed that some of the buildings were where the football players stayed.
Also, in the fall of 2010, during a quick weekend trip to travel Highway 83 north and south of Abilene, Texas, I had a chance to watch a high school football game in Ballinger. It wasn’t a good night for the local team — they lost — but I managed to take a few good pictures (seen here). It was a great opportunity to experience the passion of Texas high school football that I had heard so much about.
And as the season gets underway, there is one last piece of Highway 83 football history to share.
Dallas Cowboy Coach Tom Landry was born and raised in Mission, Texas, and was the quarterback at Mission High school, leading his team in 1941 to a perfect 12-0 record, and a regional championship. The high school team’s stadium and a street are named after him.
I attempted to reach Almany for an interview, but have been unsuccessful so far. But I wanted to call attention to this remarkable book ahead of the football season. I can only hope that he sees this article and gets a hold of me someday.

Football fans will enjoy Prairie Blitz. It is available on Amazon.com.



To join the Fans of U.S. Route 83 group on Facebook, CLICK HERE. And check out the U.S. Route 83 Travel page at www.usroute83.com.

Stew Magnuson is the author of Wounded Knee 1973: Still Bleeding: The American Indian Movement, the FBI, and their Fight to Bury the Sins of the Past published by the Now & Then Reader. It is available as an eBook on Kindle, Nook, Kobo and iTunes. Buy it in paperback on Amazon or bookstores such as Plains Trading Company Booksellers, in Valentine, Neb., on Highway 83. 

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