Today’s youth sometimes get a bum rap.
They’re self-absorbed, the stereotype suggests. They’ve had everything given to them. They can’t go five minutes without checking their phones.
Sure, those kids exist. But such generalizations don’t reflect the young men that I encountered on Wednesday, when nearly 200 of Central Texas’ finest football players invaded Waco ISD Stadium for the Trib’s umpteenth annual High School Football Photo Day.
You know what I really appreciate about the millennial athlete? They don’t feel the need to channel their inner William Wallace whenever an “enemy” team approaches. These aren’t the Detroit Pistons of the “Bad Boys” era, turning up their noses (and their elbows) at their competitors.
Some 35 schools from the Central Texas community were represented at Photo Day, but in a sense, they all came from the same place – Super Centex Land. Soon enough – in a matter of weeks – these athletes will be combatants. And nobody wants to lose. The competitive zeal running through the locker room at Waco ISD was always there, lying right below the surface. But there was no game to play, no touchdown to score (or prevent), on this day. For now, they’re both neighbors and friends.
So, instead, you had guys from different teams chatting and fist-bumping. Respect and sportsmanship pervaded. What a noble concept.
A few guys seemed to know everyone in the room, no matter what color jersey they were wearing. When China Spring tight end Tyrick James entered, he didn’t just bro-hug his teammates, but rather shared the love all over the room.
One of our favorite traditions is delivery of the Trib’s annual questionnaire to these standout players. The questions generally range from the sober to the silly, and most of the players tend to spend some time with the quizzes, wanting to be thoughtful about their responses.
“What’s the coolest thing you’ve ever done, sir?” one Waco High player asked me. He was stumped by that particular query, so he turned it around on me. And he caught me off guard, for sure. Questioner suddenly had to play interviewee.
“Ah … well … I played basketball against the Harlem Globetrotters one time. That was fun,” I replied after a moment. “And I interviewed the President.”
The kid blinked into a double-take. “Wow, you’ve done a lot cooler things than me,” he said.
“I’m a lot older,” I answered.
But it’s not like I always have all the answers. These teenagers are pretty sharp in their own right.
“Where is the Nile River?” one Reicher player pondered aloud. “Is the Nile …”
I was strolling past when he asked the question, and even though my mind was running a hundred different out routes, I tried to help. “The Nile is in South America,” I said. “The Amazon is in Africa.”
“Ah, no,” chimed in Reicher linebacker Bradley Bass. “The Amazon is in South America, and the Nile is in Africa.”
I stopped and thought for a second. Bass was correct, of course. “My bad. Fortunately, it’s not a test,” I said, sheepishly, ashamed of my geographical faux pas.
I was puzzled how the whereabouts of the Nile was even germane to the locker-room chatter. Until hours later, when I spotted the questionnaire of Reicher’s Eli Ferris, the aforementioned player.
In response to that “coolest thing you’ve ever done” question, Ferris wrote, “Swam across the Nile River to save a boatload of orphans, then with their gratitude they made me the king of their people.”
Yeah, you always have at least one class clown.
More than one player asked me, “Where do we put our tests?” when they finished their questionnaires. In 19 years of player-wrangling for the Trib, I don’t think I’d gotten that one before. Either these guys are already in mid-semester form, or this generation has endured far too many standardized tests. (I’m thinking it’s the latter.)
“You’re not being graded,” I replied, hoping to ease any underlying tension.
Some of the players carried the air of grizzled veterans, and knew the Photo Day drill by heart. La Vega quarterback Jamal Williams looked perfectly relaxed, a few weeks out from his senior season.
“I bet I know your coolest thing, Jamal. Got to be winning a state championship, right?” I asked.
Reclined against a locker, Williams flashed a grin. “That’s one of them. I’ve lived a colorful life.”
I’ve said it before, but it always feels something like a family reunion when all these various players and coaches gather together. Players in every jersey hue (and new, fancy design) imaginable interact with one another, catching up on how their summers went and who’s dating whom. (Don’t worry, guys, I’ll never tell. Mostly because I can’t remember.)
By sheer mass, Midway sent one of the most impressive contingents. I chatted with Panthers quarterback Tanner Mordecai (Oklahoma) and offensive lineman Hakeem White (Texas Tech) about their summertime commitments. Both were excited and looking forward to upcoming return visits to Norman and Lubbock, respectively.
We had fewer coaches in attendance than normal, but that was our fault. Normally, we avoid scheduling Photo Day up against the THSCA’s summertime convention and coaching school. This year various complications forced our hands into a Wednesday date, so that kept some coaches from attending.
Many others joined the action, however, chauffeuring their athletes to the stadium and directing them where to go. (Some of them are in midseason form, too.) Penelope coach Randall Ballew thanked me for an 11th-hour text message reminder, since “I haven’t turned on a computer all summer,” he said.
Then Ballew went off in search of Abbott’s Terry Crawford, a rival and friend who has been a Photo Day regular since the late 1990s.
While several of my Trib colleagues (and freelance helpers) were scattered about the locker room and the Waco ISD field, snapping photos and conducting video interviews and directing player traffic, I manned the questionnaire table at the front of the locker room. (Pro move: Find the air conditioning and stay there.)
That spot allowed me to interact with virtually everyone who arrived. “Hey, Groesbeck, thanks for coming … Walnut Springs, thanks for making the drive, guys … Hey, how you doing? How was your summer?”
The players couldn’t have been more polite and respectful. “Yes, sir … thank you, sir … here’s your pen, sir … where do I go now, sir?”
Self-absorbed? Not these guys. Clearly they’ve been raised (and coached) right.
That much was apparent all the way up to the last team of the day. The Clifton Cubs were the final team to arrive, resplendent in their bright green jerseys and happy to have avoided the rush.
After visiting the various stations, they tossed around the pigskin on the field with a couple of members of the Trib staff. When it was time to go, they used some savvy, quick-thinking teamwork to decide on Panda Express for lunch.
“We’re going to Panda, y’all want to come?” one of the players called.
Alas, our schedules prevented us from accepting the invitation. But just being asked was pretty cool.
Not the coolest thing ever, mind you, but cool nonetheless.