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The spotlight’s on Texas’ Colt McCoy, and his tiny hometown basks in the glow

The road sign on Route 83 that welcomes you to Colt McCoy’s hometown needs updating because it states, “Tuscola, population 714.”

That head count was taken 10 years ago.

“I imagine we’re pretty close to 800 now,” City Secretary Billie Pearce said from behind the counter at City Hall.

It was Dec. 22, and Pearce was about to celebrate her 78th Christmas here.

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“If you saw where the funeral home is?” she said, pointing outside to Bartlett’s parlor. “Right across the street is where I was born.”

That was a few years after Tuscola, the entire town, was picked up and moved five miles to make way for the railroad. Chester, did you remember to pack the First State Bank?

Not much has changed, Pearce says, from the days when she walked eight miles to swim and spent afternoons playing an offshoot of hockey, on stilts, using tin cans. (It never caught on nationally.)

The major industries remain: cotton, wheat, cattle and high school football.

Pearce has seen everything that’s fit to be seen in Tuscola. In 2002, when it rained 17 inches in three hours, Lucy Simpson had to be rescued off the top of her truck. There have been close brushes with tornadoes.

In the 1950s, Eddie “the Claw” Sprinkle, made it from nearby Bradshaw all the way to the Chicago Bears, where he earned the moniker “Meanest Man in Football.”

Eddie Meador, Pearce’s first cousin, rose from Ovalo to All-Pro safety for the Los Angeles Rams -- Pearce used to drive to Dallas to see Eddie play when the Rams visited.

Nothing, though, has affected the town as intimately as the ascent of Texas quarterback Colt McCoy, who leads the Longhorns into Thursday’s Bowl Championship Series title game against Alabama at the Rose Bowl.

“We’ve never had as much publicity as we’ve had with Colt,” Pearce said. “Everybody knows where Tuscola is.”

Pearce paused to wipe tears that were streaming down her face.

“I’m just emotional,” she explained, “talking about Colt and the Cowboys. I cry when I’m happy, I cry when I’m sad. I cry when I see a flag.”

McCoy has an NCAA-record 45 wins as a starting quarterback, holds 47 school records, and is Texas’ only four-time team MVP.

If a town could bust its buttons, this one would.

Tuscola, at first blush, isn’t much to look at. You’d say “Last Picture Show,” except the town’s only theater closed down.

Yet, you feel the closeness of community that comes when one of your own makes it big. Think, on a smaller scale, of Tupelo, Miss., and Elvis.

McCoy was born in Hobbs, N.M., but came to Tuscola in the seventh grade when his dad took over as football coach at Jim Ned High.

On a football field on the outskirts of town, 160 miles west of Dallas and 20 miles south of Abilene, McCoy made memories under one of hundreds of sets of lights that, from an airplane at 35,000 feet, dot the state on fall Friday nights.

McCoy went 34-2 as a starter, throwing for 116 touchdowns and 9,344 yards. His “whoop-dee-do” moment, as a junior, was leading Jim Ned to the 2A state finals.

“I loved it,” McCoy said of growing up in Tuscola. “There were more people living in my dorm rooms in my wing when I got to Texas than in my hometown. People in small towns are so friendly, so nice. You know everybody; there are no secrets. Everybody knows where you are all the time.”

Kay Whitton, who taught “introduction to business,” accounting and college prep classes to McCoy at Jim Ned, is the leader of Colt’s marching and chowder society.

Whitton has told McCoy, a 23-year-old fifth-year college senior, that it’s OK now to call her Kay, but he insists on calling her “Miss.”

Whitton agreed to give a tour of the town, starting at the Jim Ned High parking lot, where it was determined she should drive so a visiting reporter could jot down important notes.

It took five minutes.

Hopping out of her car on Graham Street, at the center of a downtown where “Gunsmoke” could have been filmed, Whitton waggled her finger.

“That’s the American Legion hall there,” she said. “The volunteer fire department is right there. A couple of churches are down that way, the funeral home is down that way, and the post office is right on Graham down that way a little bit.”

So there you have it.

A complimentary copy of the Jim Ned Journal, “Your hometown newspaper,” was available on the City Hall counter.

Front page headline: “Buffalo Gap City Purchases Truck”

Linda Stockton penned her latest roundup column, “Letter to Aunt Em,” which included these snippets:

* “Watch out for huge yellow dogs! One took the grill out of a neighbor’s car out north of town last week.”

* “Lotsa disappointment last Saturday evening when the local boy-who-made-good didn’t bring home the Heisman Award.”

* “Debbie Stewart has come from Dripping Springs to help her brothers take care of their mom and dad a few days.”

Whitton, who has been teaching in Tuscola for 16 years, buzzed the car back to the high school to show off the classroom where McCoy sat.

There was a picture on the wall of Texas Coach Mack Brown, who surprised the school with a visit. Texas coaches who recruited McCoy liked to joke that Tuscola was so remote the hunting got better the closer you got to town.

Whitton revealed the spot where, last spring, on a surprise visit, McCoy sneaked up behind a student who claimed his knees knocked when he once saw the player from afar, in person.

“He was dumbstruck,” Whitton said of the boy, who nearly fell out of his chair.

Whitton was so sure McCoy would be famous some day she kept all of his test scores to show anyone who would care to see them.

“He has a persona about him that attracts people,” Whitton explained. “He wasn’t just friendly with the cool kids, even the kids that weren’t so cool. He was friendly to all of them. He didn’t try to be better than anybody. He had no airs about him.”

Later, gazing out at the football field, Whitton explained what made small towns different.

“When we were all sitting in those stands on Friday night watching him, 80% of people in stands knew Colt or his family,” she said. “When you go to a 5-A school, they don’t know them at all. So there’s a connection there.”

McCoy said this week of Tuscola: “I think all 700 people probably have an autograph at this point.”

Whitton moved 17 times as a kid. Out of college and married, she was working in Abilene, in another profession, when she was drawn toward teaching.

“Coming here was like finding a piece of Americana that I had never experienced,” she said. “I want to be here from now on. I want to be buried in the cemetery right here in this town.”

Most folks in Tuscola can’t afford the trip to the Rose Bowl to see Texas play Alabama for the national title.

So, they’ll gather around television sets and pray the game isn’t as emotionally taxing as the Big 12 title game against Nebraska, won by Texas on a last-second field goal.

“That one scared me to death,” Billie Pearce said. “We weren’t breathing.”

That sad part is, after Thursday, McCoy’s Texas career will be over. Whitton says she’ll probably go into withdrawal.

“Colt is a friend of mine,” she said. “Colt is not just one of my students. There are relationships in this town that you can’t build in big cities as easily.”

McCoy’s father has already moved on, to coach at a bigger high school in a bigger Texas town. Colt will move on to the NFL, no doubt, hopefully to play for the Cowboys. But it will be different. He said it has been “an honor” putting Tuscola on his shoulders.

“I try to soak it all in,” he said. “Right now I’m living in the moment, getting prepared. Some day, when it’s all said and done, I’ll look back and be very proud of where I came from.”

McCoy could see himself living in a small town: “I wouldn’t be opposed. It teaches you a lot of valuable lessons.”

Lessons learned: You can get anywhere you want from next to nowhere. And you can make people proud to be from a place that, if you were traveling through Texas, you’d never seek out on purpose.

Billie Pearce: “When people ask me where Tuscola is, I tell them Abilene is a suburb.”

chris.dufresne@latimes.com

twitter.com/DufresneLATimes


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