Column: Experiencing Texas high school football exceeds wildest expectations

VIDEO | 02:15
Sondheimer: Cross one off the bucket list with Texas visit

Times columnist Eric Sondheimer experienced Texas high school football for the first time. Here’s what he saw.


In more than 40 years as a sportswriter, I’ve covered the Super Bowl, the Rose Bowl, an NBA championship, the World Series, the Breeders’ Cup, the Little League World Series and countless high school championship games.

Still left on the bucket list was witnessing a Texas high school football game. It became an aspiration after reading “Friday Night Lights: A town, a team and a Dream,” the wonderful book written by H.G. Bissinger in 1990.

So my two-day, two-night trip to Dallas this last weekend searching for the ultimate Texas high school football experience came with high expectations.

Sean Salisbury, a former USC quarterback who’s now a talk-radio host in Houston, said, “I love California football. Texas is just different. In California, high school football is a way of life. In Texas, high school football is life.”

Here are my observations:

Texas barbecue is insane. Pecan Lodge’s brisket melts in your mouth and is so tasty you want to scream, “Unbelievable.”

Brisket, ribs and mac and cheese at Pecan Lodge in Dallas.
(Eric Sondheimer / Los Angeles Times)

When they say everything is bigger in Texas, they aren’t embellishing. There are giant state flags, giant marching bands, giant drill teams, giant stadiums, giant food portions and giant water towers.

Nothing was more memorable than turning off U.S. 75 North on a 40-mile drive from Dallas and seeing the outlines of Allen High’s $62-million football stadium. The closer you get, the more astounding it becomes.

Allen High School's $62-million stadium opened in 2012 in Texas.
(Eric Sondheimer / Los Angeles Times)

It seats 22,500. There are 1,000 seats set aside for the school band and drill team. Some 8,500 season tickets are sold. More than 1,000 students who go to school in Allen in grades seven through 12 play football. The video scoreboard is so large you could show nightly Netflix movies.

“Fans who come here love it,” facilities director Steve Hanner said. “It’s part of our culture. One town, one high school.”

AT&T Stadium, home of the Dallas Cowboys and the state high school football championships, is massive and loaded with more flat screen TVs than the biggest sports bar. The PA system is as loud as a rock concert. The food areas are as plentiful than those at a Las Vegas mall. The field and atmosphere gives teenage participants a pro experience unmatched. When a fan is shown on the giant video screen, it is like a surprise birthday gift that they won’t forget.

AT&T Stadium hosted a Texas high school football game on Thursday.
(Eric Sondheimer / Los Angeles Times)

For a visitor driving the highways, a cellphone and the Waze app is a must. The rental car company charged $12.99 a day for a tollway pass. Living in California, I’m not used to tollways but didn’t know whether to accept the charge or not. Never used a tollway but glad to contribute to the Texas highway system.

If you want to put a smile on a lineman’s face, tell him there’s beef ribs for dinner. Santa Ana Mater Dei center BJ Tolo said he ate 10 ribs at a Thursday night dinner. Even the smaller defensive backs were impressed. “The barbecue was amazing,” cornerback Joshua Hunter said.

Texas fans are so passionate and confident about their state’s superiority in high school football that they had no clue what was about to hit them when Mater Dei showed up at Duncanville High. From beginning to end, Mater Dei was faster, stronger and more athletic during a 45-3 victory on Friday night. Home fans stayed in a line that stretched around the school for 45 minutes after kickoff trying to get into a stadium that fits nearly 11,000. Their passion and loyalty are unchallenged.

Mater Dei wide receiver Jack Ressler in the end zone after catching a touchdown pass.
Mater Dei wide receiver Jack Ressler in the end zone after catching a touchdown pass against Duncanville, whose 11,000-seat Panther Stadium includes huge video boards (background).
(Jerome Miron/For The Times)
A view of the Texas flag as Mater Dei plays Duncanville High at Panther Stadium.
A view of the Texas flag as Mater Dei plays Duncanville High at 11,000-seat Panther Stadium.
(Jerome Miron/For The Times)

The most shocking scene was Mater Dei coach Bruce Rollinson in shorts. He’s usually wearing a dress shirt, dress pants and a tie. Apparently the 90-degree temperature and humidity resulted in a change of game plans. “Too hot for this old man,” he said.


After Mater Dei’s victory, Salisbury sent a direct message adding to his thoughts on Texas football. “While the stadiums may be bigger in Texas and the passion for football is off the charts, I still believe and always will that California football talent takes a back seat to no one. California can beat anyone.”

Bellflower St. John Bosco has plans to play in Texas on Aug. 26, 2022. Is it too early to make a reservation at Pecan Lodge for brisket?

A view of the stadium and press box at Panther Stadium in Duncanville, Texas.
(Jerome Miron/Jerome Miron)