MIKE LEE: West Texas football coaches, players remember playing after 9/11
The only thing scripted on Sept. 14, 2001, in the West Texas oilfield town of Kermit was the maroon-clad Yellow Jackets and white-clad Midland Christian Mustangs lined up across the 50-yard line in an alternating pattern for the national anthem.
There was a maroon uniform, a white uniform, a maroon uniform, a white uniform and so on. It was a planned show of unity just three days after the 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C. The two head coaches, Glen Jones of Kermit and Greg McClendon of Midland Christian, met in the middle of the field some 20 yards behind their players.
The remainder of the pregame festivities was completely spontaneous.
“Coach McClendon and I had our arms around each other’s shoulders when they started playing ‘The Star-Spangled Banner,’ but the more it played, the tighter we got to clutching each other,” Jones said. “We just held on to each other tighter and tighter while we were watching our kids together at midfield.
“When it was over, we both had tears running down our face. We said we loved each other. It was such a special moment because we didn’t really know each other except as coaches. We didn’t socialize. We were just coaching acquaintances.”
Jones, who retired in 2013 after 27 years as a head coach that included stops at Ballinger and Brady, is now principal at Veribest. But he has remained in contact with McClendon, who still is the head coach at Midland Christian.
“Every year on 9/11, one of us has called or texted the other,” Jones said. “One year on 9/11, I texted him as they were getting off the bus to play a game in Louisiana. No matter where we are, one of us reaches out to the other on 9/11. I hope it continues as long as we’re alive.”
Americans were still shocked and trying to figure out how and why the terrorist attacks happened in the days immediately after 9/11. In sports, Major League Baseball didn’t resume games for a week, and the NFL didn’t play again until Sept. 23. Those professional leagues were more directly impacted since they included teams from New York and Washington.
Major college football didn’t play games on Sept. 15, instead returning on Sept. 20.
As the nation pauses this weekend to mark 20 years since the attacks, sports, which normally serve as an escape from the troubles of life, are credited with helping shape the national response to 9/11. A response of moving forward even while we were grieving, feeling unsure and seeking answers.
Texas high school football played as scheduled Sept. 13-15, the weekend after 9/11. Some who were involved think it was the right thing to do. Others didn’t want to play. Others still don’t know if it was right to play or not.
“Nobody in Kermit regretted playing that night,” Jones said. “And there was a lot of panic around here on 9/11 because of all the oilfields and refineries in the Permian Basin. There were rumors that we could be attacked next.
“That pregame ceremony reminds me of what that day was like and how far football was down the priority list. But we played because we felt it was best for the school and community to continue on the best we could.”
Midland Lee, which recently was renamed Midland Legacy, was scheduled to host an international game against Tamaliupas, a university team from Mexico, the weekend after 9/11.
“We didn’t even know if they could get across the border, but they got here,” said John Parchman, the Lee head coach in 2001. “President (George W.) Bush had said he wanted Americans to carry on with life and not let this defeat us. Our school administration decided to play to show resolve as Americans.
“Our minds were far, far away from football that night. I didn’t know if it was the right decision then, and I still don’t know. There’s just no template for dealing with something like that.
“If I had to do it again, I guess I would do it the same way,” Parchman said. “We needed to show strength as a country. Showing strength is never a bad thing.”
Jake Lackey, San Saba’s quarterback in 2001, didn’t really want to play against Florence on Sept. 14, but he did.
“You have to remember this was before cellphones and instant news,” Lackey said. “We were kids at school. We didn’t really know what was happening and if it was for real until lunch, when we could find a TV set.
“I was 18 years old, and I was pretty scared. It was our Pearl Harbor. Everybody remembers where they were. To be honest, I didn’t really want to play football that week.”
The Armadillos hosted Florence, and Lackey remembers the pregame ceremonies.
“There were American flags everywhere, even lined up along the back of the end zones,” he said. “It’s the only time for a San Saba home game that I saw everybody wearing red, white and blue instead of purple and gold (the school colors).”
Ballinger coach Chuck Lipsey, now a 21-year head coach, was starting his first year as a head coach in 2001 at Winters. He remembers the need for trust during those uncertain times.
“I think playing was the right thing to do because we wanted to show that we have a strong country,” Lipsey said. “We had to trust the people in charge of our country to do the right things and make sure this would never happen again.
“You know, we’re facing a similar threat now in COVID because it’s affecting the entire nation,” said Lipsey, whose Bearcats canceled their game last week because of COVID issues. “We have to take precautions with COVID and deal with it. But we also have to fight through it the best we can, so our kids can have something close to normal.”
Mike Lee writes a weekly high school football column for the USA Today Network's Texas newspapers. Contact him at email@example.com.