Football: All-star games lacking in star power

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Hours before young men from across Texas put on their pads and played a football game that’s historic as it is somewhat forgotten, Gary Hill sat in his truck parked next to the front doors of the Maskat Shrine in Wichita Falls.

Hill, the general chairman of the Oil Bowl, sat with a box of cigarettes on his dashboard and a small brown paper bag in his passenger seat as the boys filed past his truck and out of the shrine.

As the boys thanked Hill for the week leading up to the Oil Bowl and the pre-game meal, Hill reciprocated his thanks and urged them to play well in the upcoming all-star game.

He’s uncertain how many people will turn out for the all-star game this Saturday night on June 15 at Wichita Falls’ Memorial Stadium, where teams representing East Texas and West Texas will square off. He’s unsure how the possibility of storms and the perceived downturn of the economy will affect the attendance.

Regardless, the game will go on.

The two most prominent all-star games in the state — The Texas High School Coaches Association All-Star Game and the Oil Bowl — both claim to be the oldest game of its kind in the country. Both games have dwindled in attendance and in high-caliber athletes over the years, but the game is still there, a representation of the state’s rich gridiron heritage and a celebration of its current athletes.

“We could always get all the blue-chippers in Texas,” Hill said. “That was the crème-de-la-crème of the Texas high school football players. If you were named a blue-chipper, you were on our hit-list to play in the Oil Bowl and you’d come.”

It’s not the same way anymore.

In the 76th Oil Bowl, only six players were headed to Football Bowl Subdivision schools. In the THSCA All-Star Game that will take place on July 30 at TCU’s Amon Carter Stadium, 26 of its players will be headed to FBS schools. Some of the others in the game are headed to places like Incarnate Word and Oklahoma Panhandle State.

In the past, some of the most prolific names in the sport played in the games, names that even casual observers of the sport will recognize. Only time will tell if those who most recently played in the all-star games will gain the acclaim of those who came before them.

It’s all part of the uncertainty that surrounds the game and the aura of one the state’s best-kept traditions.

Historic past

One morning during his team’s summer workouts, Ryan head football coach Joey Florence tossed his feet atop his empty desk and looked to his left at the pictures and plaques mounted on his wall.

Florence gazed at the portrait of him and his coaching staff the year he coached the THSCA All-Star game, when he had former Ryan quarterback James Battle and Southlake Carroll quarterback Chase Wasson on a very talented squad.

When Florence was younger, he and his father, Mickey, would go every year to watch the game, no matter where it was held.

“Of course, I’d watched those games growing up,” Florence said. “There’s a lot of tradition in those games. Some of the greatest players ever from Texas played in those things.”

During the summers, Florence’s father ran the Rockwall city pool, taught driver’s education and worked for his father to earn money in the summer while he wasn’t coaching.

Joe Martin, the assistant executive director of the THSCA, also was the son of a coach and also went with his father to watch the best high school players from across the state.

“Those guys playing, you idolized them,” Martin said. “You wanted to grow up to be like them, and you wanted to be as talented as they were. And I couldn’t tell you a kid that I watched. I couldn’t tell you a name. But I just remember watching those guys and aspiring to be as good as they were.”

Those who played in the THSCA game include Cowboys coaching legend Tom Landry (Mission, 1942), former Cowboys quarterback Don Meredith (Mount Vernon, 1956), and NFL all-pro running back and Texas Longhorns great Earl Campbell (Tyler John Tyler, 1974).

Recent standouts include New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees (Austin Westlake, 1997), New England Patriots wide receiver Danny Amendola (The Woodlands, 2004) and Texas Tech head coach Kliff Kingsbury (New Braunfels, 1998).

The names of those in the Oil Bowl include Hall of Fame wide receiver Steve Largent (Warr Acres, Okla., Putnam City High School, 1972), UCLA standout Skip Hicks (Burkburnett, 1993) and UT-San Antonio head coach Larry Coker. Other notables who played in the game include Baylor head coach Art Briles (Rule, 1974) and former North Texas and Iowa head coach Hayden Fry (Odessa High, 1947), both of whom also played in the THSCA All-Star game.

Enrolling early

When he was the head coach at Claremore (Okla.) High School, Coker coached the Oklahoma All-Stars in the 1978 Oil Bowl. Later in his career, he went on to lead Miami to the 2001 national title. Coker’s currently in his third season at UTSA.

When asked about all-star games, he recalls the story of former Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis. Lewis didn’t have a scholarship. He returned a kick-off for a touchdown in a Florida all-star game and was offered a scholarship by Miami.

Lewis went on to play in 13 Pro Bowls and was twice named the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year.

Coker said he encourages his kids to play in all-star games. However, there is something that has changed in recent years, a problem that’s affected who can play in the all-star games.

“The problem we have, and the problem most people have, too, is that they can go but they can’t miss classes,” Coker said.

In 2005, the NCAA adopted legislation that allowed all sports to grant financial aid to recruits for summer classes leading up to their full-time enrollment.

The legislation changed when recruits started showing up at their college campuses.

UNT head football coach Dan McCarney said that now a lot of recruits are starting their collegiate careers much sooner than they did in previous years.

“As a player, I came in the fall of 1971 to the University of Iowa and we didn’t start until August,” McCarney said. “And for years and years and years, that’s all we ever knew. That’s dramatically changed through the years now, as young men are reporting much sooner.”

Now, it’s common for recruits to enroll at their respective schools during the summer, where they cannot only start their coursework but begin their strength and conditioning programs before football season officially begins.

McCarney — who remains neutral in letting his kids play in games — and Coker both cited the early enrollment of players has a reason higher-caliber recruits at college football’s highest level are foregoing a chance to play with their high-school counterparts for a final time.

With both the Oil Bowl and the THSCA game, kids show up at the sites of the two games a few days prior to the contest. The athletes will train with their coaches, build friendships with some and disdain for others. While the Oil Bowl was in the middle of June, the THSCA game is historically played during the last week in July.

Whitesboro head coach Eddie Gill said the main reason top players are no longer playing in the games is because of restrictions by universities.

“The main reason is that the universities are telling them, ‘Hey, we don’t want you to play in these games,’” Gill said. “The universities are investing a lot of time and money into these kids. They want to try and get them in there early in the summer and make sure they’re doing what they want them to do, and that sort of thing.”

A murky future

Hours after the young men and coaches filed out of Maskat Shrine, they patiently awaited the start of the 76th Oil Bowl at Wichita Falls’ Memorial Stadium. The game usually pits a team from Oklahoma against a team from Texas, but this year it’s a regional battle between Texas teams.

The first Oil Bowl was in 1938 and it matched West Texas versus East Texas. Texas started playing in Oklahoma in 1945.

While the Oil Bowl professes to be the longest-running high school game, THSCA records show its first all-star game being played in 1935.

A dispute between which charity the money from the 2012 game would go to caused the Oklahoma contingent to pull out of the event, and Hill hopes the issue can be settled in time to start planning’s next year’s game.

East Texas head coach Brian Polk, who is also the head coach at Trophy Club Nelson, said he was ecstatic when he got the call to coach the game.

“I think you always want the opportunity to get that phone call,” Polk said. “And when you get it, it’s exciting. Getting to come out here with a group of kids that are great football players and getting to watch these guys work, that’s why [the game] tonight is going to be so fun.”

Fans slowly filed into Memorial Stadium a couple hours before the start of the game, wearing the shirts of their respective hometown teams that will be represented on the field. Those in the press box estimated the attendance at a mere 3,500.

The game featured referees that forgot where to place the ball after a touchback, occasional post-whistle scrums, girls in dresses hoping to be named the Oil Bowl queen and Wylie East standout Jabari Anderson.

Anderson, who’s headed to Tarleton State, set an Oil Bowl record with 187 rushing yards and led East Texas to a 22-17 win.

Later this month, a similar game will be played at TCU during the THSCA Coaches Convention and Coaching School.

Florence, Ryan’s head coach, recommended the game be done away with.

“I just think it’s lost it’s luster — to me. I still think it’s a great honor for the coaches,” Florence said. “But I just think it’s so difficult to get the great players there, so for me, it’s lost its luster. Me, I’m a traditionalist. I love the tradition of the game, but I still like to see the best players in the state and they’re just not there anymore.”

Gill cited the case of Whitesboro’s Dylan Mitchell to keep all-star games alive. Mitchell played his final game at this year’s Oil Bowl, where Gill was an assistant coach. Gill said Mitchell enjoyed the week’s festivities, considering he thought he’d never get to play again.

“As long as you have that kind of attitude and that kind of mentality here in Texas, the all-star games will surely live on,” Gill said.

Next year, another batch of seniors will graduate from high schools across Texas and head off to their respective colleges. Some coaches will let their kids off to all-star games, while others will remain on campus.

Coker, the UTSA head coach, said future all-star games may be lacking in star-power, but the games will still be noteworthy.

“You won’t have an Adrian Peterson possibly, or Ray Lewis or some of these types of guys, but I think there will definitely be some good players there and it gives them opportunities to maybe go to opportunities in college,” Coker said.

The future of the all-star games is unclear, but the heritage will forever remain.

Regardless, the game will go on.

BEN BABY can be reached at 940-566-6869 and via Twitter at @Ben_Baby.

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