This story originally appeared in Dallas Cowboys Star Magazine. For subscription information, please click **here*.*
With the high school playoffs now in full swing throughout Texas, the impact of Friday Night Lights on so many communities across the state is being felt once again, and it's even more magnified when a team goes on a magical playoff run to the championship.
The Cowboys roster has always included plenty of players who earned their first football accolades starring in the Lone Star State's highly acclaimed postseason. But a look at the squad today shows quite a few who have experienced similar levels of excitement in other states.
And yes, a high school state championship is just as big a deal in Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Pennsylvania or Wisconsin, as it is in Texas.
"It was definitely big, it was almost like in college, they tailgate before the games, it's crazy," said wide receiver and kick returner Dwayne Harris, whose Tucker High School team from Stone Mountain, Ga., won four straight Region 6-4A championships while he was there. "Football night in Georgia is real big."
Defensive tackle Terrell McClain reports that the atmosphere in Florida was just as rabid back when his Pensacola High School squad advanced to the Class 4A state semifinals in 2004.
"I know when I was there, football was big. We always had pretty big crowds," said McClain, whose Tigers team lost that semifinal matchup in his sophomore year. "I haven't been back there in a while. I hope it's still big down there because it's always good to have Friday night football. You want to see the kids out there having a good time on the field and not doing anything else."
Echoing what happens every fall in little places around Texas, center Travis Frederick remembers the support that his hometown of Sharon gave the Big Foot High School team when they advanced to the Wisconsin Division 4 state title game in 2008.
"I went to a small high school, I'm from a small town, so the whole town was behind us," Frederick said. "They took the buses up to the stadium and all that. It was certainly fun."
And just like in Texas, where most of the championship games are played at AT&T Stadium, the other states have big-time neutral sites hosting their contests as well.
For example, in Georgia, most of the state championship games are played in the Georgia Dome, home of the Atlanta Falcons, while in Indiana, they play in the Colts' Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis. Having the title games at such hallowed venues provides huge thrills for the kids to step out onto the same fields as their heroes, only enhancing the experience of playing in the biggest games of their lives to that point.
"We played at Camp Randall Stadium, home of the University of Wisconsin, in Madison, so it was cool when we played there to get a feel for that stadium," said defensive tackle Nick Hayden of his Arrowhead High School squad that lost in the Division 1 state championship finals in 2000, 2002 and 2003. He would eventually star on that same field for Wisconsin. "That was pretty neat. Just the week leading up, the whole school is excited. You can tell that everyone's gearing up and going to be watching you play, so it was a good feeling. It was fun. I'm just glad we were able to get there in three out of four years."
Besides the excitement of competing in front of so many people, long playoff runs helped teach several important lessons to the up-and-coming players, such as dealing with high-stakes pressure situations, the teamwork and sacrifices needed to win, and the importance of being fully prepared to play.
"It just makes you a better man in the end, it grows you," Hayden said of gaining that playoff experience in high school. "Discipline starts at such a young age now, it's good. You learn the fundamentals, how to play the game, and it's a great way to lead you, even if you don't go on to play football as a career. It's great for any success at any job."
For rookie wide receiver Devin Street, the pain of losing in the Pennsylvania Class 4A state championship twice before winning it all as a senior with Liberty High School in 2008 helped him learn the value of working together with his teammates for a larger, common goal.
"That's when your team really comes together. That's when you really find out the morale of your team," said Street of the playoffs. "You definitely establish your identity during the course of the season, but in those playoff runs, that's when you really need to mesh and jell as a team. It needs to be a whole team effort, game in, game out, play in, play out. That's how we prevailed my senior year."
Street recalled the disappointment of not winning and how his team, called the Hurricanes, struggled in the face of adversity in those title games they lost. The key to overcoming that hurdle in his senior year was for all of his teammates to rely on each other and stick together.
"The first two years, we were playing well and we had great talent, but things would go the wrong way in a game, and we'd just shut down," said Street of Liberty's final losses in 2005 (49-10 to McKeesport) and 2006 (47-13 to Upper St. Clair). "So the biggest thing is just staying close as a team. That's when the greatest games come, when you play as a team, especially in a playoff run. You need every guy playing great."
Safety J.J. Wilcox agrees that it takes everyone pulling together with the same determined work ethic. After his Cairo High School squad lost in the Georgia Class 3A state championship game, 16-13, to Columbus Carver in 2007, his Syrupmakers squad (yes, that's really what they're called) bounced back to win the championship in 2008 during his senior year.
"I know exactly what it takes. It takes hard work and dedication," Wilcox said of winning a championship. "You have to push, even when you don't want to. You have to keep going and keep pushing. I know it takes a team effort and just keep pushing."
The biggest lesson McClain cited from his high school playoff experiences was to not try to do too much – the need to trust in his teammates and for the team not to beat themselves with undisciplined mistakes.
"Just to be patient, not to do something that you're not used to doing," McClain said of a key to postseason success. "Don't go out there trying to be Superman. Just do what you're used to be doing. Don't get too keyed up, not jumping offsides or getting stupid penalties, not blowing assignments. It's just going out there, being patient, being poised and having fun."
Of course, the over-riding emotions for those involved with such difficult playoff marches is pride at having done so well, and being left with lasting memories that they will never forget, win or lose.
"For us, it was the first time our team had gotten that far at all, so it was fun, the process, just moving through it," said Frederick of his Big Foot squad that eventually fell 20-0 to Wautoma/Faith Christian in that 2008 state final. "Everyone was excited, but obviously to lose in the state championship was disappointing. But, it capped a really good year."
Harris, whose Tucker Tigers went a combined 46-5 over his four years, remembers playing in the postseason fondly. During those seasons, Tucker advanced as far as the state semifinals in 2003, where they lost 27-24 to Statesboro (the alma mater of current Cowboys defensive end Jeremy Mincey, who'd already moved on to college by then) in the Georgia Dome.
"It went good. We were just really better than a lot of teams. It really wasn't that hard," said Harris of his high school success. "My senior year was really the only year we had a bit of a struggle, and we lost in the second round of the playoffs. But, it was fun. It was an experience to go through it."
McClain still has vivid memories of his closest brushes with a state title, particularly his Pensacola team's gut-wrenching 30-29 loss in the Florida state semifinal in 2004, and laments that he missed out on the experience when Pensacola finally did claim a state championship in 2009.
"We played Lake Gibson in the final four. That was a good game," McClain said of the 2004 semifinal. "I remember that game. We had them at home, too. They had a squad that year. They had a whole bunch of seniors that game. They came on toward the end, and I think they went on to win state that year, too.
"And then the year after, my junior year, we made it to the second round, we lost to St. Augustine, which was another good team, and I think they made it to state and actually won. They were good, too. I never could get that state championship and win it like my brother did. It was after I was there when they took it all the way."
It's not at all surprising that the players, several years later, remember specific details about those games that will continue to remain indelibly stamped in their minds. Even though Frederick's Big Foot team lost in the state final, he remembers the Chiefs being in a very competitive game.
"It was a close game, it came down to the wire against a good team," Frederick recalled. "They had good talent, were fast. They had the right scouting report for us, and they just kind of had our number for that game."
Hayden won't ever forget each of his three losses in the finals, but it's the Warhawks' 20-14 defeat by Marshfield in 2002, his junior season, that still really bugs him more than 10 years later.
"My junior year game, we should have won," claimed Hayden, whose team also lost 28-0 to Oshkosh North in the 2000 title game and fell 42-7 to D.C. Everest in the 2003 final. "The quarterback on our team had actually committed to Wisconsin as well, so it was two guys on our team that were going to Wisconsin. We had a couple of other players that went on to big-time colleges as well.
"We should have won that game, but things happened. I sprained my ankle on the first or second play and that was one of my best years, too. I had just started playing defensive tackle – I think I had over 20 sacks that year – so that didn't help. I had a pretty bad high-ankle sprain and grinded the whole game out, but obviously wasn't 100 percent. So that definitely sticks out for me because I knew that we could have beaten that team and won that game."