I spent the last week enjoying a real blast from the past.
Checking the mail one day last week, a package I was eagerly awaiting had finally arrived. It's the first book authored by my friend Nick Eatman, and it covers a subject I know is near and dear to many of you.
Eatman blogs and writes for DallasCowboys.com as an employee of the franchise. He even travels with the team - yes, I'm jealous - to road games now. But he also covers big events for the Lone Star Conference, such as its annual basketball championship. That's how I met Eatman, in Bartlesville, Okla., and our semiannual reunions - the tournament has moved to Allen, and he has also covered some football media days and other LSC events - are always a fun time.
I was aware of Eatman's friendship with the Briles family, but never thought anything about it going this far. Turns out, Art Briles turned down some big name authors who wanted to pen his biography, instead offering Eatman the opportunity to author his first book. It went well enough he's already working on a second.
Looking Up: My Journey From Tragedy To Triumph is a biography of Briles' life going back to his days as a youth in Abilene, his high school football stardom at Rule, and stretching across his various coaching stops on his way to leading Baylor onto the national scene.
Eatman could have focused the majority of his book on Baylor head coach Art Briles, and the majority of its readers would have been pleased. But Eatman went further, digging into Briles' life, into the tragic loss of his parents at age 20 as they drove to watch him play for Houston against SMU in Dallas. And on a local front, he took the time and effort to sift through all Briles' achievements as head coach in Stephenville, where he turned a fledgling program into one of statewide prominence.
I didn't grow up in Stephenville, so I don't recall as many of the games as intimately as many of you will, but it truly took me back to good times to recall so many of Stephenville's playoff victories in the 1990s that I was fortunate to see.
I grew up on a farm outside Dublin, the son of a Baptist deacon and farmer who is also a big football fan. Having a local team contending for a state title was too good for him to miss, and I got to go along.
It was 1993, Stephenville was on its way to its first state title, and was playing Waxahachie, the defending 4A champions with a 30-game win streak. I remember loading up in the car with Dad and 'Uncle Gary' - he's technically my cousin, but he's Dad's age, so 'Uncle' it is - and heading off to Waco to this place called Floyd Casey Stadium where some college named Baylor played its home games.
I don't have to tell all of you what happened. You already know about Branndon Stewart to Jason Bragg, you already know the Yellow Jackets won 22-21. And yes, David Jacquess, as you and I discussed recently, it is indeed one of the best high school football games I've ever seen. I may have been 12 at the time, but it was an unforgettable day in local sports history, and is committed to my memory forever.
Dad loaded up Mom, Brian - my brother - and I the next week, and we all went to Austin to watch the 'local team' beat La Marque for a state championship. It was a fun night for our family, and our first trip together to what is now known as Darrell K. Royal Texas Memorial Stadium.
There were other playoff trips, and Eatman's writing and Briles' memory took me back to those as well. I recall riding with my buddy Josh Wooten and his father, Bruner Auto salesman Larry Wooten - to Pennington Field for several good battles, including a tight victory over Sherman. I was also there at TCU when Stephenville lost to Denison. And when the Jackets were looking like a title contender again in 1998, there we were again at several playoff games.
The bi-district game that season was against Andrews. In the book, Briles talks of how hard it was facing Mike Lebby, the Andrews head coach who had coached with Briles at Sweetwater and is one of his dearest friends. Eatman even tells of Briles recalling Lebby sharing a room with Kendal Briles when Lebby became head coach in Dublin but didn't yet have a house in the area.
As I read about Stephenville beating No. 1 Andrews 41-35 in the bi-district round of 4A Division II playoffs, I recalled again loading up with Dad and Uncle Gary, and I remember my cousin Zac coming along. He was more excited than any of us, and for good reason.
Lebby was in line to be the next head coach at Andrews, but had no head coach experience. Dublin was searching for a leader, and he answered the challenge, taking over the Lions for a couple seasons before going back to Andrews to be head coach of the program he had previously served as defensive coordinator. During his time in Dublin, Lebby had a quarterback named Zac House, Uncle Gary's son.
Lebby never got Zac, Steven Kendall, Matt Fine and that good group of Dublin Lions to the playoffs. He was named head coach at Andrews following their junior season. But he set the stage for David Blakely to come down from Plano to become Dublin's head coach and get them to the postseason the following year.
I remember Zac having a moment to visit with Lebby after that game in 1998 as well as I remember trudging through the Mustang Bowl in Sweetwater on crutches. You see, I had suffered a blown out knee playing for Dublin as a junior that fall.
I recall later that year, going with Dad to watch the "other" high school game I say was as good as any I've ever seen - Stephenville vs. Southlake Carroll. I remember the fourth-down stop by Mike Copeland's defense, followed moments later by a Kelan Luker-to-Cody Cardwell bomb for the game-winning touchdown.
A funny memory came to mind as I read of Briles recounting that game through Eatman. What I remember more than anything about that night is Dad taking me to Cheddar's to eat after the wild game. There were a couple tables of Stephenville fans nearby. They were already eating when we arrived, and we quickly learned they had left the game early, thinking Carroll had it won and the Jackets were eliminated. This was before Twitter, before Facebook, and the voice of radio play-by-play man Boots Elliott couldn't carry all the way to a restaurant north of Fort Worth.
When we shared the news Stephenville had come back to win, both tables of fans erupted in cheers, causing quite the scene at the otherwise quiet restaurant packed with families and date-goers.
A week later I was back at Texas Stadium to watch the Jackets torch La Marque. I remember a few Stephenville fans shouting, "Bring on Midland Lee" after watching the Rebels - led by one Cedric Benson - win a 5A title in the game before Stephenville's.
Yep, Stephenville fans in the 1990s believed they could beat anyone. Regardless of classification.
One game I distinctly recall from 1999 is Stephenville-Wolfforth Frenship. I recall thinking how rare it must be for Kendal Briles to be 4A offensive player of the year at Stephenville as a junior, then earn the same honor at Frenship as a senior in 2000, when his father was at Texas Tech at running backs coach, having ended his time in Stephenville shortly after his fourth state title.
The Briles biography, published by Triumph Books, took me back to some happy times from my youth. Times on the road with various family and friends, with Dad almost always behind the wheel or along for the ride. Many great games we saw, and many fun memories we made.
I classify this as a 'can't miss' read. To most readers, it's a well-written look at the life of the man I believe to be the best football coach - at any level - in the state of Texas. For others, such as myself, it's a look back at childhood memories and great games.
But for many of you, for those of you who played for Briles, or had kids, family or friends who played for him, it will be so much more. You'll find it to be a refreshing tale of the life of YOUR coach, of YOUR friend, of the man who led YOUR team to greatness.
So grab yourself a copy of Looking Up, and get ready for an enjoyable time of looking back.