TUSCOLA — The boy joined the universe under the stars in the New Mexico skies. He arrived on a September night three miles from the state border, so near his ancestral land that his father, a football coach and a man of clear thinking, had the good sense to fetch a pan of dirt from the other side of the line and place it under the bed at the Lee County Hospital. Brad McCoy wanted his son to be born close enough to smell the soil of Texas.
Colt McCoy thusly became a native. If he’s not entirely from Texas, he’s certainly of it, linked by blood and a favorite family story to the five letters he wears on the front of his Texas football uniform. Being a Texan of any kind means being part of someplace where the name of the town, city or county is less significant than the name of the state itself.
And that goes for Jevan Snead, too.
Like McCoy, Snead threw his first touchdown in Texas, fled his first tackler in Texas, won his first game in Texas and will emerge from the dressing room Saturday at Royal-Memorial Stadium as a quarterback for the defending national champions of college football. They are two freshmen, sons of small towns that hang on every Friday night in the fall, wearing the white helmet of the Longhorns.
You have to go back to tell a story like this. You have to travel far to find a proper comparison to what McCoy and Snead mean to the season of 2006.
Vince Young returned last year to enormous and ultimately realized hopes, but he was from the south side of Houston. Chris Simms? New Jersey. Chance Mock? A city kid, too. The effervescent Major Applewhite was a Louisiana boy. You have to think all the way back to 1983, when Rick McIvor of Fort Stockton entered a season so full of legitimate expectation.
Marty Akins of Portland started three years at the position for Darrell Royal in the mid-1970s. Like McCoy and Snead, Akins played ball for a small school, and like McCoy, he played for a coach who happened to be his father. Playing for Texas, he says, “is something you dream about all your life.”
Urban kids dream. Rural kids dream. But in Dallas or Houston or San Antonio or even Midland, Akins says, “you’re used to bigger things.” You’re accustomed to attention from newspapers and television stations, fancy stadiums that hold thousands of people, modern weight-training equipment and dressing rooms with comfortable accoutrements. “When you come from a small town, you’re not.”
Akins became an All-American in 1975, the first wishbone quarterback to do so. He won 27 games for the Longhorns.
“I cherish it every day, ” he says. “In words, it’s hard to describe. I remember how I felt then. I feel even more euphoric about it today.”
‘An uncommon unity’
The coastal-plain town of Portland is a half-day’s drive from the mesquite trees on the 371-square-mile Jim Ned Consolidated Independent School District near the big country south of Abilene. About 330 students attend Jim Ned High School, a handsome brick building on the corner of Ninth and Garza streets in Tuscola, where McCoy went 34-2 as a starter and led the Indians to the Class 2A semifinals as a junior in 2003.
Tuscola is far enough from Abilene to mail bills at its own post office but close enough to get to the Christian radio stations that broadcast readings from the New Testament on Sundays. The population of Tuscola is in the range of 700. But on Friday nights, the football stadium swells with families from all around Taylor County.
Kay Whitton has been teaching at Jim Ned for 13 years. She attended football games when McCoy was amassing a state-record 116 touchdowns and setting the 2A record for passing with 9,344 yards. She had McCoy in class. She was his National Honor Society adviser. She went to church with him and his two younger brothers.
She, like many other men and women who live on the ranches and farms of Taylor County, considers him something of a son of her own. Now she watches and waits from 215 miles away as the Texas football season draws near. It’s as though a part of her, and a part of everyone in her community, is in Austin with McCoy.
When McCoy snaps his chinstrap Saturday morning, the entire Jim Ned district will hear the click.
“The school gives everyone an identity, ” says Whitton, showing a visitor the room where McCoy finished his accounting homework early and came to her desk to talk quietly about football and girls. The McCoys ultimately left Tuscola — Colt came to Austin, his family moved to Graham — but “they’re still part of this community, even though they don’t live here.”
There exists what Whitton calls “an uncommon unity” in Tuscola. When someone like McCoy goes on to do something like play for the Longhorns, the community exults.
Whitton and her husband, a firefighter in burn-ban country, live to the southwest of the school, out under the slow-spinning wind turbines doing cartwheels on ridges. To get there, you drive down from Buffalo Gap and up past the dusty road that leads to the grove of trees shading the four-bedroom house where McCoy lived when he was a Jim Ned Indian.
The McCoys had 10 acres of red dirt, a scattering of goats, a goldfish pond that Colt helped build and a donkey he helped keep fed. McCoy drove seven miles to and from school. He drove more to fish and to hunt deer. In this part of Taylor County, you spend a good deal of your day on the road.
“There’s one stoplight, ” Colt McCoy says. “And it’s blinking. We don’t even have a Dairy Queen.”
Brad McCoy decided long ago that his three sons would grow into men in small Texas towns. “I wanted a smaller, more disciplined venue to raise my kids in, ” he says. Colt McCoy spent summers on his grandfather’s 1,000-acre ranch in Brownwood, driving tractors and hauling hay. He was born-again as a sophomore. The ceremony was conducted at a Church of Christ. His grandfather baptized him.
A town’s affirmation
Colt McCoy practiced football on a small, dry field near the stadium. His father, the head coach at Jim Ned, worked the boys there so the grass at the stadium would look nice on game nights. The quarterback lifted weights behind the dressing room, between two roll-up doors opened on hot summer evenings. You can see forever out those doors.
When the Texas coaches came to Tuscola to watch Colt play, it was like the president of the United States had come to town, only more thrilling. Mack Brown spent a day at Jim Ned. Teachers had their pictures taken with him. They hung the prints on the walls in their rooms.
“I have to pinch myself every once in a while, ” says Brad McCoy, now the coach at Class 3A Graham north of Abilene.
“To me, Colt is an affirmation to everyone out there that this can be done. Work hard, play hard and people out there will find you.”
In Tuscola, you find a two-block-long and periodically vacant downtown. You see a pair of convenience stores, quarterhorse farms, a railroad track, a tractor store, a lodge, a justice of the peace, a volunteer fire department, a water tower with the school’s name painted proudly on its side and tin-roof ranch houses every mile or so. You step inside an antique shop and see Carolyn Atkins, proprietor.
Atkins also went to church with the McCoys. Her grandson was Colt McCoy’s “adopted Indian, ” a designation that afforded the young boy the privilege of walking onto the football field one Friday night with the Jim Ned quarterback. “During the years Colt was here, it was standing-room-only, ” Atkins recalls.
While Atkins and her neighbors are proud of McCoy, “I think we’re also protective of him. We don’t want to see him get hurt, physically or — my daughter and I were talking about this — we can’t imagine all the pressure that’s on him.”
The Longhorns have lost just one game in two seasons. And Ohio State comes to Austin for the second game of the year.
A redshirt freshman, McCoy at least spent the 2005 season with the team, building relationships with the players and coaches, learning a system under Young. Snead is a year removed from high school. What they have in youth, they lack in experience. Neither player has ever touched a ball in a college game.
Which is what gives their hometowns so much hope, so much to imagine. Might this be a season of magical grace for a son of small-town Texas?
“If you grow up in West Texas, football’s king, ” explains Martin Caddell, an athletic trainer in Abilene and longtime family friend of the McCoys. “There’s not words to describe the feeling and just the sheer joy of watching that kid. He is a Texas boy leading our university.”
Caddell pauses, gathering the weight of the moment. “He has prepared his whole, entire life for what’s fixing to take place.”
And so, in a similar way, has Jevan Snead.
Tradition never dies
Stephenville is a flat and featureless two-hour drive from Tuscola. You take I-20 east, almost to Fort Worth, and drop down on U.S. 281 to where the Bosque River cuts through fields of hay. You pass an endless succession of ranches. You pass an endless procession of pickups hauling things in flatbeds. And all you hear is the wind.
The cowboys listen to Bob Wills on a community radio station low on the dial called “Hard Country.” Jaylon Snead likes his swing with a stand-up bass and a steel guitar, but his son prefers something a little more modern, a Cross Canadian Ragweed kind of sound. The father of Jevan Snead has no quarrel with that. At least it’s still country.
The Snead family left the caliche roads of Eden — population 1,500, athletic classification 1A — five years ago for the wider asphalt streets of Stephenville. Jaylon Snead had been a ranch manager in Eden, caring for thousands of sheep, goats and heads of cattle. It was a living that suited him. But Eden was no Stephenville when it came to high school football.
Stephenville has 1,071 students. The football players among them enjoy a dressing room appointed with sofas and a large-screen TV, a space that mothers decorate on Sundays after church. Out the door is an expansive weight room. Music roars from loudspeakers. If it rains, which it often doesn’t, the team can retreat to “the green room, ” an indoor practice facility bearing a sign: “Tradition Never Graduates.”
“There’s a tradition to live up to, ” Jaylon Snead says.
The tradition is not so much to win. It’s more about representing a community that largely expects its young to work as hard on the ranch and in algebra class as they do at scrimmages. It’s a place, like Tuscola, that generally holds its boys accountable. Through that example, which is maintained more than it’s not, the town sees itself.
“Like right now, we’re in a drought. There’s not any rain. Things can be bad. Economies can be bad, ” Jaylon Snead explains.
“But you’ve got high school football.”
His oldest son has been playing sports since his first season in a YMCA league, when he was in fourth grade. Coaches marveled at his arm; Jevan threw a 62-mph fastball as a 10-year-old pitcher, his father says. Early on, the boy had potential as a quarterback.
Stephenville High School had a reputation for producing them. Cody Ledbetter played at New Mexico State. Branndon Stewart played for Tennessee and Texas A&M. Glenn O’Dell played at the University of Houston. Kevin Kolb was a senior at Stephenville when Jevan Snead was a freshman.
Kolb will start this season for Art Briles’ Houston Cougars. A decade ago, Briles coached Stephenville to four Texas 4A state titles, and if you suffered through all those years in Stephenville when the football team was losing games, you loved what Briles brought to town.
“It changed the whole complexion of the attitude of the kids, ” says Larry Wooten.
Wooten’s son played on the state championship teams of 1998 and 1999. Wooten sells cars at Bruner Motors, but he loves to talk about the past as much as he does the new Sierra Crew Cab. He can tell you what football means to Stephenville, which is everything. He can tell you how the stadium sounds on a Friday night in the fall: like a thousand propane cans full of ball bearings.
Because that’s exactly what’s there. The Can Fans of Stephenville make more noise than an armada of cropdusters at low altitude. When Snead played, the tactic seemed to help. The Yellowjackets went 23-2 when the two-time all-state quarterback was calling routes.
The town celebrated every completion. Every time the chains moved, joy soared in the community of 15,000.
“When he played on TV, it was like an advertisement for the Stephenville chamber of commerce, ” says David Davis, whose son Cody is a junior defensive back this year. “Seems like everything picks up when your football team’s winning. It’s infectious.”
Friday becomes Saturday
Snead committed early to play at the University of Florida. But late last year, he changed his mind. Texas signed him on a day that Stephenville will never forget.
“It pretty much seemed like the clock stopped, ” says Chad Morris, his high school coach.
And now the hands tick. As Morris readies his team for the new season, Snead prepares himself for his. “It’s a big deal, ” Jevan Snead says. “Anytime you have a small-town atmosphere, they’re big into Friday night football. Now it’s transferring over to Saturdays.”
As he gives his visitor a tour of Stephenville, Jaylon Snead swings his big Dodge truck into the parking lot of a chicken-fried-steak café. He sees an old friend he knew through rodeo. Jaylon Snead hasn’t seen the man in months. The man looks up from his plate and asks, “How’s the boy down in Austin?”
Jaylon Snead drives to the football stadium, which the high school shares with Tarleton State University. In his mind he sees the mothers of players painting car windows in grocery store parking lots, hears the propane cans in the seats, feels the bleachers shudder when his son scores.
“Oh man, ” Jaylon Snead says. “I get misty eyed.”
He turns on a street that takes him to the high school. He could get there with a blindfold on. He talks about the old men who bring lawn chairs to practice, men who once played football for the Yellowjackets. He talks about all those times he hauled Jevan to football camps. He talks about the small thrill of watching him stretch before games.
And when he’s asked to describe what he and his wife Jane talk about when they lie in bed at night and think about their son, Jaylon stares off through the windshield.
“I don’t know that we grasp it, really.”
The ground is cracked, the horizon is clear, and there’s no real hope of a storm anytime soon. Crops wilt. The rivers are low. Gas prices are up. It’s too hot to go outside and do anything meaningful in the yard. But it’ll be the weekend soon, and the Longhorns play on TV. Won’t be long before a cooler wind blows down from Canada. Those Friday nights and Saturday afternoons in November are what you have to look forward to on difficult days.
“A lot of people in town are living their dream through Jevan, ” says Morris, Snead’s high school coach.
Two hours to the west, a lot of people in Taylor County are living theirs through Colt.
firstname.lastname@example.org; 445-3602. Staff writer Mark Rosner contributed to this report.