Gainesville State School is located 75 miles north of Dallas, next to a town of 15,000. It was originally a girls’ school, but became co-ed in1974 and eventually all-male in 1988. The school offers courses in agriculture, horticulture, welding, and business in addition to the standard high school curriculum.
Gainesville State is also a maximum-security youth prison facility. Incoming students are an average of three years below grade level in reading and four years behind in math, and less than 30% will return to High School upon re-entry into society.
The school has a football team. Lacking adequate practice time, space, and equipment, the Gainesville State Tornadoes are understandably lousy. Up against prep school teams with involved parents, endless resources, and home field advantage, Gainesville scored a total of two touchdowns en route to a miserable 0-8 start.
Kris Hogan is head football coach at Grapevine Faith, a Christian school located just outside Dallas. The Grapevine Lions are high priests in the Texas Football Temple (services Friday evening like Jews). The Lions made the state title game in 2007, and returned this season with a strong 7-2 record.
Coach Hogan decided to do a good turn for the boys from Gainesville. With the overmatched prison team on the schedule for the season finale, Hogan emailed team parents and fans requesting that half the group cheer for the visitors. “Here’s the message I want you to send,” he wrote: “You are just as valuable as any other person on planet Earth.” Faced with understandably confused parents and players, he stuck to his concept: “Imagine if you didn’t have a home life. Imagine if everybody had pretty much given up on you. Now imagine what it would mean for hundreds of people to suddenly believe in you.”
Hogan’s commitment converted the unbelievers. Some 200 hometown fans, approximately half the crowd, sat in the visitors’ bleachers cheering for Gainesville State. Additionally, for probably the first time in football history, the road team was met with a spirit line, banner to run through, and dedicated cheerleading squad.
Other schools have done things for Gainesville, including providing the students with meals and small gifts. However, no one had ever given them a cheering section. It meant a lot more than some trinkets or a snack. As a Tornadoes lineman explained: “We can tell people are a little afraid of us when we come to the games. You can see it in their eyes. They’re lookin’ at us like we’re criminals. But these people, they were yellin’ for us! By our names!”
This wasn’t The Longest Yard. Gainesville was severely overmatched, and Faith went up 33-0 to start the game. Eventually, however, Gainesville managed two touchdowns on the day on which three of their players had been cut from the team; released from prison.
The score didn’t matter. In another football first, the head coach of the losing team was doused with Gatorade:
I know people who teach in the prison system, including both maximum-security adult prisons and facilities like Gainesville for youth offenders. Sadly, adult offenders including those serving lifetime sentences often have better access to educational programs than seventeen-year old first-time offenders who should still have their whole lives ahead of them. In New York State, this is partly the understandable legacy of Attica and partly due to the fact that D.O.C.S. is its own agency whereas underage offenders are folded into the Office of Children and Family Services. (I’d be curious if anyone has had any experience with other states; feel free to post in the comments. New York is actually regarded as one of the best prison systems in the country for adults, in terms of rehabilitation, security for both prisoners and staff, and a relative lack of gang activity.)
The boys on the Gainesville squad are not unrepentant thugs, not inherently violent kids, not the simple stereotypes too often assigned to convicts. Only those who have served at least half of their sentence, passed all of their classes, and maintained spotless behavioral records are allowed on the team. Gainesville State head coach Mark Williams explained the importance of seeing his players in human, humane terms:
“A lot of these kids don’t have hope because they’ve taken a wrong path, somebody’s told them that they’re going to be negative,” he said. “They’re not negative. They were very positive tonight. They were just like the other kids.”
After four quarters of football, the winning players greeted their parents and friends while the losing team returned to their bus under watch by a dozen armed guards. Before the game, and ten minutes from the final whistle, the Gainesville State Tornadoes were faceless statistics in America’s best growth industry. For 60 minutes, as Gainesville superintendent Gwan Hawthorne put it, the boys “[felt] like any other high school football team.”
A winless season never ended so well.