Thursday, October 4, 2018

Introducing Coach Gordon Nehls, narrator of Fourth Down in Texas


It doesn’t take long for Gordon Nehls, the narrator and lead character of Fourth Down in Texas, to get across how much he loves high school football. As the novel begins, the longtime football coach is standing in one of the team entrance tunnels at AT&T Stadium, minutes before the start of a playoff game. He looks at the players, including his oldest son, and remembers how these moments felt as a player.

"This stadium will be rocking soon, and the players standing next to me are the reason why. They’re shoulder-to-shoulder, internally pacing, waiting to take the field. They’re both thrilled and terrified, the unforgettable combination of being simultaneously fired up and scared shitless that I remember from the last time I put on shoulder pads in high school. Even then, as a teenager who rarely thought farther ahead than my next Whataburger order, I thought about becoming a coach."

It’s fair to say that Nehls is a conglomeration of the coaches I've known over the last two decades, but he’s a unique character. The former lineman, who got the nickname "Tuffy" as a teenager, sees his high school players as his family, and as big as those players get, they’re still kids to him. They might feel invincible, and they might act like they know it all, but Nehls knows their potential and their vulnerability – and not just as football players. He can see the anxiety on those baby faces that players try to hide with wispy mustaches and scraggly beards.

Tuffy Nehls loves football, but even more, he loves the impact that football can have on kids. He understands all the good that a coach can do, and that’s why he is so affected when his football program is threatened. The cost for high school football is rising and there are safety concerns, his school superintendent says, and it “might be that the high school athletics program is not the right environment for a football team.”

Nehls knows what will happen if high schools no longer have football teams. He sees that scary reality in people such as Driphus Coleman, the coach of the INTENSITY! select football team, who tries to recruit players from Nehls’ program. It’s Nehls’ fear of where high school football could be headed – into the sleazy world of street agents and predatory opportunists – that pushes him to the emotional edge.

From his confrontation with Coleman:

"I wasn’t thinking clearly. Certainly not logically. I was allowing myself to be consumed by a moment of emotion, the exact thing I warned my players about. Be disciplined, I always told them. Don’t let your emotions lead to a personal foul. Just walk away.

I should’ve followed my own advice as I headed down a path toward something much worse than a fifteen-yard penalty. The guy wasn’t worth embarrassing myself or endangering my career. I actually remember thinking that, even as my head and heart raced.

Still, I took another step toward Coach Coleman. Our faces were only inches apart now, and his back was nearly against the bricks of the auditorium."

Nehls faces quite a challenge, and not just regarding controlling his emotions as he confronts a coach he sees as a danger to players. Nehls' challenge is to lead his team through what he hopes will be a memorable season while fighting to have more seasons. He’s fighting for the sport he loves.
   
***
Fourth Down in Texas is now available exclusively direct from the publisher at www.fourthdownintexas.com.

Fourth Down in Texas on Facebook.

What happens if high schools stop offering football?

Read Chapter 1, along with reviews and other information about the book, at https://mattwixon.blogspot.com/2018/09/first-chapter-of-my-novel-fourth-down.html


Sunday, September 23, 2018

What happens if high schools stop offering football?

High school football participation has decreased nationally over the last five years. High schools in dozens of states have canceled varsity or junior-varsity seasons, and in a scattering of cases, schools have cut entire football programs.

And so football is doomed, some people say, from the pros to the pee-wees. It’s destined to get spiked like a football in the classic touchdown celebration.

Well, here’s another view:

Football isn’t going away.


Not anytime soon, anyway. Football is too ingrained in the history, culture and rituals of America to get run out of the stadium. It’s a huge part of the country’s attitude. And, oh yeah, football still brings in a ton of money.
 
It’s like Minnesota Vikings receiver Stefon Diggs in that GEICO commercial, where everything sticks to his hands. The NFL has its hands in everything, and the money just sticks -- layer upon layer of it. That’s how the NFL generated about $14 billion in revenue last year. And college football is lucrative enough that a finance professor last year valued three programs – Ohio State, Texas and Oklahoma – at a billion dollars or more.

With that much cash flow, the NFL and NCAA are still raging rivers. The question is, how long will youth and high school football provide the reliable streams of talent to keep those rivers deep?

That’s where the question about high school football comes into play.

Kids still love football. They’re still filling up flag and tackle football leagues here in Texas; they’re still looking forward to their chance to play under the Friday Night Lights; they’re still dreaming of being the next generation of college and NFL players. Those kids are going to play football, whether it’s through high schools or another less organized, more dangerous avenue.

High school football coach Gordon Nehls, the narrator of my novel Fourth Down in Texas, is scared of how football might look without high schools involved. He envisions a dark future in which entrepreneurs and street agents control the sport at the high school level, and he gets a glimpse of that future when confronting a select coach (Coach Coleman) who had been recruiting his high school players. From the novel:

                As Coach Coleman stood in front of me, he was more than just a coach I didn’t like. He was the greasy underbelly of youth sports. He was the screaming jackass coaches of third graders, who think they’re Nick Saban or Bill Belichick because they’ve got a whistle, clipboard, and personalized workout gear for their team of eight-year-olds. He was the sleaze behind the traveling recruiting combines that prey on a kid’s hopes and dig into his parents’ wallets. He was the sponsors and money-hungry organizers of national seven-on-seven tournaments, all-star showcases, and bloated made-for-TV events that turn teenagers into profits.
                Coach Coleman was all the bullshit surrounding the game I love. And he was the future of it.
                “Stay away from my players,” I repeated.

Although low participation levels are rarely a problem in Texas, a lack of players has led some schools to drop teams around the country. Some have suggested that the spike in football-related lawsuits, especially at the NFL and NCAA levels, will lead insurance companies to eventually stop insuring schools against football-related lawsuits.

That wouldn’t make football go away, however. It would just threaten high school football – and all the benefits and protections that a teenager gets from certified teachers as coaches, experienced training staffs, the best facilities and safest equipment.

Another excerpt from the novel (which again is from the perspective of Coach Nehls, the narrator):

If you want to be a high school football coach in Texas, you need to get a college degree, go through years of training, work your way through the lower grades, work as an assistant, and then eventually you can become a head coach. And that’s oversimplifying the process.
What do you need to coach some youth football team?
A whistle, basically.
Some youth sports organizations have background checks and a few safety courses. But most of those coaches are Monday Morning Quarterbacks, dads of the players, well-meaning guys who are as out of place as me coaching the Creekside Debate Team. I can live with that when the kids are young, and they’ll eventually have middle school and high school coaches who make sure they’re doing things the proper way.
And that’s not the worst of it. Not even close.
“Football will go on,” I told Lee, “but if the high schools aren’t involved, you’ll put kids in the hands of the Intensity, or the Extreme, or those other club teams. Those clubs are already sprouting, and if high school football steps back, the clubs will grow like weeds. That’s where football will go. It’ll be like those traveling AAU club teams in basketball with all the shady characters.”
“There definitely are some vultures there,” Lee said.
“Hey, there’s money there. You’ve got guys trying to act as agents for kids, and look at basketball with all the transferring and recruiting. And now all these agents or whatever they call themselves -- mentors, handlers -- are getting involved with seven-on-seven. These all-star, traveling teams. When high school coaches aren’t involved, it’s open season on the kids.”

*Fourth Down in Texas is now available exclusively direct from the publisher at www.fourthdownintexas.com.

*Read Chapter 1 here, along with reviews and other information about the book.

Friday, September 7, 2018

First Chapter of my novel Fourth Down in Texas

If you're reading this, you probably already know that my novel Fourth Down in Texas is now available at -- ta-dah! -- www.fourthdownintexas.com. The novel is available exclusively at that website until the publisher gives it widespread release.

Chapter 1 of the novel is below as a sample. This is a book I worked on for a couple of years while I was a sports writer and columnist for The Dallas Morning News, and the characters are inspired by coaches and players that I have known (and still know, because I'm not losing my memory that fast).

Before the sample chapter, here's some info about it from the news release:

Football, with both a rich history and a history of making people rich, might seem to big too die. But in FOURTH DOWN IN TEXAS, a novel set amid the simmering debate of football safety, the dominoes are falling on a cultural cornerstone of America.

Evidence is mounting regarding the lasting effects of concussions, the NFL and NCAA are targets of negligence lawsuits, and the rare-but-wrenching stories of high school player deaths have put football on the firing line. In FOURTH DOWN IN TEXAS, written by longtime Dallas Morning News sports writer and columnist Matt Wixon, school districts across the country are shutting down their football programs and even Texas, the 50-yard line of football in America, is feeling the effects. 

As his Dallas-area school district considers eliminating the football program, Coach Gordon “Tuffy” Nehls envisions a dark future in which entrepreneurs and street agents control high school football. Nehls fights for the sport he loves and leads his team on a final magical ride, all while coming to grips with a changing world and living with the regret of a decision that altered a player’s life forever.

FOURTH DOWN IN TEXAS is a story of football – its glorious past, its uncertain present and its potential future. More than that, it’s a story about coaches and players, fathers and sons, lifetime bonds and living for the moment.


Some early reviews from readers:

"The ups and downs that coaches go through every day is spot on."
 

"It hooks you early and keeps you interested throughout."
 

"Just finished your book. Enjoyed every page. Texas H.S. football big part of my life and family. Your book does a great and balanced job exploring some very real issues. Having lived in Colorado for 11 years where there is no school football until 9th grade, I have experienced first hand the Driphus (Dufus) Coleman's in the sport. Football is best left to trained, certified coaches, with a governing body that ensures the game is played in the safest possible environment. What I got from the game and what my son is currently getting from the game are invaluable life lessons that outweigh the risks. Texas does it right. Great job Matt. A masterful work that is true to the high standards of your journalist profession."

An early review from an author I admire:

"Fourth Down in Texas is Friday Night Lights meets Concussion. There couldn't be a more timely sports story. Because it's not just about football. It's about what our culture values. Wixon has written a great, accessible book that gave me chills in its final lines."--Mark Falkin, author of Contract City and The Late Bloomer

And, okay, finally! ... here's the sample chapter:

Chapter 1


At least thirty thousand fans are here already. That’s my guess, anyway, as I look up at the crowd at AT&T Stadium, home of the Dallas Cowboys and whatever mass-audience event rolls through North Texas. This place is huge. Science-fiction huge.
 
I’m not sure what that means, but it’s just what comes to mind as I peek out of the tunnel that leads to the field. Maybe it’s the video board, the thing so enormous that it’s both impressive and ridiculous, that hangs from the roof. I think back to growing up, when the family TV had like five channels, and there was no remote, and you had to twist around the antenna to make Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd come into focus. Now I’m standing under a screen so monstrous it’s like I’ve been pulled into a cartoon.



All of this is a little hard to believe, even for a high school football coach like me. I’ve been coachin’ up kids long enough to see just about everything, but the magnitude of everything now is astounding. This is a pro football stadium, after all, and it’s filling up for a high school game. I bet there will be close to forty thousand here by kickoff, or soon after, because of the traffic jam near the parking lots.

Yeah, traffic is brutal out there. You might find that surprising for a high school game, but this is Texas. We’re the fifty-yard line of football in America.

I could say, “This is Texas, y’all,” but why fuel the stereotype? Some joke that y’all is the most common word used in Texas, but I’ve been in the state for more than half my life, and I don’t use it much. Maybe it’s because my wife is an English teacher who cringes when she hears something like “might could.”

This stadium will be rocking soon, and the players standing next to me are the reason why. They’re shoulder to shoulder, internally pacing, waiting to take the field. They’re both thrilled and terrified, the unforgettable combination of being simultaneously fired up and scared shitless that I remember from the last time I put on shoulder pads in high school. Even then, as a teenager who rarely thought farther ahead than my next Whataburger order, I thought about becoming a coach. But that was going to be after my NFL career, you know, because as a high school senior I was still a couple years from the dose of reality that eventually hits 99.99 percent of football players.

The players standing across from me aren’t worried about that right now. They’re thinking about the game plan, and their assignments, and whatever other thoughts flash through a teenager’s mind minutes before he takes the field. I can’t remember what used to go through my mind, and I won’t pretend to know what the teenagers of today might be thinking. I probably know less about that with each passing year, as I get older and they look younger.

God, they look so young. So young that it scares me.

“Thirty thousand?” I ask them.

“I bet that’s forty,” says Mickey, a starting receiver who’s also a kick returner, punter, backup quarterback, and occasional safety. He can do a bit of everything, which is not surprising because he’s the son of a coach. Mickey is my oldest, the boy who roughed me up as a new father and then jumped from six years old to six feet tall in a blink. Well, nearly six feet tall. In cleats, I guess, and on the football roster, where the kids always beg to be listed a little taller and a little heavier.

Mickey peeks out from under the tunnel, trying to get a better look.

“Definitely forty,” he says, his voice muffled by his helmet. Mickey really has no idea, but he doesn’t lack for confidence in anything. Even when he’s proven wrong, he just kind of shrugs his shoulders like he’s unconvinced.

Standing next to Mickey is one of the nation’s top recruits, a speedy, yet huge, receiver who has twenty-two touchdown receptions this season. His parents, who are of Nigerian descent, gave him a perfect big-play name: Kingsley.

Kingsley Savage.

“Hey Beast,” Mickey says, using Kingsley’s nickname. “Whatcha think?”

“I’d say forty. Place holds eighty, right?”

“No, a hundred,” says another player.

Kingsley shakes his head and shoves the player in the shoulder.

“Nah, Sticks, that’s with all the standing-room-only fans. I’m just talkin’ seats.”

“Oh.”

“I tell you this,” Kingsley says, “the crowd is on point.”

That’s the final word, because Kingsley is the ringleader.

I smile as I watch them absorb a memory they’ll never forget. Then I walk out of the tunnel onto the artificial turf, and the crowd erupts. Half of it, anyway. The crowd is catching a glimpse of the enthusiastic blur of blue and silver, the Putnam High School Panthers, preparing to take the field.

I think football in Texas is the best in the country, but even if it isn’t, it’s certainly different than anywhere else. We had nearly sixty thousand fans for a championship game. We had forty-six thousand for a second-round game. We have stadiums that look like college facilities and indoor practice facilities that NFL teams use.

Texas high school football games draw bigger crowds than a lot of college bowl games, and the games are often better. Each week is big and intense. That’s not always a good thing for the players, or the fans, or coaches like me who can stew over losses more than we celebrate wins. But Texas high school football is incredible. It’s as rich a part of the culture here as barbecue and Big Tex at the State Fair. The cheerleaders, drill teams, color guards, marching bands—and oh, man, the stadiums on Friday nights. It’s just . . .

Sorry, lost my train of thought for a second. The other team just rushed on to the field, and that crowd boom always gets me. When you’re on the field and that roar comes down from your side, that’s something you never forget. You don’t forget the way your heart races, your skin tingles, and how the energy can buckle your knees.

That’s what the Putnam High School Panthers, minutes away from playing in a state quarterfinal game, are about to experience.

I look up and see a boy, maybe eight or nine years old, who reminds me of Mickey. He’s waving a blue towel as the Panthers emerge from the field entrance and gather behind a large inflatable football helmet. Yeah, we’ve now got inflatable entry tunnels. Gone are the days when we just ripped through butcher-paper banners to get on the field. Gone are the days of playing on real grass, too. It’s artificial turf now, surrounded by gorgeous stadiums with state-of-the-art scoreboards and multiple camera decks so the game can be captured from every angle. In high-def, of course, for broadcast on national networks like ESPN.

The helmet tunnel seems too small for the players’ swelling spirit, and it jolts and bounces as they funnel into it. A fog machine adds to the scene, and the tunnel looks like it will explode.

I step to the side as the players walk toward the stadium field. The crowd continues to build as the Putnam players pass by in sharp navy jerseys and scuffed silver helmets. Their cleats clack on the concrete walkway and then squish into the artificial turf. I look up again at the boy above me with paw prints painted on his cheeks. He’s looking down at the Panthers.

In awe, I suspect, because these are his guys. To him, these guys are huge.

They’re pretty huge to me, too. The helmets and shoulder pads make them look bigger, which is true with all football players, down to the pipsqueak grade schoolers who are like animated bobbleheads. But the high school football players these days are just big, period.

When I played high school football, I was six-foot-two and about 230 pounds. Three decades have passed since then, and I’ve gone from a solid physique to a solid devotion to barbecue. I’m not obese, but I’m pushing fifty, and my priorities have changed.

My name is Tuffy Nehls. I’ll now pause to let you laugh, or cringe, or whatever you do when you hear of a man named Tuffy. But there are other men out there who go by names like Tuffy, and they probably have stories like mine.

My parents named me Gordon Samuel Nehls, a perfectly fine name. But when I was a sophomore in high school, a coach pointed out how I was doing well against guys who were bigger than me. I was small, he said, but tough. My last name is pronounced “nails,” so one of the coaches, such a clever guy, started saying I was tough as nails. Eventually, I became Tuffy.

I was an offensive lineman in high school and then played college football at Stephen F. Austin. I was a starter, not a star, but it was a good run. I got my education paid for, and I met my wife, who might’ve passed on our first date had she known she’d be called “Mrs. Tuffy.”

Back in high school, I was a big man on campus. After my growth spurt, six foot-two and 230 was considered pretty darn big back then.
Not anymore. But as big as the players get, they’re still kids to me. They might look different than they did twenty or thirty years ago, but they haven’t changed. They might feel invincible, and they might act like they know it all, but they’re still figuring things out. That confidence, that swagger, that attitude— that’s what we see with teenage boys. But I can look past the wispy mustaches and scraggly beards and see the anxiety on those baby faces.

For most of the Putnam Panthers, there are no more than three football games in their future. They’ll be football players for three more hours, or maybe another couple weeks, and then life will go on. They’ll mourn the end of something that for years has been part of their lives, part of their direction, part of their self-worth.

But right now, as the crowd keeps filing in, the Putnam Panthers are about to experience a forever moment. They’re tightly bunched as they prepare to head through the inflatable tunnel and onto the field, bouncing in place as three captains in the middle deliver a message I can’t hear. I step back from the pack and stand with a couple of the booster club parents who will deflate and roll up the tunnel after the players run through.

A second later, the Panthers emerge from the tunnel, flanked by back-flipping cheerleaders and guys with large blue flags spelling out P-U-T-N-A-M. The crowd erupts, horns blare, drums pound, and confetti flies in the stands as the players spill onto the sidelines and look up to see themselves on the cartoonishly huge video board.

This is one of those knee-buckling moments. It still feels that way to me, too, even after coaching more than two hundred games. Today, however, I’m not a coach. The Putnam Panthers aren’t my team, and I’m not sure I even have a team anymore.

Why?

To me, it’s simple. Some people want to kill football.

////////////////////

Read more about the novel and purchase at www.fourthdownintexas.com.