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."
"A window to the soul of high school football in Texas."
"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:
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.
“Hey Beast,” Mickey says, using Kingsley’s nickname. “Whatcha think?”
“I’d say forty. Place holds eighty, right?”
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.”
“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.
To me, it’s simple. Some people want to kill football.
Read more about the novel and purchase at www.fourthdownintexas.com.