Special Edition: Dallas Morning News Feature-September 25, 1992: Hidden Treasure: East Texas State Thriving Despite Division II Limitations, Mere Acceptance Of Town.

Editor’s Note: This Article was published by the Dallas Morning News in September of 1992. It was written by Kevin Sherrington and is not the work of The Lion Wire or any of the staff or the writers. It is here for reading enjoyment purposes only and every attempt has been taken to ensure the integrity of the original article as written. Images and captions were added by the Wire Staff to enhance the article, but the text itself was written by the Dallas Morning News and Sherrington. 

Dateline: COMMERCE, Texas

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COMMERCE, Texas — The highway connecting this Northeast Texas town to Interstate 30 bisects a corner of East Texas State’s campus. Trucks straddle the four lanes, rumbling south toward Dallas via Interstate 30 or north toward Oklahoma, both an hour away. A couple blew past the university entrance and several large young men standing in the median the other day, the residue swirling about them like dust devils.

These students who play football for East Texas State — or ET, as it is called by its own — must cross the highway to practice. It is one of the more tangible obstacles to overcome in NCAA Division II football, a big-time sport on a backwater budget.

The student-athletes generally negotiate Highway 50 with few casualties, though it recently cost the Lions a player. Jeremy Griffin, a Lake Highlands product, stepped off the curb the first day of practice and — bam — into a hole, spraining his ankle.

This is no way to lose a starting tailback.

Over the next week, the Lions lost four more. One of them, Lions coach Eddie Vowell said, warming up a Rotary Club audience last week, went back to Los Angeles for cultural reasons.

“I don’t have to tell you the difference between LA,’ he said, “and Commerce, America.’

The 50 or so Rotarians chuckled at the description, a “Vowellism.’ They knew what he meant. They could have told the recruit there isn’t much to do in Commerce, a town smaller than its university. His new teammates could have told the Californian about the average home crowds and six-hour bus rides. Or that the reward at the end of one such trip is the Friday night movie.

His teammates could have told him anything except they were sorry. They have no reason to be ashamed of their school or football team, which is accepted in Commerce, not worshiped.

Sam Rayburn went to school here. Harvey Martin played here. So did Wade Wilson. The Lions won a national title in 1972, one of the best-kept secrets in town.Commerce does not flaunt its potent little football team. The people could brag about winning 18 games over the previous two seasons. Or the three pro “suspects’ among the team’s seniors. A local could elbow a visitor and ask, over the buffet at Ken’s Pizza, if he’d heard about the Lions’ 30-year-old defensive lineman who once was blown out of a window with a hand grenade. Or the fellow who showed up as a defensive back and, three weeks later, was named the Lone Star Conference player of the week. At running back.

They have a lot of stories to tell at ET, all right.

You just have to ask.

Not much can be learned from signs. The gaudiest aspect of ET is Whitley Hall, an 11-story dormitory that smacks a visitor right in his field of vision. The building, according to school officials, is the tallest between Dallas and Texarkana. Not much will challenge it. Certainly not any trees. There are zero pine trees on a campus that sprawls over 140 acres with little to no resemblance to the East Texas of the title.

The dormitories on either side of Highway 50 stand naked in the afternoon sun, hardly a tree within reach. The practice field is bald, too, save for a few strands of brush. By late afternoon, though, as the sun mellows, a breeze kicks up. They are used to these winds in the LSC, said Billy Watkins, a junior from nearby Sulphur Springs and ET’s record-setting kicker. The Lions play their games in breezy towns with lopsided stadiums that can’t hold out the elements.

A kicker from the LSC always knows how to play the wind, Watkins said.

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All Time Leading Scorer in School History Billy Watkins, is just from down the road, but likes the close proximity.

“This is not a bad place,’ he said, squinting out over the practice field. “It’s close to home.”

Too close for some.

“People in high school were always saying, “No way I’m going to ET,’ ‘ Watkins said. “I look up now, and half the people on campus are from home.’

They come from all over Texas, actually, to go to ET. But few come from beyond, in spite of the former Californian. The university president has put a moratorium on out-of-state student-athletes, a school official said. He did so not out of any Lone Star leanings, but because non-resident tuition is more expensive.

Twenty-four members of the 82-man roster are from Dallas-Fort Worth, San Antonio, Austin or Houston. The rest are from Dallas suburbs or places like Beeville, Daingerfield, Aledo and Leonard.

A few come to ET because it is easier to get into a Division II school after junior college. A handful come because they did not like it in D-1 and were eligible immediately at ET.

Most simply were not good enough to play D-1.

No matter what their ability, there is no caste system. The walk-ons are treated the same as the starters, one player said. The 40 scholarships available to the football team are divided among 70 players. The football budget, not including coaches’ salaries, is $80,000. There is no recruiting budget.

The ET coaching staff, consisting of four full-time coaches and five graduate or student assistants, recruits by telephone. ET is the ninth-largest producer of teachers in the state, which is invaluable to Vowell, in his seventh season as head coach. There is hardly a high school staff in the Dallas-Fort Worth area that doesn’t have an ET alumnus on it, he said.

They take all kinds of players. More than a fourth played at a junior college or university before arriving at ET.

One spent six years in the Army.

Phillip Anderson, a 30-year-old senior from Grand Saline, ended up at ET because there is no time clock on a player’s age in Division II. He is finishing what he started at Texas Tech, where he lettered as a defensive lineman in 1982 and 1983.

“He was tough as a warthog,’ said Dean Slayton, still an assistant at Tech. “Real undisciplined. He’d fight at the drop of the hat.

“We just loved him.’

He was not as popular with at least one teammate, three-time All-Southwest Conference linebacker Brad Hastings. Hastings and Anderson once engaged in a fight that, according to witnesses, resulted in the collapse of several wooden fences at a couple of residences.

Anderson flunked out of Tech the spring before his junior year. He joined the Army, rose to the rank of sergeant and liked it. Or at least he did, he said, until the day an explosion knocked him out of a room.

He said the errant grenade was dropped during an “urban assault.”

An urban assault?

He couldn’t talk about it. He couldn’t remember much, for one thing. He could say even less. Classified, he said. He mumbled something, looking about, furtively, and then said, “Panama.

He took up football upon his discharge, he said, as a practical means for the physical rehabilitation he required. He still likes to hit people, too.

“I’m playing here because I want to,’ said Anderson, a Fu Manchu mustache framing his mouth. “No other reason.’

He blends in well, he said. His teammates like him, they said, generally reluctant to feel otherwise.

“Not too many guys,’ Watkins said, “who would mess with him.’

Eric Turner, a senior cornerback from Daingerfield, heard of a former roommate of Anderson’s who was told, “If I start screaming at night, don’t touch me.’

“Phillip is different,’ Turner said, delicately. “I find myself getting ready to say, “Yes, sir. No, sir.’

“I just want to stay on his good side.’

Turner, perhaps the Lions’ best player, stays on the bad side of receivers. His 11 interceptions led Division II in 1990, and he was an All-America last year.

He is one of three pro “suspects’ among the seniors, according to one NFL scout. Wide receivers Billy Minor of Paris and Anthony Brooks of Irving, who reportedly runs the 40-yard dash in 4.35 seconds, are the others.

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Some of the professional “suspects” of the 1992 Lions.

Turner had no intention of playing even college football. At 5-10 and 155 pound s out of high school, he thought himself too small. He visited ET upon the advice of a friend. He signed, grew an inch, gained 35 pounds and became one of the best defensive backs in LSC history.

He is one of the Lions’ better success stories. Michael Hightower of Paris is another.

He was an excellent athlete in high school, winning the long jump in the prestigious Golden West Invitational with a leap of 25 feet, 4 1/2 inches. But his entrance examination scores were not good enough to gain admittance to an NCAA Division I school. He went to East Central Oklahoma, an NAIA member.

He played wide receiver, cornerback, tailback and fullback in two years. He left, he said, because of problems with the coaches. He also preferred a school with a larger percentage of blacks in the student body.

Hunt County, where ET is based, was 86.6 percent white in the last census. The percentage of Blacks and Hispanics is not greater on campus. But Hightower said he likes it here. He plays Nintendo in his off-time, hangs out in the dormitories, goes to movies or parties.

He is certain the social life is no different from campuses of, say, Colorado or Texas A&M.

“You can be just as bored there as you are here,’ he said, “if you want to be.”

ET’s student-athletes are easily entertained. Watkins said his favorite road trip is this weekend’s to Natchitoches, La., for a game against Northwestern (La.) State, a Division I-AA school. He likes it for two reasons. He called it a no-pressure game; the Lions aren’t supposed to beat a team from a larger classification. And, because of their expected plight, Northwestern picks up the hotel tab. Vowell uses the savings to take the team to a movie on Friday night.

The worst trip, Watkins said, is to Pittsburg State, in Kansas.

“Rude fans,’ he said. “Long ride home.’

The Lions recently finished a four-game series with the Gorillas, losing for the third time. Pittsburg State fans made the loss even more unbearable. The sideline decorum degenerated to the point that the Gorillas’ mascot stole a clipboard from ET’s defensive huddle.

Vowell described the antics — including the sight of middle-aged men spitting upon his players — at the Rotary Club luncheon last Friday, a day before the home opener against Southern Arkansas. The crowd was polite and attentive. Vowell’s soft Texas accent — words and sentences fading like dying flares — made it apparent he was one of them.

He seemed a bit uneasy at times, though he was more comfortable than he was in front of the Lions Club. The Lions — no relation — threw biscuits at him. Of course, as an ET official noted, the Lions threw biscuits at each other, too.

Vowell concluded that, despite the rudeness of the Pittsburg fans, he was sorry they canceled the series. Pittsburg officials said they could make more money playing other schools.

“Why would we want to play someone like that anyway?’ a Rotarian interjected.

Vowell, a bit stunned, explained that it is in ET’s best interests to play good teams, no matter what the fans’ conduct.

“We don’t need that,’ the man said, slowly shaking a head of white hair. “We’re better than that.’

At least one ET booster disagreed. Harry Icenhower didn’t much care for the conduct of the Pittsburg fans. But he loved their enthusiasm. His wife, Rheba, got the idea for ET’s 30-foot inflatable Lion from a similar type at Pittsburg State. Icenhower spoke enviously of the Pittsburg fans’ penchant for wearing the school’s colors on game day and filling the stadium.

They do not often reach capacity at ET’s Memorial Stadium. The team’s success apparently makes little difference.

The 1972 team, featuring Harvey Martin on defense, played Tennessee’s Carson-Newman for the national title in Commerce. A story in the campus newspaper the day before the game concluded, “The talk around Commerce is that the game is the biggest happening since the town went wet.’

ET won its only national football title on a cold, wet December day, 21-18, before a crowd of 4,539, an average crowd size the Lions play in front of now.

Icenhower, who was graduated from ET in 1950 and has lived in Commerce the last 13 years, said the support once was better.

“There was more student involvement than there is now,’ he said of his days as a student. “Of course, we didn’t have cars like students do now. There are so many more things for them to do, since we’re just an hour from Dallas.’

The Dallas-Fort Worth sports market makes it difficult on booster groups, too, he said. Icenhower, vice president of the athletic association, said the organization is, in effect, inactive. He hopes new officers will revive it.

He held up a moment in his critique, staring at a wall.

“All in all,’ he said, tentatively, “they’re good to support us when we call on them.’

There were no visible means of support leading up to the home opener. The quaint downtown square, lined in cobblestone, gave no indication of what one usually finds in a college town.

There is a Dorothy’s Fashions, Dave’s Kitchen and Laundry and Leon’s Heating and Air Conditioning. But no Lion Auto Parts.

The window fronts were decorated, not with huge cat’s paws, but apple trees. The annual Bois d’Arc Bash is Friday and Saturday.

Margo Harbison, ET’s athletic director, was not critical of Commerce’s backing. A town of 8,136 can give only so much, she said. A contribution of $30,000 from boosters and alumni is considered a good year.

The Lions don’t get much financial support from the students, either. ET’s enrollment of 8,325 makes it the second-largest school in the LSC. But only 35 percent of student fees go to athletics, compared with 50 to 70 percent for the rest of the LSC, Harbison said.

“Money is important, and we need more money,’ she said. “But human attitude and energy is important, too. The staff has accepted what we have.’

They will not beg for more. Harbison forbids the solicitation of local businesses for anything other than advertising for game programs. The athletic department, instead, relies on an annual community fund-raiser to benefit the university as a whole.

A good neighbor, Harbison knows, does not knock on the door, asking for money.

The Lions seem worth the investment. They have won 10 and eight games the last two seasons, along with a conference title. They were ranked in the Division II top 20 at least one week in each of the last five seasons.

They put on quite an offensive show in a 31-16 victory over Southern Arkansas, Hightower in particular. He ran for 151 yards, his quickness and cutting ability a mystery to the grasping Muleriders. He energized the Family Day crowd just before the half, when he took a pass 64 yards, weaving across the field and diving over the pylon with no time left, only to have an official rule he stepped out at the one.

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Family Day at ET’s Memorial Stadium was a good day, as The Lions took down a ranked Southern Arkansas squad 31-16.

As he stood outside the locker room after the game, Hightower said he was disappointed in the call. A small cache of family and friends kept a polite distance as he talked to three reporters. He shrugged. “That’s the breaks,’ he said, smiling.

They do not have many regrets. The fact that most of these players are playing on a second chance — and, in Anderson’s case, a chance he thought long gone — seems to leave them appreciative. They like it here in Commerce, America, where Vowell concludes each Thursday practice across the highway by telling his men, “We’re going to whip their butts from Amazing Grace to How Great Thou Art.’

They are big on spiritual themes at ET, inexplicable as they seem. The players sing the chorus to When the Roll Is Called Up Yonder after victories.

“We don’t win,’ defensive coordinator Mark Copeland said, firmly, “we don’t sing.’

They have done a lot of singing at ET the last few years, since Vowell turned the Lions around in his third season. Winning makes up for the rest. They do not begrudge the Division I schools for anything, they say. The game is not as all-consuming here, said offensive tackle Eric Herrick, a transfer from Kansas State.

Greg Centilli, a Waxahachie native who transferred from San Jose State to play quarterback at ET, said he likes Commerce because there is “not as much hustle and bustle.’

He leaned back in his chair, arms folded across his chest.

“A lot of people think ET is somewhere people go who can’t play anyplace else,’ he said, his drawl soft as an old boot. “But that’s not true. I’m proud to be associated with it. The people who go here really want to.’

He let his chair fall back into place, looking a reporter hard in the eye.

“These are good, down-to-earth people here,’ he said, apparently all he could ask.

 

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