There's high school football, and then there's Texas high school football. That's no tall tale. Though boosters of the game in Pennsylvania or Ohio might contend that their states produce as many quality players as the Texas schools do, no state is going to beat Texas when it comes to taking high school football seriously.
In Texas, high school football isn't a game; it's a form of civil religion. Doubters are referred to a quite wonderful book called Rites of Fall: High School Football in Texas (University of Texas Press, $24.95). It features 169 photographs by Geoff Winningham, a text by Al Reinert and a concluding commentary by Don Meredith. As a study of sport in America, it has few rivals. The book's contributors understand that when sport of any kind is central to community life, it becomes a vivid reflection of that community. Al Reinert puts it with considerable eloquence:
"In most small Texas towns there are few enough ways to excite one's passion or ambition, to assert oneself. Life is bounded and determined by the land and the weather and the distant impositions of the government and God—both about equally predictable and final—which means life is physical and seasonal, elemental, stoical. It is commonplace by definition—or as common, that is, as life in a place such as Texas can be. Full of their own rich yearnings, Texans have always seemed to struggle hardest against ordinariness, and for more than half a century now the basic stage and focus for that struggle has been on high school football fields."
Geoff Winningham's black-and-white photographs depict that struggle with sympathy, affection and a certain wry detachment; they have the grit and graininess of a Larry McMurtry novel: the beefy boosters talking up the team, the coltish cheerleaders and spangled baton-twirlers, the coaches beseeching God or any other available deity to get that damn ball over the goal line.
And even though this is a book about the ritual rather than the game, above all the pictures capture the players: boys of 15 and 16 and 17 upon whom heavy burdens have been pressed. The authors let the boys speak for themselves, and they leave the last word to Meredith, who recalls a game between Mt. Vernon and Sulphur Springs as "maybe the game I'm proudest of in my whole career."
It may be hard to find Rites of Fall in bookstores. The address of the University of Texas Press is Box 7819, Austin, Tex. 78712.