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'Texas is football'
It can be difficult to comprehend just what the game of football means in the state of Texas. Even for those who played the sport in the Lone Star state.
“Texas is football,” said left tackle Russell Okung, who played at George Bush High School in Houston before going to Oklahoma State and being the Seahawks’ first draft choice in 2010.
But it can take time for the significance of that to sink in.
“I think after you leave high school and then you go back, that’s when you really understand what it’s all about,” said middle linebacker David Hawthorne, who played at Corsicana High School before going to Texas Christian University and making the Seahawks’ roster as a rookie free agent in 2008.
Hawthorne did just that during the Seahawks’ bye week, when he attended the homecoming game at Corsicana.
“It’s still the thing to do in the town,” he said. “So it’s definitely a big deal. ‘Friday Night Lights’ is real out there. We think we play football better than anybody else, because you go places not in Texas and you don’t even know where the stadium is.”
That’s never the case in Corsicana, where businesses close, streamers in the team’s colors hang from every post and banners on the side of the road lead you to the stadium – where the lights illuminate the town, and add legitimacy to the legend.
“That’s what we’re used to in Texas,” Hawthorne said. “Operations shutdown in Texas when it’s ‘Friday Night Lights.’ ”
Obviously “Friday Night Lights” wasn’t just a good book that was made into a movie and then a compelling TV series. In Texas, it’s a way of life.
“Living in Texas and playing football go hand in hand,” Okung said.
This Texas phenomenon, and these Texas ties, are relevant this week because the Seahawks are playing the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday in Arlington. In addition to Okung and Hawthorne others on the Seahawks who grew up living “Friday Night Lights” include free safety Earl Thomas (Orange-Stark High School), defensive end Red Bryant (Jasper High School), running back Justin Forsett (Grace Prep Academy in Arlington) and snapper Clint Gresham (W.B. Ray High School in Corpus Christi).
Like Hawthorne, Thomas (Texas), Bryant (Texas A&M) and Gresham (TCU) remained in Texas to play their college ball.
Gresham, however, was well aware of the “Friday Night Lights” aspect of growing up in Texas while growing up in Corpus Christi.
“I knew how big a deal it was when I was there,” he said. “When I was in middle school, all my friends ever talked about was what it would be like to play varsity as a sophomore. It was a big deal, and it’s just expected. Everybody plays football.”
And dreams of playing at the next level from an early age.
“I remember when I was in eighth grade, one of my coaches took me to a varsity football game,” Gresham said. “I got to go in the locker room at halftime and I’ve got my eighth-grade jersey on. I’m looking around at these guys and thinking, ‘These guys are huge.’
“So it’s just kind of part of it. Everybody wants to be a part of something special, and football is just much more a part of the culture in Texas.”
And the apex of that pigskin culture is the Cowboys, who leave modesty to others by billing themselves as “America’s Team.” That nickname originated with team’s 1978 highlight film, when the narrator opened with: “They appear on television so often that their faces are as familiar to the public as presidents and movie stars. They are the Dallas Cowboys, ‘America’s Team.’ ”
It doesn’t hurt that the franchise has won five Super Bowls, and played in three others; 13 former Cowboys are in the Hall of Fame; and the team has played on “Monday Night Football” 73 times, with a league-high 43 victories on the showcase telecast.
Jason Garrett knows what it means to be a Cowboy. He played quarterback for the team and was an assistant coach before being named head coach midway through last season.
“It’s been a great organization, one that has great history and tradition,” he said this week. “We feel excited and fortunate to be part of it.”
Just like those Seahawks who come from the Lone Star state feel about having grown up in a football-first-and-foremost environment.
“It is special,” Gresham said. “There’s just no other way to put it.”
There are more players in the Seahawks’ locker room from California (11), just as many from Florida (six) and almost as many from Georgia (five) and South Carolina (four). In fact, 21 states are represented, including Hawaii (center Max Unger) and Connecticut (right guard John Moffitt).
But Texas is unique, because of how special football is in that state.
“It’s always big to go back, because we play so far away from Texas,” Hawthorne said of this week’s equivalent of an NFL homecoming game. “You get an opportunity for your family to come and see you and watch you play live and in person.
“And friends get to tune in and just see what you’re doing, and that you’re still repping your city and making them proud.”