August 25, 2010
If Texas is the unofficial home of high school football, then Houston, with its 5.7 million-resident metro area, is its busiest hub. The area has enough high school football to keep you awfully busy and confused -- 17 school districts, not to mention more than 300 private schools (granted, not all of these serve the high school level, but a lot do). And virtually all of them obsess over football in the fall.
For the past decade, Lee High School has been the only comprehensive high school outside that Houston football cavalcade. Until now. As the Houston Chronicle's Jenny Dial discovered, the school's head coach, Gary Castille, is trying to build a team from scratch, teaching players from Mexico, Canada, Central America and even Africa how to play a game they never watched growing up. For that matter, even Castille is a novice; he was the school's volleyball coach last year.
We're not talking about the logistical problems of putting together a team with too few players. We're talking about putting together a team where players don't know the difference between a running back and defensive back. Many don't even speak the same language.
"It is like trying to pull a football team out of thin air," [Castille told the Chronicle]. "We have kids from all over the world that speak different languages. Football isn't something a lot of these kids know much about. [...]
"They didn't know what the positions were," Castille said. "The hardest part was convincing them that they had to make contact and hit each other in practice."
The issues just start there. While other schools worry about players overheating in the soup-thick, 90-degree heat, Castille has to worry about Muslim players not being able to drink water while the sun is out during Ramadan. The outlook surrounding team equipment isn't much better. The school doesn't have goal posts -- they're scheduled to arrive this week -- so the team's field-goal kicker has been booting practice kicks over the soccer goal.
While there are sure to be plenty of speed bumps ahead -- Castille never knows if he'll have 15 or 30 players show up for practice on a given day -- the payoff could be significant for a school community with a proud tradition and alumni desperate to get the program back to its once lofty perch. The team will compete on the junior-varsity level for two seasons before elevating to full varsity competition in 2012, just in time for Lee's 50th anniversary.
"Every former player from Lee I have talked to is really excited, and we will be there to support this team," Tom Behrman, a former Lee player who graduated in 1965, told the Chronicle. "People have asked me if I think they can win a game. I tell them that the team wins as soon as they run out for that first game."
Add to that the benefit the sport may have on some of the student athletes, and it's hard to disagree with Behrman. Castille has spoken of the team's ability to help keep some of his players in school just so they can remain academically eligible to play. Another player who moved to the area from Canada spoke of football providing a greater connection to American culture.
All those benefits sure sound like legitimate reasons to build a program. If Castille pulls it off, Lee might be the best story in Houston football this season, regardless of how far other teams advance in the state playoffs come November.