My Friday night lights.
Updated: Aug 15, 2021
If you’ve ever seen the movie Friday Night Lights, then you know what a big deal high school football is in Texas. The movie didn’t exaggerate. Not one bit. If anything, it played it a little safe to be honest.
I started playing flag football at six and by eight I was playing full contact. The season always began with a week of two-a-days. For six grueling days, you showed up at 7am in helmets and shorts and then again at 4pm in full pads.
The practices took place around the middle of August, about a week or so before school started. In Houston, it’s about 95 degrees on your average day in August. And that’s at 7am. It gets hotter as the day goes on and by that second practice, when you’re in full pads, it’s fucking blazing.
Kids would puke. Pass out. And basically test the limits of heat exhaustion on a daily basis. Plus, back then, things like hydration weren’t a huge priority. We’d literally have to beg for a water break and even then the coaches would call us a bunch of pansy asses for taking it.
The high school I went to was known far and wide as a baseball powerhouse. The football program was decent but we were in one of the most competitive districts in all of Texas. We might have been feared on the baseball diamond but on the football field we were a lackluster team comparatively speaking.
But still, this was Texas. And all any kid in Texas wants is a high school letterman jacket with a varsity football patch on it. I was no different.
I made varsity when I was a junior. I played fullback and was pretty decent for a medium sized Jewish kid with mediocre speed. Mainly I was a blocking back. But I hit hard and knew how to keep a defensive end tied up long enough for a tailback to get around the corner to the outside.
Though we weren’t a powerhouse, we did have some stand-outs. Our quarterback was an excellent athlete with NFL size. He got turned into a tight-end at New Mexico State and ended up playing several seasons in the NFL. Our tailback was as good as any in the district. He was 5’10’’ and about 215 lbs, but he was fast as lightning and if you went up high on him no one could bring him down.
And then there was Derrick. This kid was born to play football. He had everything. Size. Speed. Toughness. Dedication. He was the whole package and as a middle line-backer I’ve not seen too many high school kids play the position as fearlessly as Derrick did.
His older brother was already a starter at the University of Houston. They were both spitting images of their father who had played college football himself and stood cross-armed on the sidelines at every practice so he could critique Derrick’s performance on a daily basis. Once our practice ended, he’d drive to the UH campus and do the same for Derrick’s older brother.
Derrick was a good kid and a leader on the field. We were friends because we were teammates, but I joked around a lot at practice and I don’t think he cared for it. One day during English class, I joked around a little too much and Derrick got pissed. When class was over, he was waiting for me outside.
He said he was going to kick my ass and started pushing me around. I wasn’t necessarily afraid of Derrick but I knew he would beat my ass in a fight so I tried my best to diffuse the situation.
“We can’t fight, Derrick. We’ll get suspended and the coach will have our asses.”
“I don’t give a shit,” Derrick said.
I was quick on my feet and came back with the only thing I could think of.
“I think your dad will give a shit when you miss a game because you’re suspended.”
That cut through the rage and awakened his rational thinking mechanism. I could see him weighing the consequences in his head. Debating the pros and cons and finally coming to a decision.
“Fine, man. I’ll see you at practice. I’m gonna destroy you in front of the whole team.”
He gave me a nice push as he walked past me and called me a pussy. I was glad to be off the hook for the moment, but I had a feeling I wouldn’t be joking around too much at practice that afternoon.
I snuck into the locker room early and got my shit on quick. The last place I wanted to bump into Derrick was the locker room. I got the hell out of there as quick as I could and went out to the practice field to start stretching and warming up.
Everyone gets their equipment the week before two-a-days start. You show up at the gym and the coaches have all the pads stacked up in piles according to size. You picked through the pile to find the best shit you could. Some of that stuff had been sitting in the equipment room forever. I’m surprised they didn’t have any leather helmets laying around.
Derrick was different though. His father made sure that he had the best equipment money could buy. He had NFL quality gear. His shoulder pads were twice as big as ours, he had every extra pad you could imagine and to top it all off he had one of those new face shields that had just come out for college and NFL players. Derrick’s was tinted so you couldn’t see his eyes. He looked like the fucking Terminator.
I kept looking for him but he wasn’t there. By that time everyone had made it out of the locker room and were doing their warm-ups. The coaches were just about to start practice when out of the corner of my eye I see Derrick walking across the black top that led to the practice field.
It was a hot day and the heat waves rising from the asphalt made Derrick look apocalyptic as he approached. Most players didn’t put on their helmets until after stretching. Those helmets are hot so you kept them off for as long as possible.
Derrick had his on already. You couldn’t see his eyes because of the tinted face shield but I knew they were fixed directly on me. If he was trying to intimidate me, it fucking worked. I was seriously worried.
After warm-ups you broke off into groups. The receivers went to practice running routes. The backs went to work running drills. The linemen went over to the sled. And the defensive players set off to the tackling dummies.
At one point I hear a bunch of commotion going on. I look over and Derrick is destroying a tackling dummy. He’s just going ape shit on the thing. They had to pull him off. Coach gave him a pat on the back and said he liked the intensity.
I, on the other hand, didn’t like the intensity. I was hoping a little contact might mellow him out but unfortunately it seemed to do the opposite. He had his fucking game face on. It was hidden behind a menacing black shield. But it was fucking on.
Once drills were over, it was time to scrimmage. Derrick was taunting the shit out of me. He was laughing. He was happy. He was about to have some fun doing what he did best in life. Being a hell of a good middle linebacker. And kicking the shit out of someone.
We huddle up on offense. The defense puts their red shirts on and coach sends in the play.
41-draw. That’s my play. I love that fucking play.
A draw is a run play that’s designed to look like a pass play. The quarterback takes the ball and goes back like he’s gonna pass. The linemen play along by going into pass blocking mode. Once the defense is drawn in by the subterfuge, the ball is handed to me and I run up the middle. The best part, if all goes according to plan, is that Derrick gets taken out on his blindside by the weakside offensive guard and then I cut to the outside and look for daylight.
We line up. Derrick is pacing behind the defensive line. He’s like a caged beast. I start to think that it might have been a better idea to just fight him outside of class. Those things always get broken up pretty quick. I could have grabbed him by the waist and just held on.
The coach blows the whistle and the quarterback gets under center. I’m in the ready position in the backfield. I try to keep my eyes straight ahead. But I can’t help it. I look up at Derrick. There’s sweat and drool coming off of his facemask as if he were a rabid dog. And then I do the stupidest thing I could possibly do. No fucking idea why I did it. I blow him a fucking kiss. Dumb.
The ball is snapped. The quarterback drops back to pass and the linemen sell it perfectly. As soon as the defense commits, I feel the ball being tucked into my gut and take off up the middle. Derrick is waiting for me with open arms. I can distinctly see a smile on his face as he prepares to annihilate me. And then, right on cue, our big left guard crosses over and blindsides the living shit out of him. I cut to the outside, get a block from a receiver and then it’s off to the races.
The whistle blows and we all come back to the huddle ready to run a different play. And that’s when I hear the coach start shouting.
“Dickerson! What the hell do you think you’re doing son? I’ve seen better effort out of a god damned tackling dummy. Run it again!”
Run it again?
That's the last thing you want to hear your coach say. This is the worst part of any scrimmage. You run a play. Someone fucks up, the coach goes ballistic and then shouts out, “Run it again!”
Everyone knows exactly who’s getting the ball and where the blocks are coming from. Derrick might have just gotten the living crap knocked out of him but he’s all smiles as the defense lines up and we come to the line of scrimmage—this time with no element of surprise.
“Down! Set! Hut!”
Once again, the quarterback drops back to pass and the lineman rear up into a pass blocking position. The defense knows what’s coming but they still have to execute. The center and the guard double team the left defensive tackle. Our tailback takes care of the monster on the right. That leaves me and Derrick. Mono a mono. I take off up the middle. It’s my only lane. I cut early and spin. Derrick gets a hand on my shoulder pad with a vice like grip. It holds me up long enough for the rest of the gang to get there and I get clobbered. Derrick got me. But he didn’t get me 100%. Not even close to satiating his lust for vengeance.
“Jackson!” yells the coach.
“Shit.” I say to myself.
“Jackson. What in the name of all that’s holy are you doing in a slot position on a 41-draw? Jesus Christ, son. If you had any less brains, we’d have an extra helmet. Run the damn play again!”
“Fucking Jackson,” I say to myself as we line up and I prepare to get murdered.
We run the play. This time I get the ball and all I see in front of me are red defensive jerseys. I get held up at the line of scrimmage. Someone’s got me by the legs. I’m a sitting duck. Derrick comes flying at me like a human cannonball. He gets me good and I get bent over backwards and buried in the pile. Derrick’s shield is pressed against my facemask and I can feel the spray of his spittle as he calls me a piece of shit little pussy and grinds his knees into my rib cage and steps on my arm for good measure as he’s getting off the pile.
Then I hear the coach again.
“Duncan! You call that pass blocking? Are you shitting me son? This is varsity practice. The freshman squad is on the soccer field. Run it again!”
Shit! Fuck! Crap! Balls! You’ve got to be fucking kidding me. I clear off the enormous chunk of football field that somehow got wedged into my facemask and admire the cleat marks Derrick left on my arm. And that’s when I see it. I look up and I see the coaches smiling at each other and laughing. They’re fucking in on it. Derrick must have gotten to them before practice.
We run the play half a dozen more times. Each time I get folded and crumpled into a new position of Derrick’s choosing. Finally, we move on to another play. And then to close out practice the coaches decide to run the Oklahoma drill.
The Oklahoma drill is when two players separate themselves by about five yards. Both players lay down on their backs with each of their helmets facing each other. When the coach blows the whistle, you hop up on your feet as fast as humanly possible and try to knock the other player’s block off before he does it to you. It’s a simple drill. And I have a feeling I know who I’m going to be paired up with.
Sure enough, Derrick and I get the last Oklahoma drill. And just like with the 41-draw play, the coaches find one reason after another for us to repeat the drill again and again. I hold my own the best I can. Sure, Derrick outweighs me by about 35 lbs and can already bench press twice as much as I can, but I’m quicker than he is and in an Oklahoma drill speed equals force. We knock the shit out of each other time and time again.
Finally, the whistle blows. I lay on the ground battered and exhausted looking up at the sky. The layer of sweat cools my body but also drips into my eyes and makes them sting. I’m out of breath and panting but glad practice is over.
My eyes are closed because of the stinging. As I catch my breath, I open them and there’s Derrick standing over me. He reaches out a hand that I grab onto and he lifts me up like I’m a kid who’s fallen off his bike.
“That was fun,” he says with a big goofy ass smile on his face.
He’s finally taken off his fearsome Terminator helmet. He looks like a kid who just got off a roller coaster. I ask him if we’re good now.
“Yeah, we’re good. Can I come over for a swim?”
I had a pool in my backyard growing up. It was a good place to go after a hot practice in the brutal Texas heat of mid to late August. Usually, a half dozen of us would head over after practice. This time it was just Derrick and me. We picked up Subway on the way home and spent the rest of the day swimming like nothing happened. Derrick was my team-mate and friend. He just wanted to kick my ass a little. And in the world of high school football that’s just what team-mates and friends do to each other sometimes.
Our junior year season went pretty much as predicted. Not only were we a second-tier football team in a top tier district—but we were a young, second tier football team in a top tier district. Let’s just say it was a rebuilding year. And though most teams raked us over the coals it was well understood that the favor would be returned on the baseball field in the spring.
Derrick had a good season though. One good thing about being on a crappy team is if you’re a defensive player you’ll get a shitload of playing time. That allowed Derrick to be at the top of the district standings in tackles and he started to receive inquiries from prospective college programs.
But if Derrick was going to get into a top Division 1 school, it would help his chances to be playing for a better team. So, the summer before our senior year, Derrick’s father moved the family to another part of town where he would be attending a different school with a much better program. And to sweeten the deal he bought Derrick a brand-new truck.
We were all bummed to be losing him. Derrick was our friend and team-mate. And his absence would create a serious hole in our already less than stellar defense. But the truck his father got him was sick and Derrick spent all his money putting in a $2500 stereo system that blew the doors off of anything short of a concert PA. We spent the the summer cruising in his truck and annoying fellow motorists all over town.
Two-a-days didn’t start until August. But the really good programs had “voluntary” work-outs that usually started around the beginning of July. Coaches weren’t allowed to participate but the weight rooms were always open and team leaders would run drills with the underclassmen.
When we got the news it was surreal. We just couldn’t really wrap our heads around it. Derrick had been working out at his new school. It was in a nicer part of town and was top notch in every respect. It was an affluent community so it was well funded. They even had a sauna and steam room. The locker room was carpeted. They had their own PT department. It was a far cry from the dank and well-worn facilities we were used to. You wouldn’t find any leather helmets hanging around their equipment room. Everything was the best of the best.
Derrick had finished his work-out and was throwing his gear into his truck. Two kids came up to him and asked him for a ride home. Derrick told them to hop in and they headed off. At some point along the way one of those kids took out a gun and told Derrick to pull off the road.
There weren’t any signs of a struggle. My guess is they didn’t give him much of a chance. They shot him point blank in the head, yanked the $2500 stereo system out of his new truck and left him there.
At the funeral, the casket had two helmets on it. One from our school and the other from Derrick’s new school. We all sat on one side and they sat on the other. Everyone cried. Even the coaches.
They caught the kids who did it and they went to prison on murder charges. In 2003 they came up for parole and we all wrote letters to the parole board requesting they remain in prison. We did the same in 2007. In 2009 they were released.
It’s over 30 years later and I still think about Derrick all the time. That kid had the whole package. He would’ve for sure made it to the next level and possibly more. Derrick was a great athlete, a tremendous competitor and as I knew from first-hand experience, he was tough as nails.
Senior year came and went. Our season went a bit better than junior year but we still finished middle of the pack. I remember playing the last game of my football career. I could have gone to a small liberal arts college and kept playing football but I really wanted to go to UT where most of my friends were headed.
As I played that last game, I tried to take it all in as best as possible. I can remember most of the sights and sounds. The smell of the locker room. The pre-game jitters. And the excitement of running out onto the field underneath those lights to a stadium full of Texas high-school football fans screaming like crazy.
Those were my Friday night lights. I don’t miss two-a-days and I sure as hell don’t miss doing Oklahoma drills. But I miss the feeling of being on a team like that. I played with most of those kids from the time we were 8 years old all the way up through senior year of high school. I’m still in touch with some of them. And we still talk about Derrick. He was a good friend and a great football player.
Those Friday night lights are everything they say they are. But eventually, they go out for everyone. Derrick's lights were brighter than most, but they went out way too soon.