In June, two months before the grand opening of one of America's richest high school football stadiums, I stood with Steve "Bubba" Williams on the photo deck of a three-tiered press box. He gazed to the west, where the dirt roads once crisscrossed the open prairie in Allen, Texas, and recalled that first morning in 1975 when he drove his dust-covered pickup to work at Allen High School.
"This was just a farming community, and Stacy Road was a dirt road," the Allen athletic director said. "Just a lot of farmhouses."
From chicken coops and cornfields to a roughly $60 million stadium, Bubba has certainly seen it all. The Allen flatland now boils with traffic as Williams watches the light turn green at the six-lane intersection of Exchange Parkway and Greenville Avenue. And the wheels of progress roll on.
Bubba said that he honestly never imagined all the fuss over this 18,000-seat horseshoe. But there is plenty. Folks across America have been talking about Eagle Stadium since The New York Times wrote a lengthy piece 19 months before it opened, and practically every media outlet in Texas has produced a major story. By mid-August, with Allen fans already whipped into a frenzy, Williams was forced to increase season-ticket sales from 5,000 to 8,252. Four days before the first game, thousands of fans began lining up just past dawn to grab the final 5,000 grandstand seats. They were gone in a day and a half. On Aug. 31, against defending Class 5A state champion Southlake Carroll, attendance was announced at 21,776. If not for an order from the fire marshal, Allen could have sold several thousand more tickets.
I have lived in Allen for more than two years and sat in the stands the past three seasons. Bubba and I have talked Texas football over hamburgers a few times. I have covered sports for 41 years in some form. Never, however, have I witnessed the palpable energy of those two hours leading to kickoff. The tailgating scene that started around noon was straight out of Tuscaloosa. In spite of the temperature soaring to 103 degrees by 5 p.m., the foot traffic on that Friday looked like a Sunday afternoon at Cowboys Stadium.
Among the most eager was Bob Curtis, a four-year letterman for the Eagles from 1960 to 1964 and part of Allen's 47-game winning streak that ended in '61. He served as Allen's facilities chief for 32 years, retiring in 2010. When he entered Eagle Stadium, he said: "This is what a stadium in Allen is supposed to look like. Allen does everything top-notch and first class." But no one in Allen was prouder than Williams, who tells me he felt chills running down his spine as the Eagles roared onto the field and the 700-piece band played the school song. At that moment he said to himself, EFFL -- Eagle Fan for Life.
Together, Williams and Curtis have spent 73 years at Allen High. To them, a $60 million stadium just makes sense. It is a show of support for their community, because high school football in Texas is an identity, like the cowboy, the rancher and the oil wildcatter. It has often been said that football in the Lone Star State is larger than religion. On certain days, I'd be hard-pressed not to agree.
But people in places like Trenton, N.J., and Oshkosh, Wis., have not been so impressed with the megamillions spent on an extracurricular activity. How was it possible, they asked, that this city of about 88,000 could pass a $119 million bond referendum in 2009 with America's economy going south? Williams has received hundreds of stinging emails from all over the country. In reference to them, he says: "I just tell 'em that in Allen, we are proud of our kids and are doing the best we can by them. The people in Allen are fully behind the stadium. Nobody here complains one bit."
What is there to complain about? Eagle Stadium has the most seats of any one-school stadium in Texas. It's fitted with a $1.2 million turf and a 38-by-23 hi-def video screen that most FBS programs would be proud of. They'd also be proud of the accompanying 84-yard-long weight room and the marching band, which takes up the entire field at halftime. Allen does not cut football players or band members, no matter the size of the squads.
Everything is just bigger in Allen, and the enormous size of it all must be what caused emailers to accuse Allen of sacrificing academics for athletics. But to the contrary, U.S. News & World Report recently reported that Allen ranked in the top 5 percent of all Texas public schools, and 5 percent nationwide. According to the school, 85 percent of graduates go to college. Those emailers should check the field, too. After shutting out Southlake Carroll 24-0 and starting the season 3-0, Allen has risen to No. 17 in the ESPN 25 Power Rankings.
With an enrollment of 5,700 students, Allen is the second-largest high school in Texas behind Plano East. And the Eagles seem destined to be perennial state title contenders under head coach Tom Westerberg, a talented offensive mind who didn't play college football, yet learned as a student trainer under Texas A&M legend Billy Pickard. Westerberg has led Allen to the state playoffs eight straight seasons, including the school's first state title in 2008. But the Eagles are rarely blue chip-laden, and the 2012 squad doesn't have a single prospect ranked in the ESPN 300. At 5-foot-8, quarterback Oliver Pierce is headed to the University of Oklahoma on a wrestling scholarship; he is considered a prospect for the 2016 U.S. Olympic team.
The absence of superstars adds to the small-town feel in the city, where about half the residents commute 20 miles to downtown Dallas each day through maddening traffic that requires at least an hour. Mayor Steve Terrell says, "I will always consider Allen a town." Still, it is difficult to sell Allen as typical Main Street America when the median household income is about $100,000, roughly twice the national average.
In truth, though, Allen was just a farming outpost not that long ago.
Since the Eagles started playing football in 1936, they've known six homes. The second was a weedy patch of farmland that had to be cleared of cow dung on game days. When Williams arrived in 1975, the stands were so small and rickety that the fans invented drive-in football, sitting in their cars and trucks, rolling down the windows to cheer when the Eagles scored. That prompted the construction of a 7,000-seat stadium the following season. As the population boomed over the next three decades, a total of 7,000 temporary aluminum seats were eventually added, causing the stadium to resemble the world's largest Erector set.
Then Allen finally shifted from the Erector set to the Palace along Exchange Parkway, and the rest of the world assumes the laid-back appeal has vanished. But I can attest that Allen still is a truck-driving, barbecue-eating, boot-wearing and C&W-listening town with more than its share of Bubbas.
In many ways, Allen is what America used to be: a thriving economy where the locals like to spend money on the community, even if the skeptics see it as excess. They would rather watch the Eagles than the Dallas Cowboys, because the Eagles are Allen's Team, not America's Team. And they couldn't care less about what people are saying in Trenton or Oshkosh.
Jim Dent is a New York Times best-selling author who has written nine books, including Courage Beyond The Game: The Freddie Steinmark Story.