Not Without Honor

From the Highway 183 overpass at Cameron Road you can see the stadium lights burning against the gray sky. Kickoff is scheduled for 730PM and lines of cars and buses wait to enter the parking lot already filled to capacity.

This will undoubtedly be the biggest, most attended sporting event at Reagan High School in decades.

 

Outside the stadium a large tent houses a few barbecue pits manned by ex-players and coaches. Most of them are white, if you’re looking for that kind of thing. The ex-players mill about taking photos and shaking hands with old friends they probably thought they would never see again. Branded on their shirts is the slogan that is still painted on the side of the gym, and is still at the base of all football helmets: Not Without Honor.

 

Tonight, they celebrate the fifty-year anniversary of Reagan High School’s storied, and tragic, existence.

 

The marching band crosses the street from the high school to the stadium, followed by cheerleaders who dance and laugh and text in their wake. The tubas bang out ‘I Can’t Feel My Face’. The line of dancers and musicians, dressed in sparkling navy with a Carolina blue trim, parade by the tent and play to the crowd of tailgaters, who cheer them on, before filing through the gates, past the locker rooms, and onto the field.

 

Homemade banners are duct-taped to the chain-link fences. A group of students actually shows up. In their pockets are purple smoke bombs that will be unleashed throughout the game, filling the stands with the scent of burning chemicals.

 

There is finally reason for optimism. After years of being trounced week in and week out, the Reagan Raiders are . . . good. Really good.

 

And tonight they’re going to win again.

 

This could be any high school football game on a Friday night in the state of Texas, but that’s a mountainous accomplishment for Reagan. It’s not supposed to be this way.

 

The school is supposed to be closed down due to academic failures.

 

When you think of Reagan football, you’re supposed to think of a gruesome murder committed by one of the star players in the hallway between classes.

 

They are supposed to be the easy victory — the kind of victory where all the guys on the bench get some playing time — on every other team’s schedule.

 

The Reagan players are supposed to be dropouts. Or in prison.

 

The good athletes — and the good kids — are supposed to have left Reagan under the No Child Left Behind Act and resurfaced in a more stable high school.

 

But Coach Carey doesn’t care about what’s supposed to be.

 

*

Four years ago, Coach Carey stood in front of a group of Reagan alumni and board members to pitch his plan for the football team. They hired him from a school in the same district and were surprised when he said yes. No one else was clamoring for the job.

 

He didn’t come for the talented athletes or the money. He came as a missionary of sorts, and made his intentions clear from the beginning.

 

That night he talked very little about winning and even less about football. He spent most of the night talking about how the players on the team, in large part, had no positive male influence in their lives. Most of the players, with rare exception, had no father in the home. Some of the players had no parents home at all, and looked after their siblings on their own, staying under the radar from the government agencies that would never allow it. Numerous athletes had fathers and older brothers in prison. And for a few of the students who did still have fathers at home, they rarely saw them due to addiction. Some of the players already had children of their own, and Coach Carey wanted to equip them to break some of the cycles that had been in their own families for generations.

 

This didn’t classify as groundbreaking news to those in attendance.

 

Reagan High School is nestled in northeast Austin in a pocket of the city that is complicated. The area is low-income and high crime, neighboring a major live-work-play development for successful young professionals, and a home to a large refugee community. The high school acts in many ways as a microcosm of the neighborhood, and the broken family unit is at the center of most of the issues often mischaracterized as a result of poverty. The endemic of missing fathers permeated all of Regan High School, not just the football team.

 

But Coach Carey came to turn the program around, and that started with bringing positive, reliable men into the circle of influence. Football, in short, came second to preparing these young men for life.

The team needed more than just mentors. They needed a group of committed people — called a booster club in most communities — to care. And they also needed some tangible upgrades that required money the school simply could not set aside for football. The pads and helmets were in such poor condition they couldn’t be used safely. Someone needed to feed the players before games, as they had grown accustomed to eating lunch and nothing else before kickoff that night. The uniforms were ragged and dated. Nothing matched. The locker room and weight room needed an overhaul. Practice equipment was leftover from previous decades.

 

Coach Carey looked into the crowd and asked them to consider what role they could play.

 

As the night drew to a close, an older man approached Coach Carey and told him he might like to help. He gave the coach his phone number and said whenever he needed something, just to call.

 

The next morning, Coach Carey called.

 

*

Buddy Dryden graduated from Regan High School in 1967. He went on to build a successful construction business and settled in west Austin with his family, always keeping an eye on his alma mater on the other side of town. The other side of town, like all of Austin, matured into an unrecognizable force. The pendulum swings from one extreme to the other, with I35 the dividing line between east and west. Buddy had seen coaches come and go from Reagan over the years, the football program devolving into a punch line.

 

Looking at the scores in the Saturday morning Chronicle was always an adventure in seeing how badly Reagan was beaten.

 

He knew the school had problems that ran deeper than football. In fact, it was almost shut down entirely because of academic standards.

 

But when he heard Coach Carey speak about fatherhood and integrity, something stirred in his heart. He felt compelled to help this man, even if he didn’t know how. So he handed the coach his phone number, and the next morning he received a call that would significantly change his life forever.

 

That phone call would lead Buddy into refugee communities, government agencies, and food truck runs into the projects.

 

That call would give him a son named Mulbah.

 

*

Thirteen years ago, Mulbah Carr lived homeless on the streets of Liberia in the wake of a brutal civil war. He was six years old.

His father took him away from his mother, and his father’s new girlfriend beat him until he ran away. So he did whatever it took to survive on his own in a world of bloodshed, poverty, and outright savagery. The Liberian Civil War opened the world’s eyes to the use of child soldiers fueled by drugs, and was also marked by cannibalism and human sacrifices. If you are looking to dive deep into understanding the darkest, most depraved corners of human nature, youtube clips from the civil war in Liberia are readily available and difficult to stomach. It is on these streets where a six year old boy lived, separated from his mother.

 

If you ask Mulbah now, he shrugs his shoulders saying he doesn’t remember too much from those days. And he doesn’t remember how long he lived on the streets. Maybe it was a few months, and maybe it was a few years. The memory of a young boy struggling to survive on the other side of the world has limitations.

 

But he does remember one thing.

 

One day a car stopped on the street because the woman driving thought he looked familiar. She told him to get inside the car because she knew where to find his mother. He got inside, and the woman drove him to a refugee camp where indeed his mother and sister were living. His brother, father, and other siblings could not be found.

 

He learned the workings of the refugee camp, and every chance they could, his mother put their name into a drawing held by a Catholic charity that coordinated with the US government to slowly move refugees to the states.

 

One day, they put their family name in the pot and won. So he, his mother, and his sister boarded a plane with their meager possessions and crossed the Atlantic Ocean.

 

The plane landed in Austin, Texas. The government-issued apartment they moved into fell within the boundaries of Reagan ISD.

*

Coach Carey says, “I love you.” He says it a lot, right to the faces of his players. By now, they know he means it.

But the love he offers isn’t always soft and doesn’t always make the players feel warm and fuzzy. He’s tough as hell, because he has to be. There is no room to show weakness in the locker room at Regan High School or else you will be devoured. At least, that’s how it used to be.

 

When he first stepped into his role as the football coach and started promising that changes were going to come, and that he was going to invest in them not only as athletes but also as men and future fathers and future leaders of their community, they pushed back. They needed him to prove it.

 

He talks fondly of times when players threatened to kill him. When they bowed up and dared him to retaliate. When they screamed in his face. When they flashed a weapon to him. When they threatened to bring gangs and show him why he couldn’t say the things he was saying. He never backed down, and over time the culture began to shift. Some of the guys quit, and the rest adapted.

 

New leaders stepped up that believed he was legit. A generation of boys that craved guidance into manhood became the prominent voices in the locker room.

 

Coach Carey knows that little things go a long way. He made hundreds of phone calls to find a rare and specific color of blue so the uniforms would match. He busted the budget on nonessentials like gloves and sweatbands so they would look good. If you look good, you feel legitimate. And if you feel legitimate, you put in the work. He ordered custom white leather couches with the Reagan ‘R’ sewn into the middle cushion and put them in the locker room. He let the guys blare rap music as long as they found semi-clean versions.

 

He stayed up late at night, while his wife and children slept, making hype videos to play before practices and games. He built social media pages and posted consistently. He printed and framed big photos of the guys working out in the weight room. He proved that he wasn’t kidding or full of empty promises like other men who had come and gone from their lives.

 

The guys that threatened to kill him began to defend him. They started saying “I love you too, coach.” And everyone believed that losses were transforming into wins, one practice at a time. For a few years, they took such beatings on the field that officials approached Coach Carey at halftime with the option of implementing an accelerated game clock. He never accepted, and told his players that they needed to feel every brutal second ticking past. He said one day they would thank him. He wanted every second, and every point scored against them, to be buried in their souls so they would never forget how hard it is to rise up.

 

They worked harder. They held onto the scores and the embarrassment and that fuel still burns hot in their engines.

 

In his first year as head coach, Mulbah Carr was a phenom freshman that already played and looked like a senior. And Buddy Dryden was commissioned to gather the forces that would change the culture of Reagan football forever.

 

*

Buddy told his wife, Linda, about Coach Carey and the speech he gave. She jumped on board with him, and they started making phone calls to friends. They put together a good plan for a way to feed the boys before games and surround them with men and women who could speak truth and love into their lives.

 

Buddy and Linda knew the owner of Hat Creek Burgers, a farm to table fast food chain in Austin, and he caught the vision immediately. In fact, Hat Creek already had a partnership with Mobile Loaves and Fishes, a nonprofit organization that sends food trucks into poor neighborhoods and feeds whoever shows up. One of their trucks happened to go to Mulbah’s neighborhood and feed the refugees. Hat Creek agreed to provide hamburgers for the players prior to games. Buddy and Linda, and Barry and Holly Williamson, among others, would form the booster club to advocate for and take care of the players. The simple solution of delivering hamburgers, bananas, and Gatorade after school increased energy and decreased injuries. They played better and smarter. They committed less penalties. They focused at halftime and learned the adjustments.

 

The Drydens also called their friend Phil Dawson, a longtime NFL kicker who makes his home in Austin.

 

They told Phil about the state of the uniforms, and he talked to his family and some of his friends. It also turned out that an executive at Nike happened to have graduated from Reagan High School. When he caught wind of the story, a shipment of brand new shoes was sent to them team with the exact right accent of blue. Uniforms and pads would no longer be an issue. Coach Carey gathered the team and dramatically unveiled boxes and boxes of new cleats. They went wild trying to find their sizes.

 

The other aspect, and perhaps most important, was that Coach Carey wanted to find mentors and role models for the boys. Buddy had already migrated towards Mulbah, and found his story about being a refugee to be interesting. He also found Mulbah to be a young man with a unique character and perspective on life and family.

 

They hit it off. An old white horse roper and a 14-year-old refugee from Liberia.

 

*

Mulbah never intended to become a football star.

 

And he certainly never set out to be a transformation figure in a football program, or someone who would break the Austin ISD rushing record halfway through his senior season. He never expected football to be his ticket to a college degree — something inconceivable to his mother who still speaks more French than English.

 

But he was so obviously faster and stronger than everyone else his age that it made sense. He ran track and field and competed in the state championships in wrestling as a sophomore. The tapes still available on line show him body-slamming opponents. No one could take him down. New to football, he either eluded tacklers are simply ran over them, whichever seemed more convenient.

 

Coach Carey knew that Mulbah was the key to taking a perennial losing team to a winning team, and he groomed him carefully. He did not have to convince Mulbah about the need to work hard. Mulbah already knew about that.

 

From the time he was still a boy, brand new to the US, he would pick his siblings up from school, walk them home, and cook dinner and get them ready for bed while his mom worked as a maid at a downtown hotel. He was 8 years old, fatherless, and living in a tiny apartment in the projects. His only guardian spoke no English. Linda wonders sometimes what CPS would have done if they knew about Mulbah and his family.

But he’s not a boy anymore. He’s a full-grown man. You know he’s a football player when he walks into a room. He squats over 500 pounds and runs a 4.4 40-yard dash. When they brought him up to the varsity team, college recruiters started to notice him, too. As of now he has scholarship offers from every major conference.

 

Buddy and Linda already volunteered with Mobile Loaves and Fishes when they found out a truck ran to Mulbah’s apartment complex. So they started meeting his neighbors and his family. His mother wanted to know about the people who had invested so much in his life. They were invited inside the tiny apartment, anchored by a deep freezer and a microwave.

 

It became abundantly clear that all of them would be connected, in one way or another, forever.

 

*

Frank is half the size of Mulbah with twice the personality. Frank talks to everyone. It’s easy for him to make friends with his positive spirit and effortless ability to make a joke of anything and everything. He also came from Africa, with his story originating in the Congo. Like Mulbah, he was separated from his mother and wound up in the United States through a series of deceptions and hardships. He has spoken to his mother only twice since being taken from her over a decade ago. Finding a phone number to reach her in Congo took a miracle. When someone stole his phone at school, he lost that miracle and is waiting on another one to come along.

 

Mulbah and Frank spend weekends and holidays at Buddy and Linda’s house.

 

Frank plays on the football team as well, even if he isn’t a big star. He’ll have his opportunities next year with Mulbah out of the way. The team will look to him for leadership, whether he is ready for it or not. Frank is a year behind Mulbah, who he calls the big dawg. He knows that Mulbah has a scholarship to college, and

 

Frank is working for the same. If Mulbah can do it, he knows it is also a possibility for him.

 

Both Frank and Mulbah will be the first to go to college in their families.

 

They met in elementary school, the two kids with funny accents.

 

*

Team photographs dating back fifty years line the hallway towards the locker room. A glass case houses dusty footballs signed by boys who are now old men, commemorating achievements no longer recognized as important. Once, these represented glory. But glory fades and presents itself new and out of reach to every generation, daring them to chase. A pair of desktop computers with internet access are tucked into a corner in case the players need to finish a homework assignment. A photograph of Mulbah looms over the hallway, the team surrounding him in the weight room as he struggles to push up five hundred pounds on his back, the bar bending under the hundred pound plates. The cinder-block walls buzz with Drake fittingly declaring that, “We started from the bottom now we’re here. Started from the bottom now my whole team’s here.”

 

Coach Carey feels the bass bump in his office as he schemes X’s and O’s.

 

Earlier in the day, the school held a pep rally on the field. The players sat on foldout bleachers facing their peers, uncomfortable with the jerseys tucked in their blue jeans. A few of the teachers painted their faces to instill the idea that this game would be special. This game represented everything they had been working for as a football team, a school, and a community. Hope is the only name that comes close to capturing the moment, even if that name has been overused and abused.

 

Fifty years meant survival. Fifty years meant destroying Reagan High School would require more than scandal and death and decades of failure. Fifty years meant the roots took hold.

 

Coach Carey knew that this senior class would be special. He accepted the head coaching position when they were just freshman, and he had watched the players grow into maturity as seniors. Some of them had made terrible mistakes. Others became fathers on accident. He answered desperate phone calls for help in the middle of the night.

 

Despite any setbacks, Coach Carey understood where the boys came from and saw where they were going.

He knew them as God made them. He knew the names of their mothers and fathers and siblings. He knew why they failed a test or why they felt insecure under scrutiny. He met their girlfriends and heard about their breakups. He kept up with family dynamics and whether or not mom found a job yet. He guided them, sometimes gently and sometimes with righteous anger, away from destructive decisions and towards integrity.

 

He loved them, and told them so.

 

Coach Carey walked into the locker room and cut the music.

 

“Tonight is going to be special,” he said.

 

*

 

Linda Dryden serves each week as one of four lead teachers and organizers of a Bible Study held at Austin Ridge Bible Church that is attended by over 200 women. She is petite with plastic-framed glasses and carries a loud personality. She talks with Texas twang and remembers her father, and his father, and what Austin used to be like before all the people came. She knows who you’re looking for, and if she doesn’t, she knows someone who does. She is the mother of sons pursuing their own path in the world.

 

And now she is watching after an 18-year-old refugee from Liberia.

 

She remains sensitive about overstepping her bounds. Mulbah has a mother, after all. And Mulbah’s mother loves him and works hard to protect and provide for her family. But everyone needs help, and Mulbah’s mother has always welcomed the Dryden’s presence in her life and appreciates their interest and provision for her son. She simply doesn’t have time to work, watch after the other children, and maximize Mulbah’s potential to succeed as a student athlete.

 

Linda has instilled an open door policy to Mulbah. He takes her up on it, staying in his own room at their place and traveling with their family pretty much . . . everywhere. On Saturdays after games he lays on the couch in their game room icing his bruises and watching the college teams who have asked him to come play there. Frank comes over, too, and they eat the pantry clean.

 

Mulbah refers to Buddy as his dad. His own father remains a mystery of his past. Maybe he is alive in Liberia and maybe not. Maybe he fled and started a life somewhere else. Maybe the same is true for the other siblings who did not find their way to the refugee camp so long ago. Mulbah says that one day he would like to track his father down and let him know that he is still alive and doing well in the United States. Mulbah says he would like to forgive him, in person.

 

For Mulbah’s eighteenth birthday, they all go to the Texas Roadhouse. Buddy teaches Mulbah how to drive and helps him earn a license. They go out to the family ranch in Bastrop and Buddy asks Mulbah if he’d like to ride a horse, to which Mulbah politely declines.

 

Linda takes him to the movies. At Mulbah’s request, they go see ‘Straight Outta Compton’. Linda thought it was pretty good, if not awkward in a few scenes.

 

And they have been doing this for years. For no reason, really, except that Coach Carey invited them to take interest in someone’s life and they agreed.

 

As the season goes on, Buddy and Linda drive Mulbah on recruiting trips to colleges and work to gather and organize paperwork. They sleep in dormitories and hotels as coaches try to convince Mulbah he is a perfect fit for their system. They talk about all of the players in their program who have been drafted into the NFL.

 

Linda spends weeks studying a list of 100 possible civics questions with him so that he can pass his upcoming citizenship test. Some are easy, and others would be difficult for any red-blooded American. She also endures the lines in the immigration offices so that he can apply to colleges with all of his documents in order. They need test scores, recommendation letters, government subsidy documents, refugee paperwork, licenses and everything else Mulbah has no idea how to find. Linda finds it.

 

Linda and Mulbah sit in office after office waiting to speak to someone — anyone — only to be told they are missing a key document or had come to the wrong place or that the office was too backed up to accept any new appointments. She picks him up from the apartment the next day and tries again.

 

And now he is a full citizen of the United States.

 

And now he is cleared to attend the university of his choice.

 

And now he is paving a path for his family’s legacy.

 

*

 

Mulbah and the Drydens walked into the apartment and sat across from Mulbah’s mother. Mulbah said he had something important to tell her. She waited. He told her he was going to college to play football.

She stared at him blankly, perhaps considering how to protect her eldest son from the disappointing news

that they would never be able to pay for textbooks, much less tens of thousands for a college education.

 

She never comprehended the Texas fascination with football. In fact, she only attended one of Mulbah’s games during his senior season. She saw him play and heard the crowd roar as he bolted for the endzone.

And she started to understand.

 

But connecting football to college to money would be a stretch. She thought her son simply excelled at a hobby that made him happy and strong.

 

He reiterated the news. He would be going to college to play football.

Seeing the confusion, Buddy joined in with the most important piece of the puzzle. Everything would be free. From meals to books to the education. They would give Mulbah an education for free if he played football.

 

She lit up with a smile and kissed his face. She started to cry.

 

She asked where he was going and he told her. The University of Houston.

 

*

 

Frank likes that Mulbah picked Houston over all the other schools, some with much bigger names. Houston is only a few hours away from Austin, so his friend will be able to come visit on occasion. And Buddy and Linda already told Frank he can go down to see the games with them. Plus, Houston happens to be ranked in the top ten in most preseason polls and will play a highly ranked Oklahoma Sooner team in the opening week of the season. With a win, the Houston Cougars could legitimately make a push towards the national championship. This is the season, and Mulbah is arriving on the upswing.

 

Frank has another year of high school and he is hoping for a bigger role for the Reagan Raiders. He played at running back behind Mulbah last season, which left little space for him to shine. But now Coach Carey is counting on him. An exodus of seniors means the remnant of young players like Frank must remember and fortify the legacy of those who came before them.

 

He almost moved schools because his father lives far away. Frank can keep going to Reagan if he can find a way to get there. Maybe he will walk. It’s a straight shot west down highway 290, only ten miles or so.

Frank is determined to go to college just like Mulbah. Maybe the SEC won’t come calling for a 5’9, 175 pound running back, but to bet against Frank would be a mistake.

 

*

 

The Reagan Raiders had their most successful season in decades. At times, they dominated opponents. In multiple games, opposing coaches were offered an accelerated clock at halftime and gladly accepted to keep their players from enduring more embarrassment. During his halftime speech in those games, Coach Carey sobered his team with a reminder that they once were on the other side of the beating, and to play with class. He reminded them what it felt like to be humiliated on the field. Keep punching them in the mouth, but no gloating, no showboating, no taunting. Play clean, hard, football and be tough as hell between the whistles. After you knock a guy on his ass, pick him up.

 

None of the games matched the hype of the 50-year anniversary homecoming game. The stands never filled up again, and the old guard never returned with their barbecue pits. Still, something shifted in the great macrocosm of hearts in east Austin. Those who came to the games expected their team — their boys — to win. They expected excellence and passion. Little brothers watched big brothers win with integrity and lose with grace.

 

Mulbah Carr broke every imaginable rushing record at Reagan. He also set the all-time rushing record for Austin ISD halfway through the season and piled up hundreds more yards afterwards to set a new record that may stand for a long time.

 

The 2015 Reagan football team went to the playoffs.

 

But the story has little to do with football.

 

*

 

Coach Carey gathers the players on the field after the game in the shadow of the scoreboard. Across the field, in the packed home stands, the student body of Georgetown High School revels in the win. Players kiss their girlfriends and mothers while streamers fall on the field. The students drum on the bleachers, sending echoes into the November night. Regan has just lost, convincingly, in the first round of the playoffs to a team with everything they don’t have. Georgetown is a cliché of Texas football. Reagan is not. But tonight the cliché has won, and the Raiders season ends all too quickly.

 

Coach Carey looks at the faces of his players, some crying, some injured. The starting quarterback, Amado, stands at the back on crutches. Coach Carey will never again put these seniors in a huddle and tell them he loves them. So he tells them he loves them. And to be proud of the men they are becoming.

He doesn’t say much about football.

 

The players break out and walk over to the area where their families are waiting. Among them is Buddy in his crisp white cap, and Linda deep in conversations with the other moms. It becomes difficult to tell who goes with who, because everyone is hugging and kissing. Everyone is taking photos. The line between last names and the color of skin is thin indeed.

 

Coach Carey takes kisses on the cheek from grandmothers and mothers.

 

After the bus ride to Reagan, Coach Carey delivers a brief final speech about offseason and what to do with their pads and equipment. He walks out of the locker room and one of the players goes to the speaker system. The others know what is about to happen. Some groan, and others laugh. He hits play, and Taylor Swift’s ‘Shake It Off’ blares through the locker room.

 

It’s not the song you expect to hear inside an inner-city school locker room, but this has become a tradition. As soon as the song is over, back to Drake. ‘We started from the bottom now we’re here. Started from the bottom now my whole team’s here.’

 

Frank waits at the door wearing a backpack as Mulbah closes his locker and spins the lock. The next time he puts on football pads, he will cover them in a red jersey with HOUSTON printed in the chest.

 

*

 

The ball is placed on the tee and the teams line up across from one another. A swell of energy pulses through the air, unnamed, unable to be recreated anywhere but a high school football field in Texas on a Friday night.

 

The stands are full of alumni — an eclectic and scattered group who once walked the hallways of Reagan.

 

They are proud of their team. They want to see with their own eyes. They want to lay claim to the story, as they should.

 

News cameras are scattered along the track, most of them pointed at Mulbah standing on the sidelines waiting to enter the field. Buddy and Linda sit with their friends — all the ones who have been faithfully attending Reagan games and mentoring the boys for the last four years — and discuss what the team needs to do to win. Buddy wears his white cap.

 

Coach Carey adjusts his headset and waits for the whistle. He paces like a lion on the sidelines. The players bob their heads to the music pouring down from the band in the stands behind them. On the back of every helmet is written ‘Not Without Honor’.

 

The whistle blows, and the crowd rises to their feet.