There is no stardom like that enjoyed by the schoolboy football star. And there is no schoolboy football like that in Texas.
Nick Fontana was a schoolboy football star in Texas.
“Sometimes, it really seems like a long time ago,” says Fontana, now a D.C. restaurateur, of his glorious Friday nights under the lights.
Next fall, it’ll be 20 years since he wore the green and white of Huntsville High School. The Hornets won the state championship his senior season. A good percentage of the patrons at Capital Q, the barbecue joint he owns and operates in Chinatown, are fellow Lone Star State natives, including a lot of congressional bigwigs. He likes to keep the ambience authentically Texan, so high school football is an approved topic of discussion. And it’s been coming up a whole lot lately: Last week, one of his ex-pat regulars called with news that the Huntsville Item, the daily paper in the East Texas town where Fontana grew up, had just published its All-Century Team. Fontana, a tailback for the state titlists, had made the cut.
“Nick was a real gutty player, just a hard-nosed, tough, get-after-it, yardage-every-time-he-got-hit-type runner,” ex-Hornets coach Joe Clements told the Item, explaining why Fontana deserved the All-Century nod. “He got his teammates to play as hard as he did.”
“It’s nice to be remembered,” says Fontana. “A lot of people I thought would be on it aren’t. So now I get to call them and give them crap.”
Fontana doesn’t doubt that his timing was as important as his talent in earning him the spot on the coveted roster. He had his days—he gained more than 100 yards and scored twice in the 1980 championship final, a 19-0 romp over Paris. But Fontana, who knew as a senior that he didn’t have the size or speed to play college ball, figures that better runners who weren’t fortunate enough to be on one of Huntsville’s two title squads—the team won it all in 1953, as well—were shunned. He understands, however, that in a state where towns are measured by the performance of their football teams, it makes sense that a title would carry so much weight.
“People remember when you win a state championship in Texas,” he says. “When I moved here, I thought it was funny that everybody here thinks the Redskins are so big. I don’t know how many people were at that pep rally for them at Union Station, but I bet we had bigger pep rallies every week the year we won the championship. I don’t know that people around here can understand the way it was.”
For anybody wishing for further evidence of how big a deal the Hornets were to Huntsville, there’s the Richard Linklater period piece Dazed and Confused. Linklater, who is only a year older than Fontana, grew up in Huntsville and played football for the same team. (The Item failed to place Linklater on its All-Century squad, but last month Texas Monthly named him to its “Celebrity High School Football Hall of Fame” for his stint as the Hornets quarterback.)
In one scene of Linklater’s movie, a football player tells his buddy not to quit the team, because the school has a chance to win the state championship the next season, and that championship is what they’ve both been building toward “our whole lives.” And, near the end, a group of jocks and their girlfriends contemplate their upcoming senior year while sitting at the 50-yard line of a football field. “You guys are the kings of the school,” a girl grouses to the boys.
Yes, we were, Fontana recalls.
“Rick [Linklater] knows how it was,” he says.
I tell Fontana that I, too, can sort of relate, from my secondhand experiences. In the early ’80s, I moved for a short time from the D.C. area to Midland, a small town in the region of the Texas Panhandle known as the Permian Basin. The size of the high school football stadiums there provided a bigger cultural shock than the locals’ devotion to guns and country music. During my first walk past Memorial Stadium, where teams from each of the two schools in Midland played their home games, I joked to a passer-by that the structure looked big enough to hold the whole town. “It can,” he said. “And it does.” He was serious. (Midland Lee, one of Memorial Stadium’s tenants, was named the top high school football team in the country for 1999 by USA Today.)
I also spent some time in a more southern part of the state, in the tiny metropolis of Fort Stockton. Everybody I met there could tell at least one tall tale about a quarterback named Rick McIvor. His Fort Stockton coach, according to my favorite rural myth involving McIvor, used to stand the kid up at the goal line every Friday night during pregame warmups and make him throw one spiral after another all the way to the other end zone on the fly. His goal, the story went, was that the Bunyanesque feat would psych out the opposition.
All these years later, I realize that no high school kid ever threw footballs more than 100 yards on the fly. But, being new to the land where high school stadiums hold entire towns, I didn’t doubt the McIvor story for a second. And damned if I didn’t tell everybody back home the one about the kid from Fort Stockton who would throw a football the length of the football field. I wonder if he made his All-Century team….
Fontana’s family now lives two hours away from Huntsville, near College Station, so he doesn’t go back much. He made his last trip there two years ago, just before opening up his barbecue joint, to collect effects from friends, like ropes and saddles and signs, that would make the restaurant resonant of Texas. He’ll be in Huntsville again sometime during the next school year, for a 20-year class reunion. (“I can’t miss that now,” he says.) If he wants to go sooner, there’s a job opening in Huntsville that needs to be filled immediately: The Hornets need a head football coach. The old one just got fired after a 2-8 season.—Dave McKenna