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If asked to name a signature story from my sports journalism career, this would be my choice. This story -- the only account of this game when it occurred -- went viral, wound up accounting for the final three chapters of my first book, and led to the making of a movie. On Wednesday, two days before this game was played, I received a tip from an assistant coach that something special was planned for Friday night. "I don't know if it would make a good story or not, but I thought you might want to know," he told me. Friday night, I attended the game with a story tentatively planned for Sunday's sports section at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. At any moment I determined there was not a story to write, I was to inform the office. During the first quarter, I texted my boss, "We have a story." I wrote this article on a fairly tight deadline. It appeared in the Star-Telegram on Sunday, November 9, 2009.

Unique fan support lifts players' spirits

Grapevine Faith fans cross over to the other side of the field to make their opponents feel at home.

By David Thomas

Star-Telegram Staff Writer


GRAPEVINE – The Gainesville State School Tornadoes’ spirit line stretched halfway across the end zone. The players – all 14 of them – ripped through the paper sign that read “GSS Go Tornadoes” as the line turned toward the playing field, then extended past the 30-yard line.

The Tornadoes sprinted through the tunnel of 300 cheering fans. The players’ black and white uniforms contrasted with the fans’ red sweatshirts and T-shirts that read “FAITH LIONS.”

Gainesville State coach Mark Williams jogged outside of the spirit line. He raised his hands head-high and clapped. “Thank you, thank you,” he said to anyone who could hear him.

Then Faith’s fans began making their way to the stands. Half went to the home side, half to the visitors’ side.

Gainesville State is a maximum-security correctional facility with a population of about 290 males ages 12-19. Every game is a road game for the Tornadoes, and their only fans are the ones they bring with them. Friday night at Faith Christian School in Grapevine, for their season finale, they brought 20 faculty members and staff.

Faith coach and athletic director Kris Hogan wanted his school to show support for the Gainesville State players, who had earned their spots on the team by serving at least half of their sentence, passing their classes and committing no behavior incidents.

Hogan e-mailed Faith parents during the week requesting that they form a spirit line for their opponents, then asking for some to sit in the Gainesville State stands during the game and cheer the Tornadoes as though they were their team.
 

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Hogan said he wanted to “make sure the kids knew that there were more people on their side than just their faculty at Gainesville State School.”

 

About 200 Faith fans – possibly more than were seated on the home side – stood and cheered the Tornadoes when their kickoff return team took the field to start the game.

 

When No. 80 (players are not named in this article because of the school’s confidentiality policies) was tackled on the return and the offense took possession, Faith’s junior high cheerleaders started a “Way to go, Tornadoes, way to go!” chant from the Gainesville State sideline.

 

Faith fans on the visitors side groaned when Gainesville State fumbled the ball away on its first possession. They groaned again when their Lions scored a touchdown four plays later.

 

“Let’s get a drive going!” a Faith father yelled from atop the bleachers when the Tornadoes’ offense returned to the field.

 

“Hey, come on guys! Let’s go!” another added.

 

On the first play, Gainesville State fumbled again. Faith converted the turnover into another touchdown for a 13-0 lead less than five minutes into the game.

 

“Block that kick!” a fan yelled. The Tornadoes did, and the Faith fans on their sideline cheered.

 

It was that way all night, with Faith parents encouraging players they knew only by their jersey numbers to tackle their own sons, and with teachers and administrators rooting for the team playing against their students.

 

Karen Bates, Gainesville State’s recreation director, has been with the football program since it began in the early 1990s. She said many schools through the years have presented gifts and meals to players. But never, she said, had a school gone so far as to provide this many fans.

 

Gwan Hawthorne, the school’s superintendent, talked from her seat about the players’ excitement she could see throughout the game, and about how she appreciated Faith Christian making it possible for the team, for one game, to feel like any other high school football team. She was interrupted by a touchdown.

 

It was the Tornadoes’ second touchdown of the night. They had scored two all season before this game. But a day after three of their teammates had been released to return home, and after trailing 33-0 at halftime, the Tornadoes had reached the end zone twice.

 

Their fans for a night cheered. Players looked toward their stands as they came off the field and raised their index fingers. They may not have been No. 1, but they felt like they were.

 

The Lions won 33-14. With an 8-2 record, they’ll start the playoffs next week. Gainesville State’s season ended at 0-9. But this loss felt nothing like the others.

 

After the teams met at midfield for a postgame prayer and returned to their separate sides, Tornadoes players grabbed Gatorade squirt bottles filled with water and gave their coach a postgame shower.

 

Williams ducked, but he didn’t run. Just as he had when he turned to the visitors’ side after the first touchdown and “raised the roof,” just as he had when he high-fived the Faith junior high cheerleaders after the prayer, just as he had when he exchanged greetings and shoulder pats with Faith parents leaving the field, Williams wanted to soak it all in.

 

His players, Williams said, were “one step from heaven.”

 

“A lot of these kids don’t have hope because they’ve taken a wrong path, somebody’s told them that they’re going to be negative,” he said. “They're not negative. They were very positive tonight. They were just like the other kids.”

 

Outside the locker room, the team’s quarterback –  “No. 7,” many Faith fans had called him throughout the game –  reflected on the last game of his high school football career.

 

His sentence at Gainesville State is about up, and he plans to attend college. He hopes one will give him a chance to play football. Whether or not he plays another game, he’ll never forget the night the other team’s fans provided him a spirit line to run through.

 

“I couldn’t really believe people cared about us that much,” he said.

 

When the Gainesville State players were ready to leave an hour after the game had ended, they boarded their bus in groups of five under the close watch of guards. Their hosts were sending them back to Gainesville with a postgame meal and a bag of goodies that included homemade cookies, a handwritten letter from a Faith player, a Bible and a devotional.

 

A dozen or so Faith fans waved goodbye. Gainesville State players crossed the aisle on the bus to fill just about every available spot in the windows facing the fans. They were smiling and waving.

 

As the bus pulled away from the fieldhouse, one player near the back motioned to the fans with his right hand, as if to say, “Come with us.”

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