'What Carter Lost' Tells The True Story Of 'Friday Night Lights' Football Rivals | KERA News

'What Carter Lost' Tells The True Story Of 'Friday Night Lights' Football Rivals

Aug 23, 2017
Originally published on August 23, 2017 3:35 pm

A lot of people already know the story of Friday Night Lights, in which a West Texas high school fights for the state football title. It started as a nonfiction book, then it became a movie (with Billy Bob Thornton as the coach) and finally a TV series. In the film, Thornton tells his team that to win state, they'll have to beat "a team of monsters" from Carter High School in Dallas (which they fail to do).

Carter High School is really an afterthought in Friday Night Lights -- the evil, thug-like team that stole a championship. But if you look at the real team's journey to the 1988 state title, you'll find a story about race and the pressures young athletes face — a story Adam Hootnick explores in his documentary What Carter Lost.

"The number of scholarships they got, the number of guys who went on to play some form of professional football — by every measure this was one of the greats," Hootnick says of the school's reputation.

Carter served a black, middle-class neighborhood in Dallas. According to Hootnick, it was "mostly two-parent families, mostly professionals. ... The joke was the student parking lot was a heck of a lot nicer than the teacher parking lot."

But there was trouble during that season's playoffs when questions arose about a Carter player's algebra grade. The other, mostly white schools fought a legal battle to kick Carter out of the playoffs.

"There is no question that if Carter had been one of the predominantly white schools that was always there, everything would have been handled differently," Hootnick says.

Parents, teachers and school officials fought back, and in the end Carter was allowed to play. Carter won the state title — but the story doesn't end there.

"After the roller coaster of this season and postseason," Hootnick explains, "you had a few guys on that team really, to my mind, inexplicably going and joining an armed robbery ring for pretty much no reason. You know, they were middle-class kids, they had cars, they had all the clothes they want. But I think they weren't ready for the adventure to be done. ... I think at some level they were chasing a rush."

The players were arrested, tried and convicted.

"I don't think you can fall much further," Hootnick says, "and I say that in part because of the level of the pedestal that, as a Texas high school football star, that's almost as big as it gets."

In the film, Hootnick interviews Texas high school football stars who went on to play professionally. He says, "These guys talk about the fact that no matter how far they went after playing big time Texas high school football, there was no crowd that felt more intense, there was no game that felt bigger than their biggest games in their Texas high school careers. So the level of attention and adoration and intensity around that experience — for a lot of people, that's the top. And so to fall from grace like that, that's a long way down."

In the end, five Carter players served time in prison. Many of them talk in the documentary about how much they lost and how they've tried to rebuild their lives.

Carter was ultimately stripped of its 1988 state title, and there's no doubt that the Carter community's fight to defend its reputation got a lot harder because of what those young men did. To Hootnick, some of the story's unsung heroes are the parents who fought to keep the team in the playoffs.

"I think that fight for them was not just about wanting to see their football team win, but about resisting being caricatured in a way, and saying, 'We're not cheaters. We're not thugs.' ... So the way that those parents were undercut after everything they did to keep that team on the field and to try to put forward their version of who they were — to have that all undone, you know, I think that's the story that's never been told."

Emily Ochsenschlager and Jessica Smith produced and edited this interview for broadcast, and Nicole Cohen adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

(SOUNDBITE OF W.G. SNUFFY WALDEN'S "'FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS' THEME")

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

That theme song - I could play it any time of day. It's from "Friday Night Lights." I was totally addicted. It is the story of a high school football team from West Texas fighting for the state title. There was a book. There was the TV series and also the movie, starring coach Billy Bob Thornton.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS")

BILLY BOB THORNTON: (As Gary Gaines) Now if you want to win state, you're going to have to beat a team of giants, a team monsters over in Dallas.

GREENE: Now, those so-called monsters were from Dallas Carter High School. They won the state title in the movie. Their players were almost caricatures, really thug-like.

ADAM HOOTNICK: I wouldn't say almost caricatured, and I wouldn't say almost thug-like. They were huge. They came out wearing garb that, you know, seemed like it might be suggesting that they were gang members.

GREENE: That's the voice of Adam Hootnick. He's a film director who got interested in telling the story of the real Dallas Carter High School, which he's done in a new documentary. Dallas Carter is really an afterthought in "Friday Night Lights," that evil team that stole the championship. But the real team's march to the state title in 1988 is a story about race. It's a story about the pressure on young athletes. It's also the story of a darn good football team.

HOOTNICK: Their entire defense could run faster than a 4.6.

GREENE: That's NFL...

HOOTNICK: ...NFL caliber of speed, yeah.

GREENE: ...Level of quickness, yeah.

HOOTNICK: The number of scholarships they got, the number of guys who went on to play some form of professional football - you know, by every measure, this was one of the greats.

GREENE: And it's not the story of a great team that was a bunch of, like, inner-city kids from a down on its luck neighborhood making good. This was middle-class Dallas. Right?

HOOTNICK: Absolutely. This was a black, middle-class neighborhood, mostly two-parent families, mostly professionals. The teachers would say the joke was the student parking lot was a heck of a lot nicer than the teacher parking lot. And...

GREENE: (Laughter) Nicer cars there.

HOOTNICK: Yeah.

GREENE: The trouble for Dallas Carter came during the playoffs. There were questions about an algebra grade for one member of the team. The other mostly white schools fought a legal battle to kick them out of the playoffs.

HOOTNICK: There is no question that if Carter had been one of the predominantly white schools that was always there, everything would have been handled differently.

GREENE: Parents, teachers, school officials - they fought back. And in the end, Carter was allowed to play. And they won the state title.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "WHAT CARTER LOST")

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: Your final, 31-14.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: This game was bigger than us.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: To win the state championship in Dallas - that's big.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: I just remember feeling a sense of pride and elation that they succeeded.

GREENE: Offers from big-time college recruiters started coming in. There was all the celebration. But that was not the end of the story because this happened.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "WHAT CARTER LOST")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Unintelligible) For 148 North St. Andrews (unintelligible).

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: The robbery-in-progress call was a holdup alarm at a video store.

HOOTNICK: After the roller coaster of this season and postseason, you had a few guys on that team really, to my mind, inexplicably going and joining an armed robbery ring for pretty much no reason. They did it - you know, they were middle-class kids. They had cars. They had all the clothes they want. But I think they weren't ready for the adventure to be done.

GREENE: So football was done, and they needed just some way to be risking and feeling like they were doing something exciting or dangerous?

HOOTNICK: Yeah. I think, at some level, they were chasing a rush. I don't personally believe, having spent a lot of time talking to them, that any of them were malicious people, that they were looking to hurt anyone. That - but they were so divorced from any sense of what the impact of their actions might be that they just didn't care. They weren't thinking about it. So I think they believed that no matter what they did, somebody would get them out of it 'cause they were that special, they were invincible.

GREENE: Can you describe that - there's some old footage that you used of two of these young men trying to keep themselves together to deliver a statement before their sentencing to make the case, you know, that they're not bad kids.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "WHAT CARTER LOST")

GARY EDWARDS: To Mr. Rousseau and to Carter High School - you did not deserve the disappointment, the embarrassment and the shame that I have brought on you.

GREENE: What was happening there?

HOOTNICK: That scene that you're talking about was after the guys had been arrested and before they were sentenced and during the period when, depending on how cynical your perspective is, you know, their lawyers were trying to demonstrate to the community that they were contrite, that they were good kids who never intended to be hurting anybody. And I think it was largely genuine. But it certainly was done for - in front of press and to, I think, try to lay the groundwork to minimize whatever sentence they were going to get from the judge who was hearing the case.

GREENE: And some of these kids - I mean, we should say, many members of the team did nothing illegal. And a handful went on to, you know, NFL careers. But for these kids who ended up going to prison, how far was that fall?

HOOTNICK: I don't think you can fall much further. And I say that in part because of the level of the pedestal that - as a Texas high school football star, that's almost as big as it gets, you know.

There are some people in the documentary - Jessie Armstead, who went on to be a five-time Pro Bowler and LaDainian Tomlinson, who's in the Hall of Fame. And these guys talk about the fact that no matter how far they went after playing big-time Texas high school football, there was no crowd that felt more intense; there was no game that felt bigger than their biggest games in their Texas high school careers. So the level of attention and adoration and intensity around that experience - for a lot of people, that's the top. And so to fall from grace like that, that's a long way down.

GREENE: In the end, six Carter players served prison time. Many of them talk in the documentary about how much they lost and also how they've tried to rebuild their lives. Ultimately, Carter was stripped of its 1988 state title. And no doubt, this Dallas community's fight to defend its reputation got a whole lot harder because of what those young men did.

HOOTNICK: Some of the unsung heroes of this story are their parents, who really fought to keep them in the playoffs. And I think that fight, for them, was not just about wanting to see their football team win but about resisting being caricatured in a way and saying, we're not cheaters. We're not thugs. We're not people whose priorities are all screwed up the way some of these other schools are portraying us, the way the media is portraying us.

And, you know - so the way that those parents were undercut after everything they did to keep that team on the field and to, you know, try to put forward their version of who they were, to have that all undone, you know, I think that's the story that's never been told.

GREENE: Adam Hootnick is the director of the new ESPN 30 for 30 film "What Carter Lost." Adam, thanks so much.

HOOTNICK: Thanks for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF W.G. SNUFFY WALDEN'S "'FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS' THEME") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.