Football and one of my all-time favorite hours on Dateline
Posted: Thursday, December 28, 2006 4:15 PM by Dateline Editor
Categories: From The Field, Human Interest

by Stone Phillips, Dateline anchor

I love football. Always have. And when you hear my story, you'll understand why the "Pride of Pampa" is among my all-time favorite hours on Dateline. Covering the Harvesters' first home game this year and telling the green team's story felt like a blast from the past.

Like so many of the players in Pampa, Texas, I grew up watching my older brother play. Vic was a team captain for the Blocker Junior High Demons in Texas City, Texas. He played tight end and, like Pampa's James Coffee, was a pretty impressive punter.
Stone Phillips, in the stands, watching a Pampa High School football game.

Although, I must say I never saw my brother punt with his opposite leg the way James did the night we were there, because his kicking leg was injured. James, my man, that was INCREDIBLE! Still, Vic was a fine player and later earned a football scholarship. Talk about tough acts to follow.

After our family moved to St. Louis, I reached playing age and couldn't wait to suit up. It wasn't Texas football, but we popped the pads pretty good in Missouri! I started off playing offensive line on my Koury League team under Pete Weitzel, a volunteer dad and the first of many wonderful coaches I was blessed to play for over the years. By the time I reached 9th grade, I had speeded up enough to play halfback and linebacker for my junior high team, the Parkway West Longhorns. Trent Loter, I hope you're reading this, because there could be a quiz! (Trent is the Pampa football team's equipment manager and he knows the mascot for darn near every high school in the state of Texas-- AMAZING!) I wore #43 in junior high, because that was Dean Morton's number. Dean was the star running back for the varsity team at Parkway West and remains one of the best high school backs I've ever seen. He had speed and strength like Pampa's Chase Harris, and moves like you wouldn't believe. Dean's father, Don Morton, was the varsity backfield coach. I'll never forget how he would try not to laugh as the younger backs like myself would line up and take turns showing him our moves. Let's just say, we weren't exactly faking him out of his jockstrap. But Coach Morton was always encouraging.

The following year I was called up to the varsity by head coach Jack Wells. Like most dedicated high school coaches, Coach Wells lived and breathed football, but he also constantly reminded us that family comes first. I mean, every day he reminded us. So when Pampa's head coach, Andy Cavalier, told me the story of what he did to make sure his family didn't take a back seat to football, I thought to myself, "A kindred spirit of Jack Wells." They're both gifted coaches, caring people and great family men. They have something else in common-- they both know the ups and downs of starting a sophomore at quarterback.

Coach Wells switched me to quarterback and started me as a sophomore. Never having played the position, I was even greener than the green team's sophomore quarterback, Casey Trimble. When I interviewed Casey before the game and he confessed to being a little nervous, I couldn't help remembering how I'd broken out in hives at the beginning of my sophomore season. When Casey threw his first touchdown pass of his varsity career, I knew a lifelong memory had just been made. I remember the first touchdown pass I threw in the fall of 1970 like it was yesterday. And I'm still grateful to Rick Lockton for making a great catch.

Of course, I also remember the sophomore mistakes I made. When Casey fumbled the ball, I felt his pain.

Like so many who play this game, I also experienced the brutality of football. That's one aspect of the game I abhor. It's hard to see players go down with injuries, some of which can hobble them for years. During my senior year, I suffered the first of two concussions in football. I don't remember much of what happened after my bell was rung, only that the field was muddy and when I trudged to the sideline to confer with Coach Wells, I did something we still laugh about. Dinged and desperate to dry my hands for the next play, I proceeded to wipe the mud on my fingers all over Coach Wells' clothes. Needless to say, I was taken out of the game.

I recovered and was fortunate enough to continue with football in college. I played quarterback at Yale with terrific teammates like my fellow St. Louisan Mike Southworth, Kansan Eddie Lewis, West Virginian Brian Book, Chicagoan Scottie Rooth, and the world’s greatest tight end Greg Hall (to name a few). And once again, I was blessed to play for another incredible coach, Carm Cozza. Carm is the all-time winningest coach in Yale history. More importantly, he is a total class act. And the other coaches with whom I worked closely, offensive co-coordinator Seb LaSpina and backfield coach Richie Pont, were any player's dream. They were such a positive force in our lives. They kept us working and laughing all season long. I love them both.

Long after my football-playing days were done, I experienced what many fathers in Pampa have enjoyed – watching their sons play football. My son played football for the Fieldston Eagles in the Bronx, N.Y. He too loved the game and loved his coach, Gus Ornstein. Gus is an amazing football coach who loves to run a wide-open offense. And just like Andy Cavalier, Gus loves his players. As a parent and former player, I am so grateful to Gus for keeping the positive experience of football alive for another generation in my family.

I could go on forever, but I hope you can see why the story of a promising young coach who keeps his priorities straight, and the players he cares so deeply about, fired me up. It's a side of football we don't often see, at least not on the news. Usually, it's the players and programs run amok that make the headlines. But I believe most schools and most coaches get it right.

During our interview, Pampa coach Andy Cavalier told me he believes football was created for a very specific purpose-- to train young men to deal with adversity and work together as a team. Like so many sports, football is really about the people who coach and play it. Their values. Their standards. Their integrity. Coach Cav and his Harvesters are great ambassadors for the game. And getting to know them was a heck of a lot of fun.

In a heartwarming report, Dateline travels to Pampa, Texas to tell the real story of high school football, Texas-style. Airs Friday, Dec. 29, 8 p.m. on NBC.