Wise County was a hotbed for high school football in 1983.
The Boyd Yellowjackets, Decatur Eagles and Paradise Panthers headed into the state playoffs with solid teams.
We felt that Paradise gave us a good shot at a state title, as the No. one and unbeaten team in 1A. Boyd and Decatur also had strong squads and exciting teams. The year had begun with Boyd and Decatur meeting in Eagle Stadium, and Boyd stunning the blue to open the year with a win.
I remember Decatur coach Bobby Actkinson telling the booster club after the season, concerning that loss to Boyd: “I told you they were good.”
The ‘Jackets faced a strong district lineup, and few thought they could get through it unscathed. But when the dust settled, the ‘Jackets were 10-0 and climbing in the polls, thanks to a balanced veer offense and tenacious 4-3 defense.
All three squads battled through two weeks of the playoffs, and all faced stern tests that third week.
Boyd coach J.G. Cartwright scheduled the battle with Pilot Point for Thanksgiving night in Dallas. In those days, the state championship went through Pilot Point. For at least four or five years in a row, the Bearcats were either the champ, co-champ or lost to the eventual champ.
It was a tense struggle that saw Boyd advance with a 3-2 advantage in penetrations in a 13-13 tie.
Decatur and Paradise, meanwhile, lost close games that weekend, leaving Boyd the final hope for a title.
The ‘Jackets took charge against a pair of district runners-up, Cisco and McCamey. I don’t remember ever driving in thicker fog than that Friday night coming back from Sweetwater after Boyd clinched a spot in the state championship game against a talented, favored Groveton team.
We loaded up a Messenger station wagon for the trip to Baylor’s Floyd Casey Stadium in Waco that chilly Saturday morning, with four photographers to patrol the sidelines and my wife and I to man the press box.
Before we left, I typed out the headline, “Jackets State Champs” in our largest type size, then put it on the camera to enlarge it, as wide as the page.
After lunch at that place along the north side Brazos near the interstate, we made our way to the stadium.
The fellow manning the gate balked at issuing four photographer credentials. “We don’t even have that many for a Baylor game,” he said. I wanted to tell him that Baylor wasn’t in the state championship game, but I bit my tongue.
There was getting ready to be a new green-and-gold king in Waco.
It was an epic battle, with Boyd pulling out the 16-8 win. The offense, led by future NFL quarterback Billy Tolliver (he wasn’t known as Billy Joe until he got to Texas Tech) managed to control the ball. The defense, short one lineman to the flu, bent but didn’t break until late in the game.
The offense contributed several drives deep in Groveton territory that resulted in a touchdown and a field goal. The defense added the punctuation when Mark Lyon thwarted a screen pass attempt and returned the interception for a decisive score late in the first half.
Groveton finally got on the board behind its all-state running back and converted the two-point conversion to creep within 16-8. They got the ball back, and I’m sure there was a gasp in the Boyd stands when they converted a big pass play. But it was wiped out by a penalty, and Boyd held.
The heat was not working in half the press box. We were fortunate enough to be near the center, so it wasn’t too bad. That cold snap lasted right on through Christmas. It was one of the longest subfreezing cold spells ever recorded in North Texas.
But it didn’t matter to us. We were too pumped by the excitement of covering a state champion.
We published a Sunday Update and had to push our schedule to get the information for our state championship special section to press in time, so my interview with Coach Cartwright was conducted on a Sunday. I can’t remember having more fun with an interview, as he recounted the key plays, the challenges Groveton presented, and the resiliency of his players as they showed what can be overcome with teamwork, dedication, hard work and a heck of a lot of spunk and perseverance.
I had the good fortune to see Cartwright’s 2004 championship team as well – twice. Boyd came to Henrietta early in the season and thoroughly thumped the Bearcats. But by the time the state semifinals came around, Henrietta was on a roll and gave the ‘Jackets all they could handle for three quarters.
But Boyd pulled it out in the fourth, and it was certainly no surprise to anyone at Pennington Field that night that Boyd went on to win it all the next week.
It has been my privilege to cover one other state football champion, the 2002 Petrolia Pirates. I’d like to think the lessons I learned covering Coach Cartwright’s ’83 team helped me do a better job the second time around.
I’ll certainly never forget that first one. Even today, those great memories easily come flooding back – of a classy coach and a team that surprised everyone.