It's not yet 5 a.m., and Sandy Brown, coach of the football team
at the state school in Giddings, Texas, goes to Mel's Diner and
slips into a corner booth. He has a biscuit and a cup of coffee,
and he ruminates in the smoky silence over his life's work. Not
many people in the place know Brown to say hello. He coaches the
convicts. Some other guy in town coaches the regular kids at the
regular high school.
At 5:25 a.m. Brown pays and heads out the door. He takes the
main drag through town, passing the Dairy Queen and its marquee
that says GO BUFFS, then a water tank with a brightly painted
rendering of a buffalo. Brown's boys are the Indians, but few of
Giddings' 4,093 residents even know that. Calendars with
pictures of the current Giddings High Buffaloes football team
hang on the walls of businesses and restaurants, but no one
celebrates the Indians. The local paper doesn't cover the
Giddings State Home and School, area radio stations don't
broadcast its games, and there's no booster club to support its
Brown, 47, is used to being invisible, and he knows it's no
reflection on him. If in the past his boys hadn't committed
crimes such as rape and murder, things would be different, for
this is Texas, and Texas loves its football, no matter who
happens to be playing.
It's still blackest night when Brown arrives at the school's
gatehouse and passes through a metal detector, his face
illuminated by a bank of TV monitors that show Giddings for what
it really is: more a prison than a school, and one far easier to
enter than to leave. "Y'all gawn win Friday, Coach?" asks one of
"Yes, we will," says Brown in a voice as plain as he can make it.
People of a certain sensitivity like to call Giddings a "home"
for juvenile delinquents. In truth, it's as much a pen as the
one a couple of hours up the road in Huntsville, where the state
keeps adult offenders. The Giddings campus, even in the dark
before dawn, resembles a small, carefully planned college sprung
up somewhere on the prairie between Austin and Houston. It has a
classroom building and vocational shops, a chapel, a cafeteria,
dormitories, an office complex and a gymnasium. But it also has
a security unit with individual jail cells, and its 58 acres are
surrounded by a 14-foot-tall fence wired with motion detectors.
At all hours of the day guards patrol the grounds in unmarked
vans. At night they travel without headlights to keep from
showing themselves to anyone trying to escape.
Beyond that, what makes Giddings remarkable is that its athletic
program competes off campus in the Texas Association of Private
and Parochial Schools (TAPPS), and it consistently wins with
teams made up of some of the worst kids in the state. Giddings
predominantly houses violent offenders. Many of the starters on
the football team have either committed homicide or attempted
to, and the starting five in basketball and the sprint relay
teams in track routinely are dubbed Murderers' Row by the
competition. They may look like other sweet-faced teenagers, but
the Giddings boys are the ones who put a gun to the head of a
convenience store clerk and threatened to pull the trigger, or
who raped a teenage girl while she begged for mercy, or who
sprayed gunfire into a crowd in front of a busy nightclub.
After the nightly news tires of them, Giddings is where those
boys land. They land on Brown's football team if they behave
themselves and meet certain school requirements, not the least
of which is keeping a contrite heart in a body brave enough to
block and tackle before the rest of the world has even crawled
out of bed. Brown and his assistant, Lester Ward, 38, hold
early-morning practices not because they hope to get a jump on
the competition but because their players spend much of the
afternoon in therapy with psychologists and caseworkers, trying
to sort out the detritus of their mean, unexcellent pasts.
"All right, fellas, one line," Brown says, his voice the only
sound in the grim, marshy darkness this Wednesday morning in
October. "Move it out, and no talking."
There are 29 of them lined up on a blacktop path leading to the
cafeteria. They wear football pants and rubber cleats and carry
black shoulder pads and silver helmets. The biggest of them
weighs 242 pounds, the smallest about 130. Most are
African-American, but there is a generous mix of whites and
Hispanics. They come from Dallas, Houston, Galveston, Corpus
Christi, San Angelo, Lufkin. Drop a finger anywhere on the map
of Texas and you're likely to find a place where the memory of
one of these boys still haunts and terrorizes. Yet today the
boys handle themselves with a civility that would charm a den
mother. They march in single file, gentlemen all, silent except
for the musical clatter of the hand-me-down equipment bouncing
against their legs.
The boys eat breakfast, and then Brown leads them to the gloom
of a football field lit by streetlights with barely enough juice
to attract bugs. It's 6:30 now, and still dark. Suddenly rain
starts to fall. It's one of those wild, windswept,
don't-mess-with-Texas rains that puts nearby cypress trees at
risk of losing their bark. On the following Friday, Giddings is
scheduled to play Trinity Christian Academy, a private school in
the Dallas suburb of Addison and the defending Class 5A TAPPS
champs. Because Trinity Christian is the biggest game of the
year for Giddings, Brown doesn't dare give in to a little
weather. The boys don't mind. They keep practicing even though
they can't see the ball when it's tossed in the air and can't
see each other until the moment they collide.
"If Coach Brown woke me up at three in the morning and it was
ice cold and snowing, I'd still go play," says Chris Matuzek,
18, a safety and captain of the defense. "I'd go play any chance
they gave me. When I play, I'm free of everything. I actually
enjoy myself. I forget where we come from, and I forget what I
did. Believe it or not, I even forget about being locked up."
Matuzek has been locked up at Giddings since May 1995, when he
shot a woman in the head while attempting to carjack the pickup
truck in which she was a passenger. Matuzek liked the look of
the truck, but more than that he liked the idea of killing
someone. Drugs and alcohol owned him body and soul, he says, and
he was so steeped in self-pity over his lousy childhood that he
vented his rage at whoever crossed his path. One day that
happened to be a dog. Enraged that it had bitten a neighbor's
horse, Matuzek stabbed the dog some 60 times with a long,
double-edged knife. Feeling it die in his arms had given him a
thrill, and the night in Fort Worth when he shot the woman,
seriously wounding her, he was looking for a similar sensation.
"People here call me Little Brown because me and Coach got us a
relationship," says Matuzek. "For Father's Day, I buy him a
card. I look at him as a father figure because he's helped me so
much. Back in regular high school I played football, and I'd use
cocaine before games to get pumped up. If I hurt somebody, that
was all right--it was good, as a matter of fact. Not no more,
though. I'm a completely different person."
Matuzek is typical of the athletes at Giddings. He's renounced
his brutal past, and he bows now before the free world, hoping
for a chance to prove he's not an animal. Competing in sports,
he says, helps him meet this objective. Pitted against average
kids without troubled histories, Matuzek and his teammates are
given the privilege of proving themselves human. Not everyone
lets them forget, however.
"On the field the competition will cuss you out," says Adrian
Brown, 19, a former Giddings player. "They'll call you trash and
jailbird and good-for-nothing, then they'll cuss your mama. It's
hard to take sometimes. But after the game I always offered my
hand, and I always told them, 'You played good.' I could forgive
them anything as long as they gave me the competition."
To qualify to play, a Giddings boy must have served at least
half of his sentence and not be regarded as a high risk, for
high risks are not allowed off campus and Giddings has no home
games. Because of these restrictions, only about 50 of the
school's 340 inmates are permitted to try out, and few of these
have any experience in organized athletics. But Giddings
administrators boast that their teams have never had an incident
of violence while visiting an opponent. The boys can't afford to
start trouble. One fistfight or angry verbal exchange would
likely result in the whole season's being forfeited, says Stan
DeGerolami, the school's superintendent.
Four years ago Brown and Ward, who also coach basketball and
track at Giddings, punished a basketball player when the boy
asked to use the bathroom too many times during a game. He had
gone twice at halftime; then he asked to be excused again as the
second half was starting. The request struck both coaches as
suspicious, and they cut him from the team.
Some students are cut or suspended for breaking school rules.
Last season Brown lost a football player when the boy failed to
report that one of his dormitory mates was in possession of
contraband, in this case a picture of a nude woman torn from the
pages of Playboy. Still other kids with great natural talent
aren't allowed to play because of the notoriety of their crimes.
One of the best athletes Brown and Ward ever saw couldn't
participate in sports because he'd murdered a study partner,
whose mother made it her personal crusade to keep him locked up
as long as possible. "Every time he had to go to court," says
Brown, "all the Austin TV stations were there to cover it. If
his sentence was 30 years, you could bet he was going to serve
In 1996 Giddings was undefeated after five games when suddenly
its most valuable player, the starting quarterback, was
reassigned to an adult penitentiary. It is not uncommon for
Giddings to lose players in the middle of a season, as state
courts transfer students to adult prisons or to halfway houses.
The quarterback, a sex offender, was the only boy on the team
who could throw a football with any accuracy. Without him the
Indians had no offense. They ended up 7-3, Brown's worst record
"Our boys run on heart," says Judith N. Wooten, a psychologist
at the school. "And because they run on heart, they're more
easily beaten than a typical team is--defeat, you see, is
something they know, it's familiar. We've watched them at times,
trying to gut out a win, when their exhaustion is emotional as
well as physical. Most of them don't even have the capacity to
dream beyond this place and this moment. It's not like they're
running for something out there in the future. They're running
because today is the game, and the game is all there is."
Brown has high hopes for this year's team. The Indians are 4-0
entering the Trinity Christian game, and the coach is confident
his boys will win it and go all the way to the state title.
"We're ready," he says. "If we can stop their passing game,
we'll beat 'em by 28, 35 points. It should be a close game until
half, then we'll take over."
"Coach Brown is a fine, Christian man," says Barry Morgan, the
Trinity Christian coach, who's won four state championships in
the last six years. "And he may be right, they might beat us.
But I expect a tough ball game, and by the second half we'll
have worn them down. That's what I remember happening last year.
That, and we had three kids with ice packs just from getting
beat up. Those Giddings boys play hard, and they always play
classy. Short guys and kind of muscular, always moving in a
single line, real polite. When you look at them, you think, Why
are you here? What did you do? Except for that, they're just
kids like all the rest."
Not everyone who looks at the Giddings boys sees them as kids
like all the rest. Some see them as criminals who gave up their
right to play sports in the free world the moment they committed
their crimes. In 1996, after the Indians won the state
championship in track, a group of coaches at rival institutions
mounted a campaign to boot Giddings from the league. Their boys
were scared, the coaches said. It was also wrong to allow
convicted felons to compete in a league with kids whose closest
brush with crime was sneaking a beer on Saturday night. "Our
kids are afraid the boys from Giddings are going to pull a knife
out of their pocket and do something during the game," says Andy
Bonheyo, coach at the Texas School for the Deaf in Austin. "They
ask me all the time, 'Can that happen?' How am I supposed to
answer? I don't want to sound like a crybaby, but it bothered me
when Giddings won the state championship in track. It's hard to
put in the right words, but the bad boys coming up as winners?
It sends a conflicting message to the good kids."
Pat Henke, coach at a Catholic school in Hallettsville, says
parents complain to him all the time about having to play
Giddings. "The reason they send their kids to a private school
in the first place is to get away from people like that," Henke
says. "I don't mind telling you, our girls feel uneasy when the
boys from Giddings are around. We tell them not to go anywhere
by themselves. I wouldn't want one of our girls going by herself
to the rest room because who knows what's going to happen?"
Trinity Christian coach Morgan, for one, can't understand why
there's been so much opposition to having Giddings play in the
league, especially from so-called Christian schools that should
be espousing forgiveness. Besides, Morgan argues, on the field
the Giddings players are good sports and better disciplined than
many of the players at the nonstate schools. "Our kids need to
be exposed to kids like the ones at Giddings," he says. "The
league took a vote last year on whether Giddings and Gainesville
[Giddings's biggest rival, a state school predominantly for
nonviolent offenders] should play, because they're not private
or parochial schools, but my question is, If we don't let them
play with us, where do they go? The public schools aren't going
to take them. These guys need athletics. For some of them,
that's all they have. I consider it a ministry for us to play
them. And I like our kids hopefully rubbing off on them in a
On Friday at 1 p.m. Brown and Ward and their boys leave Giddings
in a yellow school bus packed two to a seat, headed at last for
Trinity Christian and their showdown with Morgan's top-ranked
squad. They drive north on I-35 through Austin, Temple and Waco
and arrive in Addison after nearly seven hours on the road. What
they find there is a world so different from their own that it
sends a hard chill through some players and leaves others
speechless. "They got themselves a real nice place here,"
Matuzek says as he steps off the bus at Trinity Christian, his
eyes wide with nervous anticipation.
"We got to stay focused," says Richard Hayes, 18, the
quarterback. "We'll get distracted if we look too long at all
the people and the scoreboard."
Trinity Christian seems to have a big everything. It has a drill
team and a band. It has cheerleaders, most of them girls. Its
stadium is named for Tom Landry, the former Dallas Cowboys coach
who served for years on the school's board of directors. Tonight
the academy is celebrating its homecoming, and fans are arriving
in droves. Many of them seem dressed for church, their perfume
commingling with the smell of barbecue smoke. At halftime four
new convertibles, each a different color, will parade the
members of the homecoming court around the playing field on a
red track marked with white race lanes. In its 20 years of
football Giddings has never had a homecoming. Who gets
sentimental about returning to the place where he was locked up?
"Coach, I got to Five-O," says one Giddings boy.
"Me too," reports another.
"O.K., form a line," says Brown, who then leads them to the
Unlike Trinity Christian, Giddings doesn't draw fans in droves.
The families of a fair number of boys show up this evening, but
they've come less to cheer for Giddings than to see their
children engaged in a positive activity and wearing something
other than prison-issue dungarees and T-shirts. Most of those
who follow the team work at the school. They attend games both
to support the boys and to serve as "coverage" in the event of a
problem. According to school policy, in most cases there must be
a volunteer staff person on hand for each player who suits up.
Giddings enlisted 23 volunteers to cover this trip, so Brown has
brought 23 boys. Had more staff agreed to attend the game, more
boys would have been allowed to dress out. In the past when
getting enough coverage was a problem, Giddings reported to
games with barely enough boys to field a team. "Without those
volunteers, we couldn't play," Brown says. "At the end of the
year I give each one a certificate of appreciation. It's just a
piece of paper, but it lets them know how grateful me and Coach
Last year when he was an all-state lineman, Adrian Brown often
found himself pretending that the faces of school employees in
the bleachers belonged to members of his family. "My mother
didn't go to any of my games," he says, "so I took on Mr. and
Mrs. [Trent] Campbell as my mother and father. When I'd see them
there, in my head it was like seeing family. But the truth is,
they were better to me than my real family ever was. My birthday
came around, and I didn't even get a card from my mother. But
Mr. Campbell brought me a present. It was a weekend, too, and he
didn't have to be at the school. I told myself at those ball
games that I had to prove to him that I could do it. I felt I
owed him something."
With Brown no longer on the squad, Justin Nash anchors the
offensive line. Nash has been nursing a groin injury, but he's
decided to play against Trinity Christian anyway. The team needs
him. Nash is famous at Giddings for two things: his appetite and
his toughness. He once ate eight heaping plates of Mexican food
without pausing for breath, and he once ran headfirst into a
tree and knocked it over, roots and all. "Whose field is this?"
Nash screams now as he warms up on the sideline.
"Our field!" crows one of his teammates.
Two years ago Nash tried to rob a convenience store. He shot a
round from a handgun into the ceiling. "The next time I fire
this thing it will be in your head, unless you do what I say,"
he yelled at the clerk, a woman cowering in fear behind the
counter. When he couldn't get the register open, Nash left the
store in a panic. Police arrested him the next day, and a state
court sent him to Giddings.
"Sometimes I want my victim to see me play football," Nash says.
"I'm not the person I used to be. Should I be playing football?
After what I've done, that's a big question. It has two answers:
no, if you think about how I acted in that store; and yes, if
you consider how much I've changed since I came to Giddings."
It's clear during pregame drills that Brown has underestimated
Trinity Christian. The Trojans, in beautiful new uniforms that
gleam under the tall lights, have suited up 40 boys. They also
have seven full-time coaches, while Giddings has only Brown and
Ward and a volunteer assistant. The Trojans look big and strong
and fast. They run a sophisticated pro-style offense with
multiple sets, and they throw their bodies at the ball with
kamikaze zeal. The Giddings boys, on the other hand, are so
excited that many seem on the verge of hyperventilating. In the
past they may have used aggression to get their way, but tonight
they don't seem tough at all. Some look like scared children.
As soon as the Trinity Christian chorale finishes the national
anthem, Ward draws his boys around him in a tight circle. "Y'all
ready to have some fun?" he bellows in a big preacher's voice.
"Yessuh!" comes the loud reply.
"How do you have fun?"
"Hee hahr!" Hit hard, it seems they're saying.
"What's the only way to have some fun?"
Giddings's Hayes returns the opening kickoff to his own 46-yard
line. It's a dazzling run, but his jersey is ripped to pieces as
he's brought to the ground. "Go get me a shirt for Richard!"
Brown yells to no one in particular. "Go to the bus. Our bag
with extra equipment is on the bus."
In the stands Lynda Smith, Giddings's assistant superintendent,
comes to her feet, and she ventures down to the sideline to
help. Brown instructs one of his few reserve players to remove
his jersey, and the coach gives the shirt to Hayes, who puts it
on and runs back onto the field. The shirtless boy stands in
shoulder pads with his skinny arms crossed at his waist. His
lower lip trembles, and it seems he's about to cry. "Do it for
the team," somebody tells him. But the boy, denuded, answers,
"Coach took my shirt," and shakes his head unhappily.
When the bag of extra equipment cannot be found--turns out it
was accidentally left behind at Giddings--Smith gives the shreds
of Hayes's jersey to one of the mothers in the stands, and she
starts patching it back together with a needle and thread and
ankle tape. Then tailback Eddie Gray has his jersey torn off his
back. "It looks like I'll have to run to Wal-Mart to pick up
some new shirts," Smith says. "The way things are going, I think
we'll need them."
Just about every week someone sidles up to Sandy Brown and
Lester Ward and asks what it's like to coach at a state school.
The question is a polite way of asking what it's like to coach a
bunch of convicts. "I have broken practically every commandment
that ever was," Brown said one time in response. "I used to
think if I walked in a church the roof would cave in. We all
deserve a second chance in life. These boys are going to be out
in society again whether we like it or not. Don't you think we'd
better get them ready?"
Public schools in Texas have come calling on both Brown and Ward
with offers to coach "normal kids" and to run programs with big
budgets and big fan support. While both men have enjoyed the
recognition, neither plans to leave. "There's great personal
satisfaction in working at Giddings," Ward says. "You are given
the chance to help change lives, and it's wonderful when that
happens. Ninety-nine percent of what we do is about self-esteem."
Years ago Ward was a defensive end in college, and he wears a
ring commemorating the 1980 season, in which Baylor, his alma
mater, won the Southwest Conference championship. As each new
crop of boys comes through the Giddings athletic program, Ward
answers a new crop of questions about the ring. "If you want it
bad enough, you can have one too," he says.
But even as he's encouraging the boys, Ward says, he's mindful
of where they come from. "Every kid will attach himself to a
disciplinary figure," he says. "But to most of these boys the
disciplinary figure was the person who beat them in the past.
He's the daddy who abused them, and the uncle who failed to step
in when some man was slapping their mother around. Me and Coach
Brown are in a difficult situation. It's not like at the public
schools, where you'd think nothing of horsing around with a kid.
In our job, I'm sad to say, you're better off not touching them."
It's a terrible knowledge, both Ward and Brown admit, and it
makes for terrible situations, such as the incident last year
when a Giddings football player injured his neck during a game
against St. Michael's of Austin. The coaches immediately ran out
onto the field to help the boy, who complained of being unable
to feel anything from his chest down. Because no emergency unit
was on hand, St. Michael's officials had to call for one. Brown
and Ward directed their other players to the end zone and
ordered them to kneel under the goalpost and pray for their
injured teammate. In the meantime, Giddings staff members
covering the game streamed down from the bleachers to check on
the injured player.
More than half an hour passed before the EMS unit arrived, and
by then the injured boy was able to move his limbs; apparently
he'd suffered nothing more than a stinger. To make sure it
wasn't more serious, however, school officials decided to have
the boy examined at a nearby hospital. David Walenta, director
of the sex-offender treatment program at Giddings, volunteered
to accompany the boy to the emergency room. But first, he says,
he handcuffed the player to the gurney. "You know this has to be
done, don't you?" Walenta asked as he fit the boy's wrist into a
cuff and locked it to the bed frame. The boy nodded.
"You know I wouldn't be doing this if it didn't have to be done,
don't you?" asked Walenta, who could feel tears coming to his
eyes. Once again the boy responded only with a nod.
"Handcuffed, they put that child on a stretcher and into a van,"
recalls Wooten, the psychologist. "Now everything in a person
that cares about his fellow man says, This is someone who's
hurt, don't injure him more or put him in greater jeopardy than
he's already in. Yet this had to be done. And this boy--who only
a moment earlier had thought he was paralyzed, and who'd lain
there in his football uniform on that cold, wet field without
any family to comfort him--this boy made not one gesture against
us. He showed only dignity. It's sad. These boys don't even have
the privilege to suffer like other kids."
The Indians, down by two touchdowns to Trinity Christian at
halftime, form a line and march across the field to a bathroom
under Tom Landry Stadium. "One at a time, and don't talk to
anyone," Brown tells them.
As Matuzek waits his turn, a young boy asks him for an
autograph, but before he signs, he seeks out Smith for
permission. "Sure, Chris," she says. "Go ahead."
"Don't misspell it," somebody whispers to Matuzek, whose hand is
unsteady as he takes up the pen and writes his name on a small
After Brown's boys finish in the bathroom, he leads them back
across the field and directs them to a corner of the end zone.
Each boy takes a knee in the bright, pulsing light of the
scoreboard: 23 boys surrounded by 23 school employees. Brown has
to shout to be heard above the P.A. announcer, whose voice
throbs with admiration as he lists the accomplishments of this
year's homecoming queen.
"You boys had some tough breaks in life," Brown says, lifting a
finger for emphasis. "You had judges who locked you up. You had
parents who kicked your behinds and didn't give you the love you
wanted. But let me tell you something: What happens to you
tonight is up to you. You're the only ones out here who can
change yourselves for the better. But first you've got to do
something." Brown hesitates a moment, his eyes moving from one
boy to another. Then he says, "You've got to stand up. Do you
hear me? You've got to stand up and be a man, or you bow your
head and be a loser. There ain't no difference between them boys
and us except for what's right in here." Brown thumps a fist
against his chest. "This ain't just tonight. It's about the rest
of your life."
The coach brings his finger back up and lets it roam among the
boys, searching each one out. "Are you a man? That's all I want
to know. Are you a man?" When Brown finishes, the team lets out
a roar. The boys seem eager to prove that their performance in
the first half was an anomaly, and some squeeze their helmets on
even though the Trinity Christian homecoming court is just now
taking its spin around the track.
"I want you to remember something," Ward yells when it's his
turn to speak. He waves a finger of his own as shiny
convertibles roll past him. "You won't have to go to court for
hitting somebody tonight. You can do that legally out here. You
can hit all you want, and nobody's taking you to jail."
It's not only the Trojans' passing attack that befuddles the
Indians. Giddings can't stop Trinity Christian's running game,
either. "Disgusting," Nash grumbles as he trots off the field.
"Just disgusting." The final score is 39-20. The outcome has
less to do with heart than with talent.
Matuzek stands in a crowd on the sideline, looking off at the
lights of the big scoreboard, his eyes reflecting the numbers.
"I know we let this one get away," he says, "but I still think
we're going all the way. We'll see them again in the state
finals, and next time it'll be different."
The Indians come together to form one last line and march out to
shake hands with the victorious home team. "Make sure you thank
'em," Brown says. "Thank 'em for the chance they gave you."
A long bus ride awaits the Giddings boys. They'll stop for
burgers on the outskirts of Dallas, then journey south through
the black, unforgiving night. At the end of the road there is a
prison with a fence. On the other side of the fence there is the
hard truth of who they are. Now, though, they're ballplayers no
different from the Trinity Christian players who have homecoming
to celebrate and who later will sleep in homes without armed
guards, snug in their lucky innocence.
As he walks off the field, stealing one last glance at the big
stadium and the big everything that is the world outside
Giddings, Texas, Matuzek can hardly believe the direction his
life has taken. "That was the first autograph I ever signed," he
says, shaking his head at the notion. "It gives me this feeling
I never had before. Kind of a proud feeling. It's hard to
believe, but some little boy out there has a little ball with my
name on it."
Giddings finished the regular season 7-2 and lost to Second
Baptist of Houston 22-12 in the first round of the Class 5A
find a place where the memory of one of these boys still haunts
forget where we come from, and I forget what I did. Believe it
or not, I even forget about being locked up."
Giddings player says. "They'll call you trash and jailbird and
cuss your mama. It's hard to take sometimes."
their right to play sports in the free world the moment they
committed their crimes.
beaten than a typical team is--defeat, you see, is familiar to
the players. "You can do that legally out here. Nobody's taking
you to jail."