- Associated Press - Thursday, November 3, 2016

GAINESVILLE, Texas (AP) - On a sunny Tuesday afternoon, the Tornadoes are like thousands of other Texas high school football players. They’re out on a practice field, trying to get better, trying to be ready for their next moment under the Friday night lights.

The offense looks in good shape as a speedy receiver grabs a short pass in the middle of the field, darts to his right, and then outruns a defender to the end zone.

“I’m too fast for him, dude!” he yells.

When he turns back toward his teammates, you can see his smile.

And behind him, the arching 20-foot fence topped with razor wire.

Gainesville State School is one of six facilities in the state for juvenile offenders. As of last month, there were 263 teenage boys, ages 14 to 18, at the maximum-security facility 75 miles north of Dallas. All have committed at least one felony, and the most common offenses are assault, robbery and manufacture or delivery of a controlled substance.

Each teenager has his own cell, which Gainesville State School calls a “dorm.” It is 8-foot-4 by 7-foot-7 and includes a bed, desk, chair and small closet. Books are allowed in the room, but there are no televisions, radios or other electronic devices. The students wake up at 5 a.m. each morning, have year-round schooling, and lights are out at 9 p.m.

There is specialized treatment, such as for drugs or alcohol, and behavior group and recreation time each day. On Saturdays, families can visit, but many of the Gainesville State teenagers never have any visitors.

“A lot of kids are here from El Paso, Houston, Lubbock, Midland. Their families just can’t afford to come see them,” said Dotty Luera, the community relations coordinator for the school.

Other teenagers are in the custody of Child Protective Services because parents have disowned them, can’t take care of them or have died.

“A lot of the kids really don’t have families,” Luera said.

At least not in the traditional sense.

The members of the football team, the teenagers who have earned the chance to leave the facility and be part of a Texas cultural phenomenon, call themselves brothers.

“We’re all just like a family,” said Brandon, 18, an offensive tackle and defensive end for the Tornadoes. As a juvenile offender, Brandon cannot be identified by his last name or felony conviction.

“When we’re out here,” he said, “we don’t think about no gangs, or where we’re from or none of that.”

Gainesville State competes in the Texas Association of Private and Parochial Schools. The Tornadoes are playing three home games this season at Gainesville High School and six on the road. They travel by bus with a group of Gainesville State security officers.

The Tornadoes play weekly against teams such as First Baptist, Dallas Covenant Christian and McKinney Christian, and while it might seem like an odd pairing, the private schools embrace it.

In 2008, Grapevine Faith coach Kris Hogan made national headlines when he asked half his team’s fans to sit in the visitor’s stands and cheer for the Tornadoes. Grapevine Faith also formed a spirit line for Gainesville State, which typically has few fans at its games.

Other schools that have followed Grapevine Faith’s lead include McKinney Christian, which last month cheered for its opponent, created personalized goody bags for the Tornadoes and stocked their bus with 35 pizzas and two large coolers of Gatorade.

“We wanted to show them some love, support and respect. We wanted to make it special for them,” said Jeff Moore, president of McKinney Christian’s booster club. “Under different circumstances, maybe some of our boys could’ve been in that same situation.”

Gainesville State lost that game to McKinney Christian, 58-26. It was close at halftime, but the Tornadoes were worn out in the second half. That tends to happen, because only 16 or 17 players typically suit up for a game. That shows how difficult it is to get on the team, which requires a player to be more than halfway through his sentence, do well in all his classes and have no conduct violations.

“Some guys kind of say mean stuff about us because they can’t get on the team,” said Elliott, an 18-year-old running back and cornerback who is only 5-7 but speaks with a deep voice that reminds Tornadoes coaches of singer Barry White. “We have an opportunity that other kids really don’t have. We get a chance to show people that even though we are behind the gates, we’ve still got something to prove.”

One thing they’ve proved is their sportsmanship. McKinney Christian coach Rodney Doyle, whose team has played Gainesville State the last five seasons, said the Tornadoes are models of good behavior on the field.

“Humble and respectful,” he said. “We as coaches and players can learn from them.”

Gainesville State superintendent Mike Studamire smiles when he hears coaches talk that way, but he’s not surprised. He hears it all the time.

“People are like, ‘Are they for real?’ ” Studamire said. “Our kids will tackle you and say, ‘Hey man, let me help you up,’ or get hit and say, ‘Hey man, that was a good hit.’ These kids are playing football because they enjoy it.”

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In 2008, Mack White III was one of the Tornadoes playing football for the love of it. He had grown up hard and fast in Houston, where he witnessed a murder at age 12 and joined a gang at 15. When White was 16, he was sentenced to three years at Gainesville State for aggravated robbery.

Now 27, White remembers what it was like when he arrived at the penitentiary. He had some hard times, he said. He was “kind of a knucklehead.” But after serving more than half his sentence, playing for the football team became his goal, and he pursued that goal with the same intensity that led him to bad decisions years earlier.

“Growing up, I would see the drug dealers with the fancy cars and think, ‘How do I get that?’” White said. “With the football team, I had the same desire. How do I get that?”

White got his chance, and the football team helped him find a better path for his life. He was released from Gainesville State in 2009 and now lives in Murrieta, Calif., about 80 miles southeast of Los Angeles, and works as an actor, model and public speaker. In Carter High, the movie released last year that tells the story of the 1988 Carter football team, White played the role of star linebacker Jessie Armstead, who played 12 years in the NFL.

In 2008, White turned down parole in the middle of the football season so he could continue playing for the Tornadoes. The final game on the schedule was against Grapevine Faith, and for White, it was the perfect ending. When Grapevine Faith fans were cheering for his team and holding signs with his name on it, White realized the world was bigger and better than he had ever known.

“When those people were yelling our names, it changed my whole perspective. It opened my mind,” White said. “We weren’t in prison for stealing bubble gum; there were guys in there for sexual crimes, and these people were cheering for us. They were treating us like equals.”

White said that without that game, without football, he wouldn’t be where he is now. It didn’t matter that the Tornadoes lost every game that season.

The Tornadoes have had three more winless seasons since 2008, including last year. The competitive challenges they face are obvious. Nearly half of this year’s Tornadoes had not played organized football until this season, and they didn’t have their first practice together until a few weeks before the first game.

They also have far fewer players than most teams, and the roster revolves throughout the season. A player might be ineligible because of an academic shortcoming or disciplinary reason, and the Tornadoes face a challenge unlike any other high school. Because the football players are usually nearing the end of their sentences, the team loses players to graduation - their release dates - in the middle of the season.

“What happens is that the team we suit up for the first game of the season is not the team that we suit up for the last game,” Studamire said. “We always tell the kids that going off campus is the victory.”

This year, however, there have been victories on the scoreboard. On Sept. 30, the Tornadoes beat Chico 32-27 for their first win in two years.

The win meant a lot to Brandon, who is 6-1 and looks athletic enough to play linebacker or safety for other high school teams. He played safety for his middle school in El Paso, and that team was really good.

The Tornadoes have to work harder for success, he said.

“We were so happy,” he said after the first win. “I’ve never seen anybody like that after a win, even on my old football team.”

Elliott, who played middle school football in Arlington, said it took a few days for the victory to sink in.

“Every week we have some kids tell us y’all are not gonna win,” he said. “I was like, we proved y’all wrong.”

The Tornadoes proved they could do it again two weeks ago, beating Dallas Covenant Christian 18-14. Gainesville State lost 42-20 to First Baptist last week, but the Tornadoes (2-6) have one more game Friday. A win over Texoma Christian (3-5) would give the Tornadoes their most wins in a season since 2007.

“These kids, they’ve got a really strong drive to win and do good. They’re very competitive,” Tornadoes coach Henry Thomas said. “They like each other and get along. We’ve got so many gangs out there, the Crips and the Bloods, but they put that all aside out there.”

Thomas, who took over as head coach this year, is a high-energy, rapid-fire encourager. The 57-year-old claps a lot, smiles even more, and yells “that’s what I’m talking about!” after successful plays. Thomas also coaches the Gainesville State basketball team, and that’s where his expertise lies. He won 486 games in 29 years as a high school basketball coach, including six at Lewisville, before stepping down in 2011. He started working at Gainesville State two years ago.

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Four red cones mark the end zones on the Tornadoes’ bumpy practice field, and the lone field goal post is easy to miss in a horizon of razor wire. Thomas has only two assistants, and there is no staff of student trainers and managers like at a typical high school practice.

The scene is sparse but not grim.

For the players, the two-hour practices four days a week are highlights of their day. It’s a break from the strict rules and schedules of incarceration, which include walking in formation to meals, classes and activities.

Gainesville State offers incentives for good behavior, including monthly parties to recognize inmates’ birthdays. Volunteers also lead classes in music, life skills, grief support and Bible study. But each teenager still spends a lot of time in his dorm.

Elliott said football practice offers a chance to “get rid of all the aggression so you don’t do stupid things.” Brandon described it as the time each day when he doesn’t think about being at a correctional facility.

“It’s a nice change of scenery,” said Zach, another 18-year-old. “I can feel the breeze. I can see the sun.”

Zach, an outside linebacker, sings the national anthem before games with a country twang reminiscent of Randy Travis. He’s part of an a cappella group at Gainesville State, and he gets enough compliments about his singing that it embarrasses him. Still, he smiles with pride when talking about it.

“The kids here have so much talent,” Studamire said. “They were in such terrible situations before they came here. It was just a matter of getting them out of those situations and giving them a fresh chance.”

Zach, Elliott and Brandon all are approaching their release dates. Zach, who is working on his welder certification at Gainesville State, looks forward to moving to a halfway house, getting a job and paying his own bills. Brandon, who is working on certifications in welding and auto repair, said his mind-set has changed in his year of lockup.

“I don’t want to go back to that,” he said of his troubled former life. “I already have goals set.”

Elliott also has goals, and his are as specific as those of any Tornado. The small-but-speedy team leader, who was named Gainesville State’s homecoming king during the win over Chico, is already taking college-level courses. He’s enrolling at Navarro College for the spring semester and wants to eventually be a registered nurse.

Elliott’s deep voice seems mismatched with his youth. But it also adds gravity to his thoughts on where his life was, where it is now, and where he hopes it will be.

His time at Gainesville State, he said, has been a blessing.

“I look at it as being blessed because, one, I have a chance to live another day, even if it’s behind bars,” Elliott said. “And two, this actually gives me a chance to evaluate and reorganize myself as a person and become a better person.”

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Information from: The Dallas Morning News, http://www.dallasnews.com

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