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We're big fans of Jim Black's semi-autobiographical novels of life in small-town Texas in the '60s. We even interviewed him. In his new book he again uses novelistic technique, this time to tell the true story of the Archer City football team's unbelievable championship of 1964.

Long before Friday Night Lights, our fraternity had a relationship with a geoseismic crew in the Permian Oil Basin. During our semester off from school, a group of us would pile into a car, drive to Midland-Odessa and hook up with the crew, whose transient nature meant they were always looking for help. The semester I went we met up with them in Snyder, TX. We turned on the tv on Friday night and there, to our disbelief, was a football game. Turned out, of course, it was a high school game. That was our introduction to the seriousness with which Texans took even high school ball. Snyder is three hours West of Archer City--not a great distance in those parts. Heck, Snyder is in Scurry County, which was dry when we were there, and we'd drive nearly that far on beer runs to the next county. The fact that one of the Archer City playoff games was played in Snyder gave a special frisson of memory.

As his afterword details, Mr. Black received co-operation from remaining players, neighbors, journalists and the like, all more than happy to relive their "miracle." And much of the book is about the boys on the team and their game-winning efforts. But at its core, the book is about their coach, Grady Graves, who put into effect the theories of Bear Bryant, whose book "Building a Championship Football Team" was published in 1960. Graves's first head coaching job came with the 1961 Archer City team and his methodology for building his championship team relied on strict discipline. brutal work outs and shoving aside older players in favor of freshmen and sophomores he could mold.

Some of you won't be old enough to remember, though I do, the days when you'd take salt tablets instead of drinking water. But I grew up in New Jersey. Imagine how punishing the West Texas heat would have been when compounded with nearly forced dehydration. Practices immediately began weeding players out and building something special in the boys who stayed together for four years. By 1964 they were a triumph of conditioning as much as anything else.

One of the themes of the book is that this may well have been the last moment when a coach good get away with the brutality that Graves employed and the disregard for injuries. One running back continued playing even though his knee was torn up. Another had a back injury that would bar him from the field today. And split helmets and concussions were the norm. As much as people came to admire Graves and understand that he truly loved and honored what seems to have been a team of thoroughly decent boys, Mr. Black does not shy away from revealing how this play-hurt ethos impacted them later in life.

There's a certain formula to most Cinderella-story sports books and that's on display here. Mr. Black recounts the playoff run in great detail--improbable win after improbable win. Suffice it to say that even after winning the Championship the team was not ranked #1 in post-season polls. But we love these stories precisely because these victories are so thrilling and the author moves us close to tears as the team wins its way to glory. It's also another triumph for Mr. Black as a story-teller.


Grade: (A+)


See also:

Jim Black (4 books reviewed)
Sports (General)
Jim Black Links:

    -AUTHOR SITE: Jim Black Books
    -BOOKSITE: Life with Bingo (Outskirts Press)
    -BOOK SITE: River Season
    -BOOK SITE: Miracle on the Gridiron (Outskirts Press)
    -VIDEO: Miracle on the Gridiron (YouTube)
    -GOOGLE BOOK : Miracle on the Gridiron
    -REVIEW: of Life with Bingo by Jim Black and Jim Lewis (The Dusty Jacket)
    -REVIEW: of River Season by Jim Black (Publishers Weekly)
    -ARTICLE: New book recounts Graves' tough love (Nick Gholson, Nov. 21, 2009, Times News-Record)
    -ARTICLE: Sports Spotlight: 1964 State Champs Archer City Wildcats Football Team (Jermaine Ferrell, 09/17 2014, Texomas)

Book-related and General Links: