Memories: Dallas High School Football
Ah, football is in the air …. even for high schools especially in the state of Texas where high school football is as big as big gets.
Memories ….. that’s all you can take with you when you die. I have many terrific memories of Dallas high school football that I will be taking with me when that times come.
What does high school football and memories have to do with each other?
Last summer (2017) I had a chance to relive many of those memories when I flew to Dallas to attend a retirement party for two of my closest Texas friends. Both are athletic trainers and now retired from the Dallas Independent School District (DISD). They are Phil Francis and Mark Bordonaro. Both played a huge role in making my time in Dallas most special. I thank them for many great memories.
And this article, in large part, is a tribute to them.
There are those rare times when you realize you are a part of something special ….. and you realize it as it is unfolding. I am not sure if there is a word for such an awareness, but there should be one, if there is not.
Surely, anyone who has played sports has experienced that feeling when you know from the onset of a contest that you are a part of a special game … that you are a part of history in the making. But such a realization goes beyond the athletic field.
For me, the time between 1992 through 2006 when I practiced sports medicine in Dallas, Texas was a magical time for several reasons. And, I knew it was special as I lived it. Phil and Mark were a big part of making that time extraordinary. If I could bottle up time and any segment of my life and carry it with me wherever I went, it would be that span of time.
Athletic trainers are a unique breed ….. especially the really good ones. They are resourceful people. They are take charge people. They are can do people. They thrive amidst chaos and are tireless workers. They are resilient. They have a wide range of interpersonal skills enabling them to deal with athletes, parents, coaches, administrators, and physicians – all of whom tend to have large egos. I am convinced you can build a successful company with just athletic trainers as they do whatever it takes to get the job done.
Athletic trainers work tough long hours taking care of other peoples’ kids while they miss the growing up of their own children. They are usually under appreciated, and even when they are appreciated, they are not appreciated enough.
I have worked with athletic trainers in four states – Ohio, Texas, South Carolina, and Georgia. I have worked with experienced trainers and inexperienced trainers. I have been fortunate to have worked with really good to outstanding athletic trainers during most of my time practicing sports medicine. Being an athletic trainer is in someone’s DNA. It’s in their blood. If it is not in their blood, they generally quickly move onto another profession.
Phil, Mark, and DISD
Phil and Mark are the cream of the cream when it comes to athletic trainers. They are good friends and two of the finest people you will ever meet.
Phil worked for DISD for 39 years. He started in 1978 and became the head athletic trainer in 1984 overseeing the athletic training program for the DISD’s 22 high schools and 25 middle schools. And, he largely did that with himself and three other athletic trainers. That’s it. Four athletic trainers for all those schools. That is resourcefulness. That is leadership. That is commitment.
For those 14 years I was Mark’s sidekick on the football sidelines at Sprague Field in south Dallas in an area known as Oak Cliff (think Lee Harvey Oswald). Oak Cliff is home to some of the very best high school football players and athletes in the country. Mark joined DISD in 1980 and retired after 37 years. He could have gone on longer. He loved what he did and never considered it work. But, Mark always told me he would retire when Phil retired. He told me on several occasions he would not work for another boss – and he did not want to be the boss.
DISD is a minority district. The demographics when I left in 2006 were roughly 47% to 48% Hispanic, 47% to 48% African American, and the remaining 5% white, Asian, and others. Supposedly, over 60 languages are spoken at North Dallas High School.
Our sports medicine practice also took care of Highland Park High School. Highland Park is the Beverly Hills of Dallas. Between Highland Park and DISD our practice saw the extreme range of socioeconomics.
DISD is a “have not” district in terms of financial resources. To put this in perspective, Highland Park had three athletic trainers for a single high school and spent more money on sports drink for one school than DISD did on its 22 high schools combined. About 65% of the student athletes in DISD had no primary health insurance, either.
But, the DISD trainers always did the best they could with what they had. As physicians we did what we could to keep costs down for DISD. Part of that was the Saturday morning clinic (more not that later).
It wasn’t until 2000 that DISD opened its pocketbook and gave Phil more help. First, they expanded to five and then six athletic trainers, and when I left in 2006 DISD was up to ten trainers. Today as Phil and Mark step down, DISD has 32 athletic trainers.
The Fab Four
Thirty-two trainers to do the work that four used to do. That is because Phil, Mark along with Donna Ramsey, and Greg Dykman (the fab four) could shouldered so much work. They created large footprints and they leave behind formidable shoes to fill.
Phil, Mark, Donna, and Greg created a special chemistry. If you would have replaced just one of them things would not have been the same. In that sense they were like The Beatles or the cast of Seinfeld.
Collectively they were the finest group of athletic trainers you will meet at any level. Most high schools have at least one athletic trainer these days. The trainer may cover the freshman, junior varsity, and varsity football games – typically three games a week.
Phil, Mark, Donna, and Greg covered five to six games a week and since most games pitted one DISD school against another, they covered both sidelines – they pulled double duty nearly every game.
When you factor in the sheer volume of injuries that four trainers see from 22 high schools it doesn’t take long to gain meaningful experience at DISD. Basically, five years of experience at DISD is the equivalent to 15 years or more for athletic trainers at most other schools. There isn’t anything DISD athletic trainers haven’t seen including death (heat stroke) and near death (cervical spine fracture with respiratory compromise.)
I liken those four to the surgeons that worked in MASH units – they gathered a tremendous amount of practical experience on the front lines. The four of them were war ready.
Today only Greg remains of the fab four and he is in his 29th year with district. I suspect he will step down after 30 years. Donna started with Phil in 1978 and retired sometime after her 25th year. She and Mark have known each other since 1972 when they served as students trainers at the University of North Texas (UNT).
The head football coach in those days at UNT was a guy named Hayden Fry who previously coached at SMU and then left UNT for the University of Iowa. Coach Fry stayed in touch with Mark over the years looking for football players to recruit to Iowa. “Mark, I need a wide receiver and a defensive back. I have all the linemen I need right here in Iowa. I need skilled positions. What do you have for me?”
Let me share some stories of Phil, Mark, and Texas high school football. First, Texas high school football.
Texas High School Football
They say everything is bigger in Texas …. and it is. Especially high school football.
I grew up in Ohio, currently live in Ohio, played high school football in Ohio. Ohio is home of the National Football Hall of Fame, the Cradle of Coaches (Miami University), and the only two-time Heisman Trophy winner, Archie Griffin, who played his high school, college, and professional careers entirely within the state of Ohio.
Ohio colleges have won more National Football Championships than colleges from any other state: Baldwin-Wallace (1), Wittenberg (5), Dayton (2), Mount Union (13), Youngstown State (4), Ohio State (8). Those same schools lost the National Championship game a total of 16 times, too.
To some degree football was invented in Ohio.
So football is big in Ohio including high school football. And, the quality of high school football in Ohio is good. But…… it doesn’t compare to Texas high school football.
Texas is home to the $60 million dollar high school football stadium, only to be outdone by the $70 million dollar stadium across town, the $155,000 head coaching salary, 400 member marching bands, spring football, three freshmen football teams, and yes, even indoor high school practice fields like the one in Coppell, the town I lived in.
Facilities are only out done by division 1 college football programs and a few division 2 programs. Simply, things are done on a bigger scale in Texas.
And, the athletes? There are just more bigger, faster, and stronger football players in Texas than Ohio and other states. Notice that Ohio State head coach, Urban Meyer, is recruiting fewer and fewer players from Ohio while recruiting more and more out of Texas and Florida. That should tell you something.
On the 2012 team, Meyer’s first year at OSU, 73 of 110 players were from Ohio. On the 2018 team 29 of 85 players on scholarship are from Ohio. So the team has gone from 2/3 Ohio grown talent to 1/3 Ohio grown talent during Meyer’s tenure.
Athletes in Texas are not genetically more athletically endowed than athletes in other regions of the country. The difference is attitude and approach. High school football programs in Texas are operated like college programs. High school football is a full-time job for coaches and players in Texas high schools. Texans take pride in their state’s history (other states can learn a lesson there). It is a proud state and it is proud of its football. Texans live for football.
Football is an expression of their pride. Football is an opportunity to excel. It is an opportunity for architects and contractors to design and build beautiful high school stadiums – concrete structures with brick facade, club seats, and the latest scoreboard technology (like the photo above displays).
It is an opportunity for marching bands to put on halftime shows that rival mini-Broadway productions.
It is an opportunity for coaches to develop innovative new offenses and defenses and try something never seen before. It is an opportunity for players to become bigger, faster, and stronger: to push themselves beyond what they thought was possible.
Texas high school football is an opportunity for everyone involved to push the envelope. It is an opportunity to do what has not been done before.
If you were to take a high school football player – black, white, or hispanic – from Ohio or any other state, and move them to Texas, they would become a better football player …. because of attitude. Football is about attitude. Being a Texan is most about attitude.
Texans have a bigger attitude. They better see what is possible. In Texas everything is possible. Texans embrace the concept of thinking big!
And, that mindset is the thing I miss most about not living there anymore. There is something exhilarating being around others who think anything is possible.
The Dallas Morning News devotes as much print space to high school football as the Columbus Dispatch does to all sports which includes coverage of Ohio State. That is how big high school football is in Texas.
To be sure, high school football is big in the state of Texas and it is bigger than it is in any other state.
Now to Phil and Mark.
Phil and Solon, Ohio
When I arrived in Dallas in late July, 1992 to join Southwest Orthopedic Institute (SOI) today now a part of Texas Orthopaedic Associates, Mary Baker, the secretary for the sports medicine physicians said to me, “The first person you need to meet is the head trainer at DISD. His name is Phil Francis.”
There was a Phil Francis from my hometown of Solon, Ohio. Certainly, this could not be the same Phil Francis as most assuredly there was more than one Phil Francis out there. The Phil Francis from back home graduated six years ahead of me and helped lead our high school baseball team to the State Championship game, played college baseball, and had a brief minor league baseball career. He also had a sister who graduated with my sister. His father and mine knew each other and both of our fathers played minor league baseball.
So I called this Phil Francis – the head trainer of DISD – to arrange a meeting. Given everything I mentioned above I figured if this Phil were from Solon he would recognize my name (Jacko is a little bit unique) so I did not bring up anything about Solon in that phone call. He invited me to meet him and the other trainers at the first Saturday clinic they held during the football season. And, he never mention anything about Solon, so I figure he was a different Phil Francis.
I went to that first Saturday clinic and as I started to walk through the entrance of the training room I saw him. I said to myself, “By golly that is the same Phil Francis from back home.” The other trainers and the other three doctors who covered the clinic were all there (including my newest partner Scott Paschal, MD along with Corry Payne, MD, and John Gill, MD – all orthopedic surgeons).
I went up to him, introduced myself, and asked, “Are you from Ohio?” And, the room went half quiet. He responded, “Yes.” I then asked, “Are you from Solon, Ohio?” And, then the room went dead silent as if EF Hutton were speaking. And, he replied somewhat hesitantly as if I had a warrant for his arrest, “Yes.”
I responded, “Well, so am I.”
There was a reason why the room went quiet.
Phil claimed to have received a nickname in college. It was one of those names you get when you get drunk college men together or during locker room talk. I will not reveal it, but the nickname included the words “Solon, Ohio.” The other trainers long doubted Phil’s story about the nickname and when they heard me say “Solon, Ohio” they were waiting to see if I might call him by this nickname as it would corroborate Phil’s story.
But, I knew nothing of this nickname, so they started giving Phil a hard time. “See he’s from your hometown and never heard you called _______.”
Now all of this happened in a matter of 1-2 minutes of walking in the training room. I had not yet met the others in the room. It ended up being a great ice-breaker and a stroke of luck for me. I found myself welcomed into their private club rather quickly. Here’s why that’s important.
Unknown to me at the time, but sports medicine doctors in the area were always trying to get a piece of the DISD pie. Who wouldn’t want to have access to athletes from 21-22 high schools? But, Phil and his staff decided which sports medicine doctors would see their injured athletes and they kept that list very small. They only used just four physicians at that the time – and I soon became the fifth. So the whole nickname situation and Solon connection were a blessing.
Phil and I spent much of the morning telling Solon stories (we both played Connie Mack baseball for the same coach it turned out) as he broke me in on how the Saturday morning clinic operates. He and I made a quick connection and I made a rather quick connection with Mark, Donna, and Greg.
I joined SOI after a rough year the year before practicing in Ohio. It is a little nerve racking to take on a new position especially in another state. You wonder if you made the right decision and you look for some indication that you fit in and that things will go well. As I drove home from that clinic that day I said to myself, “Everything is going to be okay.” And, it was.
As it turned out Mark was born in Avon Lake, Ohio. His family moved to Texas when he as eight or nine. Greg grew up in Michigan. Donna and the other three doctors were native Texans.
I have worked with a number of outstanding people in sports medicine, but Phil probably has the best combination of administrative and interpersonal skills I have witnessed from anyone in any field. Athletic training as a profession has not always received the respect it deserves and Phil was always conscious of elevating the profession’s status. Phil felt anything worth doing was worth doing at the highest level possible.
He was the consummate professional. To Phil athletic training was not a job or a career. It was a calling. And, he imparted that belief onto his staff. He expected his staff to be professional in its dealings with coaches, parents, and the administration, while providing the best care possible to the athletes.
In the Dallas-Fort Worth area there are over a hundred sports medicine physicians, but Phil became the go-to-guy for the media when they wanted to do an interview on a sports medicine topic related to high school athletics. Nearly every week you could read in the newspaper an interview that Phil had given on some timely sports medicine topic. There is an art to dealing with the media and conveying medical information in a way the layperson can understand, and Phil was very good in doing so.
He was the area’s expert on lightening strikes and inclement weather. Storms come out of nowhere in Texas especially during football season. Trainers have to be ready.
He expected much from his staff and he would get it because he in turned gave his best back to them. He fought hard for his staff in his dealings with the administration. Honest and fair is how Greg described him at the retirement party. Everybody who knows Phil respects him. He also had the unique ability to be friends with his staff while still being their boss. That is not an easy thing to do and is only possible when your staff respects you.
Carter High School Versus Odessa Permian
I only worked games with Phil during the football playoffs and one other occasion which I will share here. Have you heard of the movie Friday Night Lights that came out in 2004? The movie is about Texas high school football featuring perennial big school power, the Odessa Permian High Panthers.
In the movie, Permian plays David W. Carter for the state football championship in 1988. Carter is a DISD school from Oak Cliff. In reality, Permian and Carter played in the 1988 semifinals with Carter winning and with Carter going on to win the state championship against Converse Judson.
Later the title was stripped from Carter for using an ineligible player becoming the story line for another movie that was released in 2015 called Carter High.
More recently an ESPN 30 For 30 documentary called, What Carter Lost, chronicles the 1988 Carter football season. I highly recommend you see the documentary. Think about that – three movies/documentaries on one high school football team. Some think the 1988 Carter team may have been the best high school football team of all time, or at least the most talented.
The Carter football program has put out some great athletes for years. It was not unusual for 12 to 15 players to receive football scholarships each year with many going to big time division 1 colleges. From the 1988 team 28 Carter football players received college scholarships with eight of them going on to play professional football at some level. Those numbers may have been higher if …. some of the players did not get into trouble. Only if…..
The Carter football program has been a controversial program. In addition to playing an ineligible player, 21 armed robberies were linked to Carter football players in the the months after winning the state championship in 1988.
To put that number of robberies in perspective, it is more than the number of armed robberies Bonnie and Clyde committed in their lifetime. No one was injured or killed in the string of Carter related robberies which did involve more than football players. To find out what happened to those athletes who committed armed robberies watch What Carter Lost.
This EPSN 30 For 30 has been considered one of the series’ top 10 documentaries by some critics. It represents a more accurate portrayal of Carter High School than Friday Night Lights.
Freddie James was Carter’s legendary coach. I felt he had the demeanor of Morgan Freeman. He was a soft spoken elderly man, somewhat tall. He did not yell. He was calm. He seemed to see the good, or possible good, in all people. He stood on the sidelines with a lollipop in his mouth most of the game. Before the game started Coach James would stand near the 50 yard line by the Carter sideline and as the players ran onto the field one by one they would hug Coach James. He was a father figure – many times the only one to many of his players.
In 1995 there would be a rematch between Odessa Permian and Dallas Carter. The game was played in Odessa which is in west Texas near Midland, home of the oil companies. Phil and I covered the game. There was much hype surrounding the game. This is Texas. Football is the state religion. High school football gets more media attention in Texas than big college and professional sports in some states. The game even received some national attention.
At the game Phil and I met a couple from Mississippi who won the lotto and loved high school football. Each week they would RV to the biggest high school football game of the week traveling the country. The Permian – Carter rematch was the one on their schedule they wanted to see the most.
DISD chartered a plane from Southwest Airlines and the entire team, coaches, parents, and Phil and I flew to the game. It was a Saturday afternoon game. The plane took off on time and landed on time. We got to the restaurant (pre-arranged) for the pregame meal on time.
But, there was one major snafu. The restaurant did not have enough help to serve well over 100 people at the same time. We were running more than an hour late. We were cutting it close to kick-off and still had to get the stadium and players still had to get in uniform – and get their ankles taped.
We arrive at the stadium. We get off the bus and are running in every direction. Football equipment being thrown off the buses. Players trying to locate their uniforms, pads, and helmets. It was chaos. The home side of the stadium was filled with fans and only one team was warming up – their team.
I decided I would help out and go beyond the call of duty.
Joe: “Hey Phil, I’ll help you tape the ankles.”
Phil: “Okay, but let me tape the starters.”
We have 22 schools in the district and it’s not like I covered Carter every week to know who the starters were. We were in frantic mode. If a kid sat on my table, I taped his ankles. We barely had time to look up to see who was on the table. “Next ankle. Hurry up. Get on the table.” I have taped ankles before – and there is an art to it – but I had not speed tape like I was doing that day. I was determined that no player I taped was going to sprain an ankle, so I taped them nice and tight – a little too tight.
We get done taping ankles and the team literally had five minutes to warm up before kick-off. I saved the day, so I thought, by taping ankles on some 15 to 20 players allowing the team to get on the field in time for kick-off. So I’m feeling pretty good about myself.
Odessa kicks off to Carter to start the game. And, after the kick-off one Carter player comes to the sideline and says “My feet are numb.” After the first play from scrimmage two more players come off each saying, “My feet are numb.” After the second play from scrimmage another player comes of the field. Guess what he said? “My feet are numb.”
Yep, I was a little too exuberant with my taping. I taped the ankles too tight on some of the kids – and apparently I taped some of the starters.
Phil walks by me with a look I can’t even describe shaking his head and says in frustrated tone, “I told you to let me tape the starters.”
I responded in my frequent half-serious, half-humorous style , “Hey, if they sat on my table, I taped them (serious). I can’t tell the difference between an ankle of starter from a non-starter. They all look alike (humorous with a nugget of truth),” I quipped.
What I was tempted to say was this, “LISTEN! You … these coaches … these players … and these fans … should thank me, because we almost forfeited this game … Mr. DISD Head Athletic Trainer. Furthermore, you invited me to play this gig. I could have been home watching college football on TV sipping a beer rather than this petroleum-based water they have here in Odessa (the worst water I ever drank). And, by the way, I didn’t pick the restaurant. And, by the way way, why were you taping ankles of non starters?”
All of that would have been meant to be humorous, but it was not the time to joke too much. So, I kept all of that to myself.
Of course, I could have asked the players, “Are you a starter?” But, that would have been too easy. What happened was this. In the locker room Phil said, “starters over here” pointing to his taping table. So I just assumed the starters were lining up by his table.
I am not really sure if Carter would have forfeited the game if not on the field in time for the kick-off, but I am sure there would have been some consequence or penalty for delay of game. After all, there has to be an official start time to the game.
Phil re-taped the affected players who feet were numb. He then came up to me with a half grin and shaking his head, and then burst out in a laugh. I was forgiven.
But, I do want go on record that none of the 15 – 20 players I taped sprained their ankle that day. Phil could not say the same. Later in the game a Carter player injured his ankle. I looked at Phil and asked, “Is that one of the players you taped?” Just to rub in. He chuckled. What else could he do? And, I then asked him if he wanted me show him him my taping technique. He laughed some more.
No one I taped sprained his ankle that day. I challenge you though. I don’t care what the sport is, there is no way to look at just an ankle and say, “this is the ankle of a starter” and be right more than 50% of the time (that is meant to be funny).
Permian won that game 14-13. A missed extra point by Carter was the difference. Most DISD teams had a poor kicking game which cost the district several games a year especially in the playoffs. By all accounts numb feet had nothing to do with the loss. I do think if we got to the game in time to adequately warm up that Carter would have won that game. It took a good quarter of play for the players and coaches to settle in.
As an aside, the offensive line for Carter that year averaged 305 pounds, more than the offensive line of the Washington Redskins of the mid 1980’s called The Hogs.
Saturday Morning Clinic
Saturday morning clinic was fun and it was busy. It was a free clinic held at Forester Field House. We typically saw 40-45 players in two hours for the first several weeks for injuries that occurred the night before. We once saw 66. For reasons we never understood the volume of injured athletes dropped off significantly about two-thirds of the way through the season to about 20 players or fewer a clinic.
We attributed that phenomenon it to a training effect. Either the players were getting tougher as the season was going on or they were getting in better shape, or some combination. But, whatever the cause, we saw this phenomenon every year.
The four doctors and four athletic trainers would swap “war stories” from the night before as we saw the injured athletes. It was a work hard, play hard environment with lots of laughter. There was a special chemistry in that training room at Forester among the eight of us. Nothing needed to be said as you knew what the others were thinking, but that didn’t stop anyone from saying it.
Dr. Robert Haley, an epidemiologist at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, once determined that the clinic saved DISD over a million dollars in health care costs annually. Dr Haley has had a distinguished career having been at the CDC for 10 years where he served as an epidemic investigator for the Epidemic Intelligence Service. He was also hand-picked by Ross Perot to study the Gulf War Syndrome. He gives an interview in What Carter Lost.
Phil would bring in donuts, beverages and the Dallas Morning News which has a fantastic sports section that devoted six to eight pages to high school football alone. It’s sports section is nearly as big as the entire Columbus Dispatch I now read.
Donna loved to read and study the sports section and it took me a couple years to discover why. One day she asked me my opinion on some of the day’s college football games wanting to know who I thought would win and by now much. I told her my thoughts and asked out of curiosity why she wanted my input. She said, “I have to call my bookie. You want in on some action?”
So from the that day on Donna and I would bet on one college game a week through her bookie. Just a few bucks for me. I don’t know how much she would bet, but she retired around age 50 and lives on a pretty good spread outside Denton, Texas. Coincidence?
Donna is cool. Like Elaine on Seinfeld she fit in well with the guys. It was rare, very rare, to see Donna without a smile. Being the only female who spoke, outside Phil’s and Mark’s wives, Donna gave the most articulate speech at the retirement party.
As Greg is still employed with DISD I won’t share any “incriminating stories” and I really don’t have any. Greg gave the most heart felt speech at the retirement party. Though he now is the longest tenured athletic trainer in DISD, Greg has opted not to seek Phil’s position. I sense retirement is around the corner for Greg so he has no reason to take on more responsibility.
DISD Athletic Training Model
DISD employed a different training model than most school districts. Instead of at least one trainer per school on site, DISD had a centralized training model. The district had four (now five) training rooms spread throughout the district somewhat geographically dispersed, but the number of schools each site served was not equal.
Mark was at Sprague and handled injuries for nine schools. Donna was at Loos and handled injuries for four schools, Greg was at Forester and managed injuries for six schools, and Phil was at Cobb and managed injuries for three schools, but he also handled all the administrative work.
Football games were played on four central fields: Sprague, Loos, Forester, and Pleasant Gove. Each trainer covered games at their central site with Phil covering Pleasant Grove as Cobb did not have a field connected to it. We had four doctors. I covered Sprague with Mark, Corry Payne covered Loos with Donna, John Gill covered Forester with Greg, and usually an orthopedic resident covered Pleasant Grove with Phil. Scott Paschal covered games for the “rich and famous” at Highland Park, but helped cover DISD games when he could.
So as physicians we were not “team physicians” as much as we were “site physicians”.
Because there were only four fields and 22 schools, games were generally played on Friday nights and Saturday afternoons or nights. Since Sprague served nine schools it sometime hosted games on Thursday nights, too. Since Mark and I covered Sprague, we covered a lot games together.
I typically covered 22 or more games a year. That was a bit too many games to find enjoyable as the season progressed no matter how much football you like. Once my kids got to a certain age around 2002 I told Mark I would only cover one game a week but allowed him to pick the game.
Those four trainers had so much experience that having a doctor on the sideline was a bonus. Rarely did they need to use us. Most of the games they covered (JV and freshman and some varsity) they did without a physician on the sidelines.
Once the playoffs started and once some of our teams were eliminated we would have as many as three to four trainers at a playoff game along with two or three doctors. Typically nine DISD teams would make the playoffs. Many of those playoff games were played at the Cotton Bowl or Texas Stadium where the Dallas Cowboys played. Those games were especially fun to cover with all the camaraderie on the sidelines among the medical staff plus the added excitement of the high school playoffs.
Today DISD now has an athletic trainer at each school (22) and maintains two trainers at each of its five centralized training rooms for a total of 32 trainers. So it has evolved into a hybrid model.
Football and Injuries
Football is violent even at the high school level. But, I was always surprised that the injury rate wasn’t higher and that more of the injuries were not more serious. There were always bumps and bruises in the games I covered, but we did have games where no player missed any action during the game due to injury. It did not happen often, but it did happen. DISD had several college caliber athletes. They were fast, they were big, and they could hit.
Given the speed and degree of hitting, I left most games surprised there were not more injuries and more serious injuries. The human body is amazingly and wonderfully designed to take the punishment we inflict on it, not just in sports, but with our diets and frequently poor lifestyles. We are not designed by chance or through chance. We are designed intentionally. That is one thing medicine has confirmed for me.
With Dr. Haley’s help we designed a study to look at injury patterns relative to fitness levels of the football players. The study was also meant to help us understand the phenomenon we saw in the Saturday Clinic mentioned above.
We put all the football players of the 21 schools (at that time in the mid-90s – a 22nd school was built later) through a fitness test doing all the tests done at the NFL Combine, though we gave the players a choice of three weights to lift on the bench press and squats. This was done to minimize injury. Plus, we added a test for aerobic endurance and a couple other field tests. Forty-yard times and shuttle runs were electronically timed.
Phil did a magnificent job coordinating this event. The combine was held at Sprague Field. Each school had an assigned time to arrive and then the players one by one went through each testing station. We processed all players for the 21 schools in one day. It was quite an amazing feat.
Once word got out that we were doing this, college recruiters were calling wanting to know a particular player’s 40-yard time (as it was electronically timed and thus legit), or his vertical jump, which may be the single best indicator of athletic potential, but all the data we collected were for internal use only.
This was to be a three-year study, but after the second year, Dr. Haley was tapped by Ross Perot to study the Gulf War Syndrome, and he was to be the person that was going to analyze the data. We never completed the study as the Gulf War Syndrome consumed years of his life.
Sprague Field is in Oak Cliff and the athletes it serves are among the best athletes in the country. When you drive around the surrounding neighborhoods you can tell that the area once enjoyed a heyday. But, today most homes have wrought iron protecting the windows and doors and many yards are unkempt. (Sprague Field is shown in the opening scenes of What Carter Lost.)
Metal detectors were used at rivalry games held at Sprague long before 9/11. They were being used since before 1992 – my first year. I didn’t always pay attention to the schedule to know which two teams were playing, but when I saw the metal detectors I knew it was a big rivalry game.
Without exception, each game I covered at Sprague I was a “minority”. Typically Mark, myself, two or three refs, and one or two from the media were the only white people in the stadium and probably within a three mile radius of the stadium. I must admit being a “minority” in a crowd was a little unsettling at first, but I got used to it quickly, and it certainly gets you thinking when the shoe is on the other foot.
I never felt any racial tensions at Sprague. I received red carpet treatment from DISD employees most who were non-white. Everyone was kind to me. Chauncey, the stadium manager, always asked if I needed anything and thanked me repeatedly for covering the game each week he saw me.
Altercations could break out in the parking lot among the fans, and gun shots in the near distance could be heard on more than rare occasions. Sirens blaring in the nearby neighborhoods during the games was commonplace. But, I never felt unsafe within the stadium.
With an occasional exception the players were respectful and courteous, “Yes, sir. No sir.” And, they were generally quite appreciative of our help. In the office, I much preferred to take care of a DISD athlete rather than an athlete from the affluent suburbs. Less parental involvement made it easier to manage the inner city kids. Those DISD athletes that went onto play college or pro sports occasionally stopped by our office when in town to say “Hi” and thank us for helping them recover from their injuries.
Mark watched out for me. With a minute or two to go in the game, as long there no injuries to attend to, Mark would raise his arm like an umpire calling me out and, say “Joe Joe, get out of here.” I would boogie woogie to my car before trouble might start in the parking lot.
For the approximately 250 some times I walked into the training room at Sprague, Mark would greet me with a big, “Hey Joe!” or a “Joe Joe, what you don’t know know?” He would say it as if he were really excited to see me, or had not seen me in a while.
He would then point to a cooler and say, “I have a sandwich and a Coke for you in the cooler. Sunflower seeds are in the top left drawer of my desk.” (In Texas all soft drinks are referred to as Coke.) I never asked, and he never took any money, but he had food and drink waiting for me in the cooler. I was game ready.
I typically arrived for a game about 30 to 45 minutes before kick-off which was much sooner than I needed to be at the game, but did so to beat traffic. Before the start of the game Mark would fill me in on all the scuttlebutt going on in the school district – any scandals or rumors of which there were typically many.
Mark was in the know. He had the scoop. He seemingly knew much about everyone. He talked to everyone. He knew everybody’s name. He knew their kids’ names. He is that kind of guy.
And, I never saw him in a down mood. Never. In the training room and on the field Mark was in his element. He was doing what he loved. And, it showed.
No one loves being an athletic trainer more than Mark. The long hours never seemed to bother him. Mark frequently did more than required. He knew the coaches and he knew the kids even though he managed nine schools.
To Mark everything was a “hoot.” He had lots of stories and was colorful.
I became Mark’s sidekick at Sprague in 1992. By then Mark already had 20 years experience treating athletic injuries going back to his student training days. I had three and he was only five years older than me. I made no attempt to try impress him with my “vast array of knowledge”. I think he appreciated that, and I think it helped me earn his trust and respect.
He had seen far more ACL injuries, finger fractures, concussions, shoulder dislocations, and more, than I did. So there was no reason to pretend I knew more than he even though I wore the title of “MD”.
That first year we both were feeling each other out. I could tell he was testing me when he asked my opinion about an injury. By the end of that first year he began to trust me with “his athletes”.
By the second year we were clicking. By the third year we were a well-oiled machine working together.
The Bedside Manner
Mark had an unusual bedside manner and was not going to win any award for Mr. Congeniality. And, he would be the first to admit it. Mark subscribed to the tough love approach to treating inner city athletes and the players responded to it. He approached players more like a coach, rather than a health care professional.
He could come across as being rough with some of the football players … until you got to know him. In reality, he was most caring and took a sincere interest in the athletes. He had a good read on athletes and their different personalities and would adjust his approach accordingly. He knew which buttons to push with each athlete.
Mark drives a truck. He is a common sense, practical, lunch pail, hard hat type of guy. All of this probably explains his direct and blunt approach. You have to know him and see him in action to appreciate that comment.
For the first few games as I observed him I didn’t know what to make of his approach. “Well, this is certainly different,” I thought, “but it seems to work.”
To some players he was bit of father figure. Many of those kids had no direction and they needed a voice of authority and someone to tell them that they were messing up. And, Mark was blunt and direct. And, he wasn’t afraid to let the players know if they were messing up – if the situation required it.
He did not coddle the players. He was not politically correct. He wasn’t concerned about hurt feelings. But, he always had an athletes’s best interest in mind. As far as I know no one ever complained about his style. And, he retired on his own terms after 37 years.
He used a lot of cuss words – mainly soft cuss words. Cuss words flowed naturally from his mouth without effort. But, now as I think back, I do not recall him ever saying the F-word, but there were a lot of “damn” and “ass” as in “get our damn ass” over here. And, he did not swear in front of females. He was far more gentle with injured female athletes than the football players.
Some kids are always hurt. Some think any pain represents a serious injury and Mark knew who those kids were. When you see and treat as many injuries as he did you don’t have time for the real minor bumps and bruises.
Writing about it does not do it justice. You had to hear and see Mark in action to get the full monty – the full picture.
“You damn well better be hurt, if you’re making me come out on the field…. Listen, you’re fine (he would say calmly and reassuringly after assessing the injury)… Now get your damn ass to the sideline and don’t ever make me come onto the field unless you’re really hurt. Understand?”
He wouldn’t yell and he wasn’t mean at all, but rather spoke in a relatively calm and matter of fact conversational tone. He was very good with setting expectations with the athletes.
Or, on the sideline dealing with heat cramps.
“Did I not damn well tell y’all at before the game to push the fluids? Did you drink some fluid? Well, why the hell not? Now, let me stretch this damn cramp out. Then you are going to get your damn ass over to that water cooler. See that damn orange thing over there? It has water in it. It’s 95 degrees out tonight. It’s hotter than a fox in a forest fire. I shouldn’t have tell y’all to drink some damn water.” Again, calmly and matter of factly.
Mark was colorful and he was entertainment providing me other reasons to want to cover games with him. Plus, he simply was was the best athletic trainer I ever worked with – period.
If one of my sons were to lie on a field with a serious injury, Mark is the trainer I would want out there managing the situation. Even the most serious of injuries did not faze him. I never saw him rattled by a situation.
I believe the sheer volume of injuries he treated at DISD prepared him for any scenario. When you considered he managed injuries for nine high schools, many of them rather large schools, including all the boy and all the girl sports, and was an athletic trainer 37 years, it is quite possible he has treated more high school injuries than any athletic trainer in history.
Taking Charge of the Field
Our policy as physicians with DISD athletic trainers was that the trainers were in charge of the field during a game. Most high school trainers have a similar relationship with their team doctors. The athletic trainers work for the district. They know the coaches. They know the athletes. They call the shots.
We as physicians only got involved if they asked for our help. Mark did not need much help. Usually as a courtesy he would ask me to check a kid on the sideline to see if I agreed with him. The relatively few occasions he motioned for me to come onto the field usually meant the player needed to go to the ER.
The only problems or injuries I routinely got involved with during a game were the concussions. In fact, in the office I probably saw 90% of the DISD athletes who sustained a concussion. During those 14 years I may have seen more concussions than any doctor in the country.
But, I still got my share of “air time” on the field.
There were three scenarios where I might go onto the field without Mark waving me on. First, if more than one DISD player was hurt on the play. Since most of our games pitted two DISD schools against each other that scenario was not uncommon and typically happened once a game. Mark would see one and I see the other. On some occasions we had as many as four down on the same play.
Secondly, if Mark was already tending to an injured player on the sideline and another player got hurt on a subsequent play then I would go onto the field. That probably happened every other game. And finally, if Mark needed to leave the field to go to the locker room to get something then I was in “charge” of the field. But, that was rare.
In the fourteen years we pretty much saw everything including a cervical spine fracture and a dislocated hip (two of the more devastating football injuries) and ironically they occurred in consecutive weeks. Mark had a lot tricks for reducing finger, shoulder, elbow dislocations, but none for dislocated hips.
We discussed Hayden Fry asking Mark about players but he wasn’t the only one. Oak Cliff was a hot bed for college football recruiters. It was not unusual for recruiters to get additional insight about an athlete by talking to Mark.
Coaches typically build their players up beyond what they really are. It looks good for them if their players are getting college scholarships. Athletic trainers are more objective – they tend to be more honest about an athlete’s ability and character.
Athletic trainers get to see first hand how an athlete responds to adversity like an injury. They see how hard a kid works on his/her rehab. They see a player’s emotional response to a setback. They see how players interact on the sidelines when they cannot play due to injury. Some players stand or sit quietly on sideline. Others are more involved cheering their teammates on or coaching up their replacement. And, some recruiters like that additional insight.
Mark even got a call from the New England Patriots asking about a former Carter player who was projected as a first round NFL pick.
New England: “What can you tell us about so and so?”
Mark: “Well, if you get him around good kids, he is a good kid. If you get him around bad kids, he will do some bad stuff. Problem is he likes to hang around the bad kids.”
New England: “Well, you are now the third person who has said something similar. Thank you for your time.”
Maybe that type of due diligence is one reason for New England’s success.
Talking the Talk
When there were no injuries to manage Mark and I just talked. And, boy did we talk. In fourteen years there probably isn’t a topic we did not discuss. The only person who talked more than Mark was my mom. And, that may not be even true. Mark could really talk. Maybe that’s why I enjoyed hanging around Mark at the games – it was like being around my mom. He even got me to talk much more than I normally would. In fact, around Mark I would uncharacteristically become a bit of a chatterbox.
We would even lose track of time talking in the training room. There were a handful of occasions where we were late getting back to the sidelines for the second half because we became side-tracked on some meaningless topic. “Hey Mark, I think they started the second half. I just heard the PA announcer say ‘third down and four yards to go’.” He would look at his watch. “Wow, you’re right. I guess we better hustle our asses out there.”
I would pepper Mark with questions – some even meant to be thought provoking – during the games.
“Mark, who is the best athlete you have seen in DISD?” Or, “Mark, if you could only pick one DISD coach to coach your kids who would it be?” Or, “Which of these coaches would you not want to baby sit your kids?” Or, “Of the DISD athletes who have made it big (pro or Olympics) who is the classiest person?” And, “Who is the biggest jerk?”
Or, “What was your best vacation?” Or, “What is on your bucket list?” Or, “Mark, if you won the lotto what would you do?”
Or, “Mark, where are you going to retire? Phil said he would move to southern Illinois to retire. I am not sure why. I have been through southern Illinois and there is nothing there.” Or, “Mark, I am going to San Antonio next month. Is there a hole in the wall BBQ or Tex-Mex place off the beaten path you can recommend?”
Each question would then take on a life of its own. Multiply such questions by 250 games or so and you can cover a lot of topics. And …. you really get to know a person.
If Mark did not know the answer to something, he knew someone who did.
Our conversations would occasionally be inconveniently interrupted by ….. an injury of all things. Imagine that. Mark would take care of the injury and come back and say, “So where were we?” And we continue the conversation where we left off. Quite honestly there were times when I forgot we were there to cover the game as we got so wrapped up in our conversations.
Mark made golf clubs as a side business. “Mark, I think my golf game could use some new clubs.”
“Joe Joe, I have seen your golf game. Your damn clubs aren’t your problem. And, to prove it to you, I will make you a new set of clubs.”
“Thanks, Mark – I think.” He was right. New clubs did not help my sub-par golf game. Or is it above-par game when you are not very good? That’s confusing when you think about it. I shoot above-par which means I have a sub-par game. Baseball was my sport but I never successfully made the transition from a baseball swing to the golf swing. And, I never adequately made the transition from throwing a baseball to throwing a football.
Despite our near constant chit-chatting Mark had an unbelievable awareness of what was going on in the game and on both sidelines since he was responsible for both sidelines most games. He did not miss anything.
He seemed to have a sixth sense that an injury was about to a occur. There are times in football game that you can tell a player is about to get his clock cleaned by the way a play is developing. Mark had a sixth sense that went well beyond that. It’s almost as if he would get a premonition that an injury were about to occur.
Mark had a good idea what the injury was and how bad it was before he got to the player from sheer experience. Occasionally, he would say to me, “Stay here so I know where you are in case I need to wave you on the field. This one might be bad.”
Ideas and Inventions
I’m a bit of a dreamer. One of may favorite quotes is something Robert F. Kennedy used to say that is a modification of quote from George Bernard Shaw, “Some men see things as they are and say, why; I dream things that never were and say, why not.” Here’s why that is important.
I went through an inventive period during that 14 year span. I came up with several product ideas watching football games from the sidelines and Mark politely listened to my crazy ideas.
Something unusual would happen on the field and I would say, “Mark, that’s why we need to develop….” And before I could finish my thought, Mark would shake his head and laugh and interrupt me and say, “Oh no, not another of your crazy ideas.” Occasionally, he might say, “Hey, you might have something there.”
In 1993, there was a trend of DISD football players spatting their football shoes with colored athletic tape to match the team’s uniform colors. On three occasions Mark had to cut the shoe off a player’s foot to evaluate an injury. The third time that happened I said to him, “Mark, someone needs to develop something they can put over their shoes that is easy to put on and take off.”
I then said to myself, “That someone may as well be me.”
EUREKA! The Gridiron Gator was born. I was granted patent number 5,544,430 for the invention by the United States Patent Office. My goal was to sell the idea and I did meet in person with representatives from Nike and Adidas. The man from Nike said, “Personally, I think you have a good idea, but it’s too gimmicky for us. We are very careful about maintaining the purity of the logo. But, I encourage to keep working on it.”
Adidas seemed to have the most interest but decided not to pursue it for reasons unknown to me. Having struck out on selling the idea, I started my own company called Jaggo, Inc.
What I envisioned is taking the design of a team’s football helmet and replicating that design on the foot in the form of a spat. Even though it’s Michigan (I am a Ohio State fan) I think a spat with the winged helmet would look great on a shoe. Or, the arrows of the Florida State helmet. Or, Buckeye leaves on a scarlet and gray spat.
But, I ran out money and kids of our own came along and time became limited. So I had no commercial success from the idea, but I did learn much from the school of hard knocks about starting a business, marketing, and I know a whole lot about fabrics, adhesive backed Velcro, prototype design, and pattern making to mention a few. You would be surprised to learn how complicated (and expensive) even the most simple products can be to produce.
But, one of these days I am going to resurrect the idea which is one reason why I need to stay young and live long. I like to think that idea was ahead of its time. Adidas with some of its recent shoe designs has incorporated a bit of a spat look. So maybe the time is right to try again with the idea.
I have another product idea that I think is very viable. Now that Mark is retired I am going to persuade him to work on it.
I have also suggested to Mark that he write a book even offering to help. He has tons of stories. He is in a unique position to write about Texas high school football from the perspective of an athletic trainer who has worked with inner city kids and some of the very best athletes in the country over 37 years.
I have already heard, and I have even lived in some of his stories, and I would pay to read about them, too. The first thing Mark said when I suggested he write a book is, “Ha ha, I would have to clean up a lot damn cuss words first.” I told him not to do it – that he should not censor himself. I told him to just dictate the stories and pretend he is talking to me or someone else.
A book? Now, that is not a crazy idea. Let’s see if he does it.
End of an Era
Three of the four athletic trainers that were with DISD when I arrived in Dallas are now retired. It signals the end of an era and the beginning of a new chapter for DISD sports medicine. But, the program is in good hands. In addition to Greg, six other trainers now with DISD arrived before I left in 2006 and are well prepared to take the baton. They are Corey (the new Head Athletic Trainer), Brian, Doug, LaTrice, Ryan, and Chad. They have learned from the best. I wish them well. Each of them have 13 to 18 years with DISD. That type of stability is a credit to Phil and Mark, Donna, and Greg.
Memories are now all that remains from that period. Of the many wonderful memories I have of those years and high school football, the ones I reflect on most involve the Saturday morning football clinic and being on the sidelines with Mark. It was a privilege to be his sidekick.
To Phil and Mark,
I thank you for your friendship and the many many memories. I wish you the very best in retirement. God bless!
Since leaving the sports medicine practice in 2006 I tried on occasions to re-capture the magic or mojo of that period. On the first Friday night of the new football season I would call Mark about two hours before kick-off and wish him well for the new season. We would reminisce a little bit about the past realizing that time marches on.
On three occasions I re-united with Mark and stood on the sidelines of a DISD football game as a guest. Mark was now the lead trainer at DISD’s newest sports complex, the Jesse Owens Memorial Athletic Complex. I would call Mark in advance and let him know I would be in town. Mark would alert the parking attendants and they would reserve a parking spot for me immediately adjacent to the field and locker room.
I would walk into the training room and would be greeted with a big ole,
“Joe Joe, what you don’t know know? I have a drink for you in the cooler. Man, it’s good to see you.”
Some things never change. But, they eventually do end. Yet, the memories live on.
And, I am taking them with me….. when that time comes.
This article was originally published on 8/13/18. Phil Francis died in November of 2020 the same year he was inducted into the Dallas ISD Athletic Hall of Fame.
My former partner, Jim Montgomery, MD paid tribute to Phil at the Induction Ceremony.