HARROLD, Texas—The tiny northwest Texas school district in Harrold is known for its independent streak — it was the first to allow teachers to carry concealed handguns and also the first to challenge a federal transgender bathroom policy.
The Vernon Daily Record reports that independence has carried over to sports as the district prepares to field a coed high school football team.
Until Monday morning, the 2016 edition of the Harrold High School Hornets had just five players out for football — one shy of the minimum required to field a team. The Hornets compete in Class A, six-man football, the smallest football classification in Texas.
Head coach Craig Templeton had suffered from a series of transfers and a general disinterest in playing by a few students he had expected to fill roster spots this season. And to make matters worse, of the 30 high school students currently enrolled at Harrold, only eight are boys.
The long-time HHS athletic director, principal and coach has had to contend with low numbers the past two seasons, but only five players meant he would likely have to forfeit the upcoming campaign. But, just when the Hornets thought they might not even make it out of two-a-days with a squad, in stepped junior Olivia Perez.
The 5-foot-4-inch, 115-pound stalwart on the Lady Hornets’ volleyball team saw what was happening to Templeton and her male classmates, so she decided she wanted to help.
“Olivia came to me on Friday about potentially playing for us this year to make sure we had six players. I wasn’t so high on the idea at first, and I wanted to make sure everything was OK on her end, so I told her to take the weekend and think about it,” Templeton said.
When Monday morning came, Perez was still solid on her decision. Templeton tentatively agreed to ease into the situation, and as of now, she is a member of the Harrold Hornets. Even though HHS now has the legal number of roster players to begin a six-man game, the fate of the season is still very much in jeopardy.
“I would say right now, this is not even a day-by-day situation, it’s more like an hour-by-hour thing going on,” Templeton joked on Wednesday. “My main priority right now is to protect Olivia. She came out to workouts with us on Monday, but she had a volleyball game on Tuesday, so she hasn’t had a lot of reps with us. I don’t know if this will work or not, but her reasoning is so selfless, and the five boys I have are working their tails off, so I think the least I can do is give this a shot.”
Besides just trying to help her school field a team, Perez had another idea in mind when she decided to don the pads and cleats. Harrold’s lone senior, Brady Blakely, is a talented player who garnered first team all-district honors as a defensive lineman last season. Perez simply didn’t want her friend to not have the chance to play in his final year at Harrold.
Blakely lost his father to cancer last November on the night before Harrold played rival Chillicothe. The Eagles paid tribute to him by wearing the Hornets’ purple colors and with both teams joining in a prayer led by Templeton and Chillicothe’s coach Clint Miller.
Perez knew how important Blakely’s senior year meant to not only him as a player, but as a way to honor his father for one last season.
“When they told me they didn’t have enough for a team, I stuck my head out and told coach Templeton that I wanted to play. I want to play for Brady, because I know his dad would’ve wanted him to be on the field for his senior year. I didn’t want him to have to go out like that in his last year in school. We grew pretty close last year, and I just want to do what I can to help,” Perez said.
“I talked it over with my mom, and she was OK with the idea, especially since I was doing it for Brady. She has some concerns, but she thinks I’ll be fine. She knows I’m tough,” she continued. “I’m familiar with the six-man game because I’ve been the team’s manager before, and I like football in general. I’ve also grown up rough housing with my brother and my older cousin. They never treated me like a girl. I think I can handle some contact and come out all right.”
Perez’s reasoning for her decision certainly hasn’t been lost on Templeton or on Blakely. Both truly admire the courage the junior Lady Hornet has shown.
“That’s really one of the most selfless things I’ve ever heard of, and I’ve been coaching a long time,” Templeton said. “I told our boys, ‘That’s what you call being a true teammate. Making a sacrifice like that for a cause that’s much greater than you.’ I really have a lot of respect for Olivia’s courage. She really wants Brady to have a senior year, and she just flat out told me, ‘Coach.this isn’t right what’s happening. I want to help if I can.’ Like I said, I don’t know if this will work, but with that kind of attitude, we’re going to try.”
Blakely’s voice cracked slightly as he talked about what Perez has decided to do, especially as it pertains to the relationship with his father. With several of his male classmates deciding not to play football this year, the talented senior was overwhelmed that his female buddy might help salvage the season.
“I was counting on a couple of guys to come out this year that didn’t, but that’s just the way it goes sometimes. I’m very grateful to Olivia for at least giving us an opportunity to play football,” Blakely said. “If this works out, I think the team chemistry will be great. Everyone gets along, and that hasn’t been the case in all of my seasons. Even though there are only six of us, there is definitely a family atmosphere.”
“Olivia told me, ‘Your dad wouldn’t want this. He wouldn’t want this to happen to you in your senior year,’ he continued. “I really can’t tell you how much that meant to me.to say something like that. She’s really been courageous about this entire process. We all have nothing but gratitude for her, and we’re going to do the best we can to protect her. She’s one of us.”
As great as Perez’s intentions are, there is a harsh reality that both Templeton and head volleyball coach Carla Kent must face as the situation progresses. The Lady Hornets have the talent to potentially grab a district title in volleyball, but they are only competing with six players right now. If Kent had a few more players, the risk of injury wouldn’t potentially derail Harrold’s volleyball campaign. But in reality, if Perez were to get hurt, it’s likely that the football and volleyball seasons would grind to a halt.
“If this works out and we start the season with Olivia, I’ve got to consider the possibility of what could happen with an injury,” Templeton said. “On the one hand, if she stays healthy, we can have a football team, and she can help the volleyball team maybe make a playoff run. She’s one of the two best players on the court. On the other hand, if she gets injured, not only will we not have a football team, but the volleyball team will struggle as well. Coach Kent is only working with seven players right now, but one of them is fighting an injury. It’s a very delicate balance.”
“Right now I’m a really, really nervous coach,” Kent said, somewhat jokingly on Wednesday morning. “I am prepared to fully support Olivia with what she chooses to do. The team supports her. But I would be lying if I didn’t say I am a little bit worried about her getting injured. She is a tough girl, but some of those boys are pretty big out there.”
Girls have certainly been seen on football teams before, but normally that comes at the junior high or sub-varsity level in high school. And rarely, if ever, has a female athlete been on the field for every snap as a starter.
But, such is the case for Perez. Her story would still be interesting even if Harrold had 20 players suited out. But the fact that she will never leave the field if Templeton does decided to move forward with the idea – that’s something that he says absolutely calls for precaution.
“We don’t have a lot of disillusions about winning the district or anything. We have five guys who are working hard who want to have a season, and we have a female athlete who wants to make sure we have an opportunity to do that,” Templeton said. “I’ve got to do my best to devise a plan to keep her somewhat protected out there. My main concern is on kickoffs and kickoff returns. A lot of the most violent collisions happen on those exchanges. We will probably work her at end and split her out as much as possible to avoid the pile-ups that can happen in the middle. As for the special teams, I’m not sure at at this point how that will work.”
Perez got her first taste of contact on Wednesday morning and held her own for the most part. She wasn’t familiar with any of the usual football drills or the terminology, but she certainly didn’t back down because of it. Templeton took several opportunities to teach his players, and in particular Perez, about the importance of tackling with the head up, looking at the target.
The good news for the Hornets is that Templeton has canceled any potential scrimmages, and their first opponent, Patton Springs, has already forfeited due to a lack of players. That means Perez should have several weeks to ease into the gridiron routine before taking the field under the Friday night lights.
But, even if Harrold never has the opportunity to play a game this year, or if the Hornets run through their now nine-game schedule and stay completely healthy, neither scenario is truly what’s important. As of today, five kids who want nothing more than to simply play the great game of football now have the opportunity because of the sacrifice of a classmate.
And that, Templeton said, is an effort worth applauding.