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LBJ's football team, a constant through a turbulent fall semester, falls short of a state championship

LBJjaguars_MM_121621
Michael Minasi
/
KUT
Jaguars Head Coach Jahmal Fenner speaks with students, teachers and community members gathered Thursday to send off the LBJ football team to the state championship.

I am a graduate of LBJ High School. I grew up 2 miles away from the campus. We had a neighbor I remember two things about: 1) Her family had a goat tied to the back porch, and 2) she had a boyfriend who played football at LBJ. When he came around, to us neighborhood kids, it was as if Earl Campbell arrived.

We would watch with some degree of awe as he climbed out his car in a heather gray sweatsuit, "LBJ" emblazoned across the chest. I’d ask how the team was doing. He’d give a quick update. Those interactions taught me a few things: LBJ High School would be the coolest place to go, and goats make bad pets.

I can't hide the purple pride. And I’m not alone.

“That's one thing I can say that's special about this community and about LBJ," Coach Jahmal Fenner said. "You always see alumni representing purple pride and Jag nation. So, I think the tradition and the culture that was established here — it hasn't gone away.” 

The Jaguars lost their first game of the season Friday to Stephenville, 38-21. Unfortunately, it was in the 4A Division 1 State Championship at AT&T Stadium in Arlington.

Even though it wasn’t the result they wanted, the team made history. This is the farthest they've progressed through the state playoffs. They are the first Austin ISD school to play for a state championship since Reagan (now Northeast High School) in 1973. Reagan also came up short, losing to the real Earl Campbell and Tyler High.

Why the gap between championship appearances? Many old-timers will cite the events of that next fall in ‘74. A new school 3 miles east – LBJ — fielded its first team and took many of Reagan’s students with it. Ever since then, neighborhood loyalty was split between the two rival schools.

For most of the years since, it was usually a battle between those two for supremacy in AISD football. And even though LBJ has been the better school in recent years, long playoff runs outside of the district have been difficult to achieve. Better-resourced suburban school districts have, generally speaking, ruled the state football playoffs and championships of late. You need look no farther than just outside Austin: Westlake, Lake Travis, Liberty Hill and Cedar Park high schools have won titles in the last 20 years.

But the last two years have been different. Perennially underenrolled, LBJ dropped down to class 4A in 2020. It made the semifinals in the first year and all the way to the final this season.

Shirley Morris’ grandson plays on the defensive line. She said she sees the impact the Jaguars' recent success is having on the community.

“Everybody you talk to, it's just such a big deal," she said. "I mean, it brings water to people's eyes just to see LBJ go this far, and they're making history.”

Allen Scott’s son is a freshman backup quarterback for LBJ. He was looking forward to bringing the title back to Austin.

“We hear about the Westlakes and the Lake Travises, and you know, we get conditional thinking, 'OK, yeah that's part of Austin, but technically, it's not,," he said. "They're their own school districts, they're their own communities.”

Grinning high school football players with "State-Bound 2021" shirts on.
Michael Minasi
/
KUT
The LBJ football team passes through a crowd of supporters Thursday before boarding buses for the state championship.

LBJ came the closest it has ever come to winning, despite hurdles and distractions that made this playoff run all the more improbable.

The school year began without a principal and without enough teachers to fill its class schedule. Eventually, the school district found a principal and he began resolving the staffing issues.

There is an ongoing construction project in one wing of the school, rerouting foot traffic to classes and making concentration difficult in classrooms.

But at the other end of the building, where the athletics offices are, there was — metaphorically and literally — the quiet and the steady guidance of Coach Fenner.

“Not being able to have a principal at the beginning of the school year, yes, that was a struggle," Fenner said. "But I'm a firm believer in you have to find a way, and that's what we teach our kids. So, we didn't make any excuses for the situation that we had no control over. We just kept pushing.”

And for weeks, the Jaguars kept rolling — unbeaten in the regular season and blowing through the first few weeks of the playoffs. But then Thanksgiving week, Fenner’s son was shot and killed in Pflugerville. Somehow, some way, he compartmentalized and pushed forward.

“It's just having faith, you know? I'm a believer," he said. "I put my trust in God and so I put my faith in the Lord and I'm trusting and leaning on him"

He also saw it as a lesson.

“I'm in a situation to where I have to overcome adversity. So, like I told my players, I just wanna be an example of what I teach them every day.”

Coach Fenner overcame grief and his team managed three more playoff wins after that, placing the football team on its biggest stage so far.

But against Stephenville, first-quarter fumbles led to a 17–to-0 gap LBJ could not overcome. A late charge by LBJ in the second half made it interesting, but a fourth-quarter interception in the end zone sealed the win for Stephenville.

And just like last year's semifinal defeat, there was the initial sting and then optimism that something is building at the school.

Ray Jackson graduated from LBJ before becoming part of Michigan basketball’s legendary Fab Five. His dad was a football coach and taught at LBJ for many decades.

“I'm the mascot, I was born into this. I’ve seen the good days. I’ve seen the bad days," he said. "This is definitely a moment to celebrate Coach Fenner and these great young men and we're proud of them.”

And he says it’s not over.

“We're going through a rebuilding process with LASA leaving the building," he said. "This is major, this is huge, to have our kids on this stage, to have the quality of kids in the program. ... This is big for the growth in the rebuilding of the Northeast Austin community”

One thing that has concluded for now is LBJ’s run in 4A football. Next year they return to 5A and maybe they’ll return to AT&T Stadium.

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