FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — More often than not, New England Patriots cornerback Terrence Wheatley could go unnoticed while taking a walk down Newbury Street in Boston. Even as a 2008 second-round draft pick with a nice contract and some starting experience, Wheatley remains fairly anonymous in an area that is so obsessed with its local sports franchises.
Back in Texas, though, that would be an entirely different story. As a superstar athlete at Plano East High School, Wheatley tried to stay indoors as much as possible because of the fame attached with being a high school football player.
Wheatley, whose team advanced as far as the Texas state quarterfinals during his playing days, said Plano would pretty much shut down on Friday nights for its football games, and just like in the movies, everyone would end up at Sonic or a party afterward.
“That’s all people talk about,” said Wheatley, whose school was a 5A classification, which is the highest level in Texas based off school population. “That’s all people want to do is go to high school football games. It’s crazy. You go to the spring game, and the spring game sells out, like 12,000 people. It’s pretty crazy. People pretty much knew who you were, playing high school football. I tried to avoid all that, so I really didn’t go out much.”
Tickets for his high school’s spring game, Wheatley estimated, cost about $30, which is more than some face-value seats at Fenway Park or the TD Garden. There’s no other way to put it: The culture of Texas high school football is incomprehensible for New England natives. And this weekend’s trip to Houston has helped jog some of the Patriots’ memories.
“High school ball in Texas is a big deal,” said practice squad tight end Rob Myers, who went to Bellaire High School [5A] in the Houston area. “They really take it serious down there.”
Former Patriots tight end David Thomas, who was traded to the New Orleans Saints prior to the regular season, experienced two levels of premier football in Texas. He was a tight end and linebacker at Frenship (Wolfforth) High School (4A) and then played at the University of Texas, which is a dream of every football player in the state.
“It can be pretty intense,” Thomas said of his high school years. “We would have 8,000 to 10,000 fans at a home game, and the playoff games [would have] more. It was a lot of fun. You were definitely like a celebrity around the high school and stuff. Around town, pretty much everybody knows who you are, and knows if you won or how the team is doing. Everybody keeps up with what is going on with the team.”
Like Wheatley, Thomas went to a traditional powerhouse, and the tight end advanced to the state semifinals once and the quarterfinals twice. At that point, teams begin playing at neutral sites such as the Houston Astrodome, Cowboys Stadium and Texas Memorial Stadium, which is obviously a huge deal for the players, fans and families.
Myers’ team wasn’t as successful, but Bellaire ended a decades-long playoff drought during his senior year. Even still, the competition never ceases. Myers’ locker at Gillette Stadium is adjacent to that of practice squad linebacker Bruce Davis, who went to Clear Creak (League City) High School in the Houston area. While Myers and Davis didn’t know each other before their paths crossed in Foxborough, the mere mention of Texas high school ball incited some trash talk of the hilarious variety.
Patriots linebacker Eric Alexander played at Stephen F. Austin (Port Arthur) High School (3A), which only had about 300 students at the time and competed hard against two other high schools in the town, so they weren’t drawing the sellouts that other schools got. Since Alexander’s graduation, though, Port Arthur has consolidated its high schools to form one and move up a class.
“The town was kind of divided on Friday night,” Alexander said. “It just depends on where you’re at, but Texas high school football is depicted in a lot of genres like TV and movies. It’s similar to that. It definitely is where football is life on Friday nights.”
None of the Patriots with Texas ties really disputed the accuracy of the movies such as Friday Night Lights or Varsity Blues, although they did say they might have been exaggerated a little bit. Even so, the exaggerations were based off the rich lifestyles of high school celebrities.
“They’re pretty accurate, especially in the small, small towns [shown in] Varsity Blues and Friday Night Lights,” said former Patriots practice squad wide receiver Terrence Nunn, who now plays for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. “In the small towns, it’s a little bit bigger because it’s more packed, and everybody knows everybody and they really do shut down the town.”
“Obviously, I think movies are always a little bit over the top,” Thomas said. “But Friday Night Lights, I’ve seen that, and Varsity Blues, they’re not as far off as you’d think. They’re pretty close for some things, and other things, they’re probably a little bit over the top. It’s definitely something else down [in Texas].”
While high school memories tend to last a lifetime, Texas high school football players might take theirs up a level. Wheatley fondly recalled a 17-14 victory against Skyline (Dallas) High School in the first round of the state playoffs of his senior year, when his team won on a late field goal. Wheatley had a pair of interceptions and also lit it up at running back and wide receiver.
Patriots defensive end Ty Warren gave a broader, more sincere answer. When asked about his biggest game, Warren smiled wide, puffed out his chest and said, “I had a lot of them, man. I had a lot of them.”
Like any athlete, it’s almost as exciting to talk about the old war stories as it is to live through them. Even in the typically reserved Patriots locker room, the Texas natives would glow while dishing out anecdotes. After Myers finished informing Davis of the embarrassment Clear Creak would have endured had it been so unfortunate to play Bellaire, the tight end turned around and kept the stories flowing.
Then he stopped, mid-sentence, shook his head and smiled.
“Man,” Myers said, “high school was so much fun.”
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