By Ryan S. Clark
At football games tonight across Southeast Texas, seniors playing in their last home game will be escorted onto the field by their parents to applause from appreciative fans.
Chester senior John Whitworth will be at one of those games applauding those seniors. At the same time, he’ll be left to wonder what his senior night, which should have been tonight, would have been like.
The 17-year-old is one of three seniors on the Chester football team who won’t have a senior night.
Their season was canceled Monday because the team could not field enough players.
“I don’t know what game I will be at, but I know I will be somewhere watching a game,” Whitworth said.
“When we found out we wouldn’t play the last two games of the season, it was devastating to know we won’t have a senior night.”
Chester coach Tracy Franklin, who also is the school’s athletic director and assistant principal, got a grim reminder this week of the difficulty his school faces to field a football team.
Chester, population 265, is a Class A school in northwest Tyler County. Of 58 high school students, 26 are boys.
Twenty of those boys play football and seven of them suffered season-ending injuries last Friday against High Island. Another player broke his foot a week earlier, which left the school with 12 players to play 11-man football.
While it’s mathematically possible to field a team, assuming the players play both offense and defense, that doesn’t leave much time for weary players to rest. Given the injury bug, and under those circumstances, there’s no guarantee they would even have enough players to finish a game.
Franklin said there will not be a ceremony to honor the football players, but they would be singled out on senior night for the school’s baseball and basketball teams.
Chester’s student population is small even when compared with other schools that play alongside it in District 23-A, which include Evadale and Sabine Pass.
The other schools in the district average almost 127 students per school. Chester only has 182 students in its entire school district. Still, Chester has found a way to be competitive, finishing 5-5 in 2008. By forfeiting its final two games this season, Chester finishes with a 3-6 record.
“It’s just hard to think about because I feel for all those kids,” Franklin said. “I think back to when I had a senior night when I was in high school and it’s just tough to know these boys won’t have one.”
In a high school that’s so small it uses one hallway and four classrooms, the students at Chester know each other well. They are so trusting of one another, they leave their lockers open with all their textbooks inside because they know no one is going to steal.
Senior football player Carl Davis is known as a jokester, and usually has a smile on his face. When the discussion turns to last Friday’s game against High Island, the smile vanishes.
Davis, 18, was on the field when he saw one of his teammates lying on the ground with his anklebone poking through the skin.
“I ran off the field and I said I wasn’t playing anymore,” Davis said. “That was on our first offensive drive of the game.”
By the time the game was over, four of his teammates had broken bones, two had concussions and one had dislocated his shoulder.
“When the second injury happened, I started crying on the field,” Davis recalled. “It was that bad.”
Senior quarterback Josh Bowen said when the game was over, the team sat silently on the two-hour bus ride from High Island to Chester.
Bowen said even though the injuries were not intentional, players from High Island came over to the Chester sidelines after the game and apologized.
Bowen said he started thinking Friday night about whether or not the season would go on. Monday, his worries were confirmed: The season was canceled.
Franklin said after speaking with Chester superintendent John Kent about the situation, the coach asked his players for their opinion.
“I know they did not want to cancel the season, but they knew it had to be done,” Franklin said. “I am proud of them for doing the right thing even though it was not easy.”
Chester is so small that a laundromat is attached to a gas station and if people need to buy groceries they have to drive 15 miles down the road to Woodville. Because of the small student population, there is no band to entertain fans at halftime at Yellow Jacket stadium, which consists of five concrete rows of steps on one side of the field.
Kent said Chester can boast that 90 percent of its students play sports and many of them play more than one.
“You look at how small our school is and we had a junior varsity baseball team playing in late April,” he said. “I don’t know if there are some2A schools that can do what we do.”
But there are obvious advantages those schools have on Chester. Franklin said he averaged 12 players at football practice throughout the season because many of his players had to work to help support their families or watch their younger siblings.
Franklin said that trend will continue after the seniors graduate. Only one or two students will attend college.
“About three-fourths of our kids live with their grandparents or live in a single-parent home,” Franklin said. “So we do what we can to help those kids out.”
Communities and towns the size of Chester throughout the state play six-man football.
Kent said nobody in the community has approached him about making Chester a six-man football school.
Yet with next year’s freshman class only having 13 students and no guarantee everyone will return, Franklin said there is a chance next year’s team could only field 14 players.
But Whitworth says as long as Franklin’s around, Chester will continue to be the little school that can do something big.
“Before he got here, we had to beg people to play sports,” Whitworth said. “It was hard because as a freshman I was playing varsity and I was getting beat up every week. But when he came here, he made it fun for us and I think that’s what made a lot of kids want to play. Without him, I don’t know where we’d be.”
Sports | Oct. 30, 2009 | Page 1A,4A