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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group


The Making of a Football Coach - Lincoln Riley's Rise from West Texas to the University of Oklahoma

Brandon Sneed

Henry Holt and Co.




Once upon a time, Lincoln Riley was a quarterback, and he was good.

He grew up in Muleshoe, a tiny West Texas town in Bailey County about three hours north of Odessa. Population: five thousand. You can find it about an hour north of Lubbock in the middle of nowhere, tucked in a region of West Texas known as the South Plains. The town started after a Civil War veteran and aspiring rancher named Henry Black laid claim to some forty thousand acres out here in 1877. While settling the land he came upon a muleshoe on the ground, and thus Muleshoe Ranch was named.

The land was beautiful. Will Rogers passed through here in his youth, before he became a famous actor, writer, and cowboy. He was a simple ranch hand, eighteen years old, driving cattle through West Texas. The beauty of Muleshoe’s land moved him deeply enough to write about it thirty years later. “That plains was the prettiest country I ever saw in my life,” he wrote. “As flat as a beauty contest winner’s stomach, and prairie lakes scattered all over it. And mirages! You could see anything in the world—just ahead of you.”

A couple decades after Henry Black built his ranch, the town formed around a railroad station built nearby. By the 1970s, it was booming. Some two hundred small businesses called Muleshoe home. There were also two hospitals, two banks, a library, a newspaper, and a radio station. Main Street was full of life.

In the 1980s, however, everything that had made Texas prosper fell apart. Oil rigs once worth $13 million were going for $150,000. And Muleshoe was not immune. By the turn of the twenty-first century, Main Street’s buildings were mostly abandoned and had been for years. The area was quiet. Dull. To an outsider, the town simply wasn’t much to speak of. There were a couple of parks and “Lake Muleshoe,” a small pond dug out beside a park behind the local nursing home. That was about it. There wasn’t even a Walmart.

But the spirit of the place remained.

Muleshoe Ranch itself still stands. A fifth generation of the area’s descendants run the place. There’s a statue in the center of town of a mule named Old Pete, a testament to the townsfolk’s work ethic. The economy is evolving, too. Oil rigs are still out there, but so are windmills, rising from the plains and whirling like gleaming white pinwheels, their wings larger than tractor trailers and sounding like jet engines.

The people who call Muleshoe home are warm and friendly and eager to make you feel good about yourself. “It’s great people,” Lincoln says. “Very strong sense of community. And I don’t think I’m much different from a lot of people from that part of the country . . . Taught the values of treating people the right way, and think of others as far more important than yourself. And so I was raised that way, both by my parents, and by my whole community.”

When Lincoln was growing up, the boys on the Muleshoe High football team talked a lot about how much butt they were kicking on the football field, even though they were actually terrible at football. Seems the boys put more effort into their partying than anything else: Bailey County was a dry county, so some kids bootlegged booze from Clovis, New Mexico, a bigger town about thirty miles west. (Others just took it from their parents.) Their parties got famously out of control. There were fights. There were girls dancing on tables in various states of undress, and there were drunken adolescent boys cheering them on. And that’s just what people heard about.

But that was the culture here. The people who made America into the United States were different, unlike anyone else walking the planet, full of piss and vinegar and fire in their guts that burst forth from their minds like a million miniature big bangs. And then there were the men who made Texas. They came here and took the land and claimed it as their own, and the animals that roamed the land, the cattle and the buffalo and the horses. They killed the people who already lived here. They were savage. They had unique spirit to them, spirit that seemed born of fire, and that spirit still lingers around West Texas to this day. There’s less savagery—we’ve at least evolved beyond that—but wild cowboys’ ghosts still seem to stir people up in small towns called Nazareth, Sudan, Eden, Earth. And Muleshoe.

More immediately, it could also be the open prairies that surround the town as far as the eye can see. They might as well be an ocean. Could be how the highways to bigger cities many miles away are surrounded by an awesome nothingness. Could be the way the sky feels bigger here, somehow, and the cinematic way it burns beautifully every night and then gives way to a display of stars that will engulf you if you look long enough. Some here call the sky their “true spirituality.”

Life in Muleshoe can feel like life on an island. Liberating, unless you feel marooned. A place the mind can rest, but only for so long, and then it begins to race, feeling starved. When there is little to be found to satiate that hunger, the natural next step is to find an escape. There were two primary means of escape for the children of Muleshoe: partying, and delusion. It’s hard not to feel for them. For adults settled there who call it home, Muleshoe can feel okay, but it’s hard to imagine being a teenager bursting with all the energy of adolescence and surrounded by a great desert sea.

Making matters both worse and better, the Muleshoe football team was bad, but beloved. Sports were the center of Muleshoe’s social universe. Muleshoe High hosted pregame meals where people could pay to eat with the team. And Muleshoe was one of those towns that largely shut down for every game. Everyone was in the stands at humble Benny Douglas Stadium, a grand name for a simple small-town high school football field tucked in a small valley behind the school, in the middle of town. Bleachers sat on each side of the field at the 50-yard line, a simple scoreboard beyond the east end zone. Imagine a lower-stakes version of Odessa from Friday Night Lightsem>, only with no expectation of success. Muleshoe coaches lasted two years on average. Talented players kept leaving town for better football schools on other rural islands out in the desert. Nobody knew what to do and nobody expected anything to get better. Small wonder the kids made partying their favorite sport. It was the only thing they could truly master. Nobody believed things could get better because nobody could see how.

Then, in 1996, everything began to change.

Lincoln was in seventh grade that year, just turned thirteen. He had that West Texas fire in his spirit, and a dangerous competitive streak that would get him in trouble more than once as he grew older. But he wasn’t a party animal. “I’m an old soul,” he says. “And that kind of thing just never really tugged at me.”

He was the son of Mike and Marilyn Riley, Muleshoe natives who’d ventured out of town for college at the University of Texas seven hours south in Austin, then promptly returned home. She was an interior designer and he was a businessman. The Rileys went to church regularly, and they raised their boys on discipline and kindness. “My folks are two very hardworking people,” Lincoln says. “They gave me room to grow, but they were also very strict in a lot of ways. They really stressed just kinda basic core values of, I can make a mistake, but if I lied about it, that was way worse. You know, being humble, treating other people right—they were big on that. And they were great examples, too, because they lived their lives that way, and still do. So they were no-nonsense with academics, and they pushed me, but they raised me the right way.”

Mike Riley seems a self-motivated man with an independent streak. He ran his own business, Central Compress, warehousing cotton in Sudan, about fifteen miles south of Muleshoe. The South Plains grows a lot of cotton, and Mike helped sell it for those who grew it. Farmers would harvest their cotton and send it to cotton gins to be pressed and baled, and then Mike would store those bales in his warehouses and ship out orders to merchants. It’s a simple business but not always an easy one, especially as an independent outfit competing with the farmers’ co-ops that fill the area. The goal of those who run co-op compresses is generally to maximize volume. The goal of an independent compress like Mike’s is generally to maximize income. To do so, he maximized his outfit’s efficiency and profit margins, such as by building warehouses using many wooden beams instead of all steel. He also packed his bales in such a way that they were not always easy to get to, maximizing the usable space in every warehouse, so sometimes forklifts ran into the beams while loading and unloading cotton, and the beams cracked or broke. But wooden beams cost much less, and if they got damaged or broken they could just be repaired or replaced. This sometimes meant more work, but it was also more efficient and cost-effective, so it was worthwhile. A water tower rose from the grounds there, the name Central Compress stenciled in huge letters on its side.

Lincoln grew up working with his father, hauling some of the five-hundred-pound plastic-wrapped bales of cotton, and driving forklifts and trucks around the place by the time he was thirteen years old. The warehouses, with their metal siding and utter lack of insulation, get hot as a sauna during the summers and cold as a freezer in the winters.

The Rileys weren’t especially wealthy, but they did well enough to live in a neighborhood called Richland Hills, which locals nicknamed Rich Man Hills.

They had a home on the corner of West Twentieth Street and West Avenue F, just down the road from a field full of white caliche rocks and mule deer and occasional rattlesnakes. Sometimes Lincoln and his friends played there. By the time he was eleven years old, playing football with friends in backyards and rocky fields, he just saw the game differently from the other kids. The plays he drew up weren’t standard backyard football plays. His friend Jeff King remembered, “They were as complex as you could be at eleven years old . . . Running backs crossing paths in the backfield, and a toss over a ducking running back to the back guy, who caught the ball. It was all an illusion.”

Lincoln’s father and grandfather had both been quarterbacks before him. Claude Riley, Mike’s father, was the quarterback for Muleshoe in 1938. The Mules had gone undefeated and won the state championship. Mike’s teams fared less well. “We weren’t any good,” he likes to tell people, matter-of-factly. He quit his senior year. “Didn’t see eye to eye with the coach.”

Still, Mike stayed involved in the school’s athletic programs, especially as Lincoln and his brother Garrett—younger by six years—got more involved in sports. Mike served on the school board and was part of the booster club that painted a big mule at midfield every Wednesday night during football season. Thursdays were for middle school and junior varsity, Friday nights and their lights for the varsity.

That’s what tugged at Lincoln. Football. He played baseball briefly as a kid, and he played basketball and ran track as he got older, but football was the game he loved. From an early age he had a natural feel for being unnaturally good at the game.

Muleshoe’s coaches noticed Lincoln early on. “He was that kid,” says Ralph Mason, the coach of the junior high school team. “When he came in and started to play, even in seventh grade, you looked at him, and said, ‘Hey, there’s our leader right there. That’s the guy we want to lead this group of kids.’ And he had that, combined with good athleticism. But I think probably his greatest attribute was his leadership and his drive, more so than maybe his skills, at that point . . . It’s just one of those things that some people have and some people don’t.”

On a Sunday morning when Lincoln was in junior high, as he sat in a Sunday school class at church, his teacher taught a lesson about how Christians should encourage people the same as Jesus had. Looking at Lincoln, she asked, “How would you feel if there was no pep rally before the football game? Or if the band didn’t show up? Or if the student body didn’t come? Or there were no cheerleaders?”

“That would be okay,” Lincoln replied. “I just love football.”

He loved the way plays unfolded. “Football just made sense to me,” he says. “Just the Xs and Os of why you do things.”

He loved working hard to get better. Mason remembers helping Lincoln throw a tighter spiral in seventh grade. “He was determined—that was gonna get taken care of,” Mason says. “And in the meantime, he was just gonna work at it, where a lot of kids give up and go to something else.”

And Lincoln loved the fire and intensity that were as much a part of the game as anything else, especially in West Texas. When he was in ninth grade, Muleshoe High’s freshman team was coached by a man who was, in the words of varsity coach David Wood, “just crazy.” “Not crazy like loopy crazy,” Wood says. “He just . . . he would head-butt kids who had helmets on.”

At the first practice, Lincoln and his teammates were in the locker room, dressed and ready to go, when the crazy coach came in, turned off the lights, and started yelling. He yelled about passion and toughness. He yelled about how much passion and toughness you really need to be great in this game and to be great in life. And at some point in all the yelling, the coach squared up to Lincoln, who already had his helmet on, and head-butted him. The blow split open the coach’s forehead and made him bleed. All through practice, blood streaked his face and stained his thick mustache.

In some ways, now, that feels like the vestige of another time, the coach who strives to inspire his players by splitting open his own forehead by head-butting one of them in the helmet. It is a type of violence that feels addictive and primal, as much psychological as it is physical. It’s a coach, a grown man, a leader, head-butting you, a child, to the point of drawing his own blood. Horrifying, yes, but to some, also thrilling for the rush that such violence provides.

“He just scared us all to death,” Lincoln recalled.

He still remembers the crazy coach’s thundering voice, his mustache turning red.

And, he said, “It was awesome.”

By his sophomore year, Lincoln had not only made Muleshoe High’s varsity team, he was competing for the starting quarterback spot. He threw like a pro, with textbook form, over the top, passes leaving his fingers in tight, beautiful spirals.

Still, none of that would have mattered much without the right coach, especially the way Muleshoe High’s football teams had been for so long. Lucky for Lincoln, a few years earlier Muleshoe had hired David Wood, who was just right for him. To understand Coach Wood is to understand the effect he had on Lincoln as both a player and a person through high school. He wasn’t just a good coach, although he was that, too—Lincoln watched him change everything about Muleshoe High’s culture. Watching this man, Lincoln saw what it meant to have a unique vision and then work hard and be dedicated to seeing it through to the end.

In 1999, Lincoln’s sophomore season, Wood was thirty-three years old. He was tall, thick-chested, and broad-shouldered, and he had endured many tribulations through his early years in Muleshoe. The high school had hired him in 1996 to be its new athletic director and football coach, and he’d ridden into the place like a new sheriff ready to clean up the town. Especially the football team.

The job was a risk. Muleshoe was the worst 3A high school football program in the state of Texas. They’d won zero games in 1995 and they were expected to win zero games in 1996. But Wood had wanted a head coaching job for a long time, this was the best opportunity he could find, and he had a plan: “I’m not here to win games,” he said. “I’m here to change lives. The wins and losses will take care of themselves.”

It was a big task. Wood’s father was supportive when they discussed the job—Nowhere to go but up, they’d agreed—but secretly, Jim Wood worried the job would be a dead end for his son. And even he didn’t know the full picture.

After Wood was hired, Muleshoe High superintendent Bill Moore took him for a drive. They parked at the Sonic in the middle of town and Moore pointed to an empty lot across the street. Some two dozen teenagers were gathered there, congregating around pickup trucks and drinking right out in the open, in the middle of the day.

“Man,” Wood said, “those guys—I guess they don’t want to be part of any program. I’d sure like to have them.”

Moore replied, “No—they are the program. Those are your athletes. That’s why we hired you.”

Wood had twenty-two players, total, on his football team that first season. Most of them were “renegades,” he says. “Just outlaws.”

Muleshoe reminded Wood of his adopted hometown of Quanah, another rural island about three hours east. “Quanah was very much the same way as when I took over Muleshoe,” he says. Wood himself, like Lincoln, had never been big on partying. “I don’t know why I wasn’t, but I was never an outlaw,” he says. He never drank in high school. He was a sophomore in college when he drank his first beer. “I saw it a lot,” he says, “but I just didn’t understand. Why are you doing that? We’re playing football.”

His senior year, he was Quanah’s starting quarterback, and his father was the coach. Jim Wood had been an All-American defensive end for Oklahoma State in the 1950s and got into coaching not long after that. Spent a few years as the head coach for New Mexico State, then a few more years coaching the Calgary Stampeders in the Canadian Football League when David was a kid. He moved to Texas for David’s freshman year so that he could become a scout for the New York Giants. Soon after that he decided to become a high school football coach.

“He was a big disciplinarian,” David says.

Jim’s discipline boiled down to a simple rule: Don’t do stuff that’s gonna hurt you.

At Muleshoe, David Wood laid down the law: no facial hair and no cussing, for starters. “But that wasn’t under the big rules,” Wood says.

Here were the big rules: no smoking, no drinking, no breaking the law, no associating with those who do, no getting suspended from school.

No doing stuff that’s gonna hurt you.

And while he was at it, he put a stop to all the bragging his players liked to do. They’d talk and talk about good plays they’d made as if those plays had won them the Super Bowl, like prospectors celebrating fool’s gold. Talk is cheap, Wood would tell them. You guys don’t really know how to win. You know how to talk the game. The way you talk, you feel like you won a state championship every year. But the way you work is not even close to it. And you gotta do the walk before you can do the talk.

Wood enforced his rules with diligence. There was a grill across from Muleshoe High School where kids would hang out during lunch so that they could smoke inside. Wood regularly visited during lunch hour. The owner protested to Wood, angry, saying that he had to quit coming in like that because it was hurting business. (Wood declined.)

Those who broke the rules faced severe consequences. Culprits ran ten laps—two and a half miles—every day, followed by four sets of “hard yards,” four-hundred-yard sprints, crawls, and other exercises up and down the football field. Most, at some point, threw up. They did this at every practice until they were back in good standing, which could be achieved upon service of their ultimate consequence: suspension.

The suspensions shocked everyone. Coaches didn’t suspend players in high school for things like partying. Wood knew this as well as anyone. Before Muleshoe, he’d been an assistant coach at various West Texas high schools for eleven years, most recently at 5A Canyon Randall High an hour and a half northeast, near Amarillo. He says, “A lot of coaches come in and say, ‘Don’t get caught. Don’t do it, or, if you do do it, don’t get caught.’ Or, they’d get caught, and nothing was done to them.”

Even if coaches did give out discipline, it never seemed to accomplish much. They’d make players run and that sort of thing, “But it didn’t really make a difference in the kid,” Wood says. “It didn’t make an impression on them. They would run a hundred laps if they could still play the game, and they still got away with it in their minds.”

Wood felt the kids weren’t learning anything. “We were successful,” Wood says, “but I didn’t see a change in their lives, really, some of those kids. And I wanted to make a change in their lives . . . I don’t want to teach them a lesson after the fact. Let’s teach them the lesson right now. Don’t make mistakes twice.”

Wood saw the same challenge faced by all young men, especially those playing football. Don’t do stuff that’s gonna hurt you. This was easier said than done. Too often they don’t know something hurts them until they feel it hurt them. The trick was to learn without hurting too much first.

So when Wood came to Muleshoe, he taught them the best way he knew how: “Take something away from kids that meant something.” He wanted to teach them the difference between pain that wounds and pain that heals. “Let’s make the mistake one time,” Wood says. “And they’ll learn from an early age. Then they won’t get in trouble after they get out of school.”

He started with the quarterback. The kid kept going out drinking, Wood kept finding out, so the kid was suspended two full weeks to start the season.

“The quarterback, the very first year I got there, missed the first two games of the season,” Wood says. “Plus, he ran twenty laps for twenty days straight during the summer just to be on the team. Then he was going to miss the first two games.”

Wood didn’t stop there. That first year, he felt as if he was suspending someone new nearly every day. “Every football game except for one, the first year I was there, I had suspensions, because of some stupid thing like drinking or something.”

People were enraged. His players started calling him Dad. It was not a compliment.

“They really didn’t know how to take me,” he says.

Wood walked out his front door many mornings to find beer bottles thrown into his yard and for sale signs others had staked into the grass during the night. Some parents tried to get him fired.

So he doubled down—but not how you might think. He didn’t up the ante with the psychological violence embraced by most football men of the time. He didn’t treat his players like some kind of gang to be broken, like an enemy to be defeated. He didn’t meet their rage with more of his own, so as to outrage them into submission.

Make no mistake, he maintained their discipline: laps were run, hard yards done, guts puked up, suspensions sure as hell served.

But Wood walked his talk. He gave them what he wanted them to have. He was calm. He was not the crazy freshman coach, commanding respect through dramatic physical and emotional violence. Rather, he led with a calm and powerful strength. He reminded his players what they were capable of. He didn’t demand results but sought to inspire them. He saw their needs and he met them. He saw how the fire of their spirit was turning inward and burning them alive, and he worked to help them use it the proper way, because used the proper way, fire in the spirit makes someone great. He led by example. He didn’t allow his assistant coaches to talk to referees. He wanted them to feel grace under pressure and so grace under pressure he gave them first. He saw their pain and found answers for it.

He loved them.

And the Mules went 1–9 that first year instead of 0–10 as predicted.

His second season, they went 5–5.

His third season: 10–2, and they won their first playoff game since 1983.

The insult—“Dad”—began to feel more like a term of endearment.

Suddenly Muleshoe football’s future actually looked bright.

Lincoln made the varsity team Wood’s fourth year there, when he was a sophomore. Wood saw that Lincoln had some fire in him, too, but he also knew how to use it. Lincoln was already good enough to compete for the starting spot, and Wood felt that he could be a player who changes everything. “Lincoln helped me get established and stay here,” Wood once told a reporter. “As long as I could have kids like Lincoln, I knew I could compete.”

And Lincoln Riley felt the same way about Coach Wood. As long as he had a coach like him, he could compete. Wood’s ideas about discipline and love were changing the culture of the team, but they weren’t the only reason the team was becoming successful. “[Muleshoe High] at the time was pretty innovative and wide open,” Lincoln says. “And now by today’s standards it probably wouldn’t be, but at that time . . . [we] did a lot of different things offensively that kinda piqued my interest.”

This was as important for Lincoln as anything Wood was doing off the field. Lincoln needed a smart coach. Although he downplayed this, Lincoln’s hungry, racing mind made him brilliant. In middle school, his teachers had signed him up for a math competition, the Number Sense Contest, that was sponsored by the University Interscholastic League and was one of the oldest, biggest academic contests in all of Texas. Lincoln held no particular passion for that sort of competition, but he went anyway. “He went and won the thing,” his friend Kyle Atwood said. “He didn’t have any desire to do that.”

In high school, Lincoln baffled and amazed his teachers—he would take no notes and do little homework, and yet ace all of his tests. To ensure he wasn’t cheating, some teachers made him take tests right in front of them. Debbie Conner, Lincoln’s high school math teacher and a longtime family friend, remembers Lincoln suggesting new ways to do formulas as she taught them, as though he were rewriting them in his head.

“School was not his primary motivation,” his mother, Marilyn Riley, said. “But he had a really good memory, was really good at math, and he was very competitive. He wanted to win in the classroom like he won on the field.”

Lincoln had a flair for the dramatic, too. Alice Liles, his English teacher, still remembers an essay he wrote about the novel The Education of Little Tree. “One of the phrases that the little boy, the main character, would use in the story, is that Grandpa would say so-and-so, and he’d say, ‘which is right,’ ” Liles says. “And at the right place, it made the point. And Lincoln answered the question, and he identified the literary points he was supposed to talk about, and made some last comment—and then he said, ‘which is right.’ And it just—it flowed.”

Wood says, “He wasn’t one of these scholars who stayed home studying. He didn’t have to. He read it one time and he had it. He learned it. He wasn’t a bookworm or anything like that. He just didn’t have to be.”

Girls liked him, too. He was handsome, with his brown hair and bright blue eyes. “All the girls always wanted to date the Riley boys,” Liles says.

Wood fully expected Lincoln to grow up to become a NASA engineer, a bona fide rocket scientist, or something equally impressive-sounding. “He was a computer on legs,” he said.

Ralph Mason, who in addition to being the junior high school coach was also the varsity’s offensive coordinator, taught high school biology classes. “He could’ve been anything he wanted to be,” Mason says. “A doctor, lawyer, anything he wanted to be.”

Alice Liles says, “He could cure cancer if he tried.”

Debbie Conner said the same thing nearly verbatim.

Lincoln’s take on all this? He chuckles, as though bashful, and says, “Exaggeratin’ a little bit.”

Exaggerated or not, Lincoln clearly had a gift for learning, and he loved football deeply, in a way that might be its own kind of gift. Football grabbed his mind and his heart like nothing else. “For some reason, I couldn’t remember basketball plays in high school,” he says. “I just struggled with them. It’s weird, because there’s only ten guys on the court. I knew them, but I didn’t—I would really have to kinda really focus on them. Where the football stuff just didn’t seem that hard.”

It took Lincoln no more time to learn Wood’s playbook than it had taken him to learn how to throw a better spiral. Wood ran a traditional Wing-T offense, and focused on running the ball, as everyone did at the time, but he would get creative. He liked trick plays, such as having the quarterback pitch to the running back who would, in turn, throw downfield. Wood also used a variety of option plays, which Lincoln ran particularly well. On long downs, Wood sometimes called a stunt play called “circus,” in which, under center, Lincoln yelled “shift,” the tailback went to the line of scrimmage as a receiver, and Lincoln was left alone in the backfield with an array of receivers to throw to.

“You only had to tell him one time, or he only had to see it one time in practice,” Wood says. “And he knew what everyone else was supposed to do . . . Watching film, he didn’t have to go over and over it. He’d see a defense as we were watching film—not only did he see it, he could see where they were going on the snap, whether it was a disguised secondary coverage, and he sees it one time, how they roll—oh, it looks like a Cover 4, the strong safety moves down, the other safety moves over, and the corner’s back. It’s a Cover 3. And he says, ‘Oh, that’s gonna be a Cover 3.’ Next time down, that’s a Cover 3, and sure enough, he rolled up, and boom. He’s just smart.”

It wasn’t just that Lincoln understood such things that impressed Wood, but the quickness with which he did. “We could teach that to other quarterbacks,” Wood says, “but it would take them all week long, and then they’re wasting time not learning their progressions, or not learning the new plays you put on that week, or whatever.”

And Lincoln knew how to improvise along the way, too. “He’d come off on the sideline after a series,” Wood says, “and say, Hey, they’re really bringing that outside linebacker a lot, we could do something here. And he was just one of those kind of guys—a coach out on the field.”

At the quarterback position, Lincoln was competing with a senior and a junior, one of whom would most likely get the starting job, but Wood could not rule him out entirely—not only was Lincoln mentally sharp, but he was physically impressive as well. Lincoln was already tall, standing some six feet tall. He could throw. He was athletic, having also played basketball and run track. And he was the type of player Wood needed, someone the coach didn’t have to worry about getting caught up with the outlaws in town. Lincoln didn’t go to the grill during lunch hour to smoke. He’d hang out at Sonic. He was a regular at church, and though he was no zealot, Lincoln also wasn’t afraid to lead the occasional team prayer. In the locker room, he was a fun teammate—even if some of the fun they had was a bit strange. “Lincoln and his buddies took the longest showers after practices and games in the history of mankind,” Ralph Mason recalls. “The water bill at Muleshoe probably went through the roof during the time they were there.”

Mason says they’d spend a half hour in the shower. “I’d go in there and say, Guys, I gotta go home,” he says. “And they’d just laugh and keep talking. That’s where a lot of their conversations occurred, was in the showers. It sounds kinda weird. But they weren’t doing anything kinky or anything. But I swear it was the longest showers I ever seen.”

“They’d stay in there until the water ran cold,” Wood says. “They’d run the hot water out.”

And they would get into “shower racing,” too: “They would get on the floor, and slide around that shower, and race each other,” Mason says.

“They’d lather up,” Wood says. “And they’d scoot along, they’d push their feet against the wall, on their rears, and shoot across to the other side. They got soap all over their body. Scoot back.”

Mason adds, “It was the craziest thing I ever saw.”

And on the field, Lincoln was a natural leader. Even by seventh grade, Lincoln had stood out. “He was that figure that everybody was attracted to,” Mason says. “Every one of them looked to him for the answers, whatever it may be. Lincoln was that guy. That’s what a good leader is. That’s what a good quarterback needs to be: somebody to trust in.”

By his sophomore year, it seemed all of Muleshoe was convinced Lincoln would one day be great. “Every small town’s got its heroes,” Wood says. “And he was one of ours.”

Lincoln’s future was bright on the field in Muleshoe’s Benny Douglas Stadium. On that field, under the big West Texas sky, Lincoln could see the whole world coming into view ahead of him. He saw himself becoming Muleshoe’s starting quarterback and leading them to glory. He saw himself going on to play in college—maybe at the University of Texas, his parents’ alma mater and his favorite team. He saw himself winning big games, and playing in the Rose Bowl, one of college football’s largest and most impressive stadiums, a dreamlike arena. Maybe he’d even go on to win a national championship. And after that, he would go pro. He would be drafted by an NFL team, and he would keep playing, and he would keep winning, and one day he’d win the Super Bowl. He could see it. He could see his life taking shape ahead of him. Every day out there in that unrelenting Texas summer heat, the anticipation of the Friday night lights, and all that lay beyond them, appeased his starving mind.

But then, as summer gave way to fall and practice led toward the season, as Lincoln had a real opportunity to outperform his competition to win the starting job, he screwed up. He got too hungry. He did something that hurt him.

“It wasn’t smart,” he says. “But I was pissed.”

Copyright © 2020 by Brandon Sneed