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In Texas, $60 Million Of 'Friday Night Lights'10:12
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Halftime at Allen High School's football games leaves a crowded field. (Karen Given/WBUR)
Halftime at Allen High School's football games leaves a crowded field. (Karen Given/WBUR)

In May of 2009, the citizens of Allen, Texas, voted to build a $60 million football stadium. The news made very few headlines until nearly a year later when the story spread on the Internet as another example of “Friday Night Lights” gone wrong.

But, the Allen parents — and there are a lot of parents in Allen — want you to know that the city did not pass a $60 million bond to build a new high school football stadium. The city of Allen, population 85,315, passed a $120 million bond to build a new high school football stadium, fine arts auditorium and career-tech center.

People in Allen say they want the best for their kids — not just for the kids who play football.

A few weeks ago, a small audience gathered on a balcony in Allen High School’s “grand hall” to watch the marching band lead the way to the Friday morning pep rally.

The hall was wide enough to fit four tuba players marching abreast, which was necessary because the Allen High School band has 16 tuba players. Near as anyone can figure, Allen has the largest high school marching band outside of Tokyo, Japan, with 550 members, plus the color guard and a dance squad called the Talonettes.

Anthony Gibson, the director of fine arts for Allen Independent School District, says he's looking forward to next fall when the school will finally have an indoor practice space big enough to fit the entire band. And while football is king in Texas, Gibson says, in Allen, the band comes in a very close second. Some might even call them partners.

Allen High School's band is so large it can barely fit on the field. Click to enlarge. (Karen Given, composite by Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Allen High School's band is so large it can barely fit on the field. Click to enlarge. (Karen Given, composite by Jesse Costa/WBUR)

“I think the neatest part is the kids have developed a very genuine respect for each other,” Gibson says. “Football players appreciate the band and the drill team appreciates the football players. So there’s a unity there that’s unique in Allen.”

At the pep rally, the captains of the football team really did seem to appreciate the band.

“Oh my God, it’s our last home game,” one of the football players told the crowd, “so we need y’all. We need the seniors. We need the juniors. And we most definitely need the band.”

It’s hard to imagine a whole lot of schoolwork gets done in the hour or so after a Friday morning pep rally, but across the street, a different kind of work went on. Construction teams dug deep into the ground at the future site of the 18,000-seat Allen High School Stadium.

From his second floor office, head football coach Tom Westerberg keeps daily tabs on the progress.

“This side of the building is all glass,” Westerberg says. “It’s fun to watch.”

Coach Westerberg has his own office, as do the offensive and defensive coordinators. There are desks for at least a dozen assistants who coach the nearly 1,200 kids who play football in grades 7-12.

The school sports a modern weight room, a film room, separate dressing rooms for football, soccer, baseball and track, and an indoor practice field that’s 55 yards long and nearly regulation width. Everything in Allen is a first-class facility. Except, of course, for the football stadium.

The 550 members of Allen's marching band can barely squeeze through its halls. (Karen Given/WBUR)
The 550 members of Allen's marching band can barely squeeze through its halls. (Karen Given/WBUR)

The Eagles currently play in a 7,000-seat stadium built in 1976. Another 7,000 temporary seats are brought in for football season. Thanks to families that hoard season tickets for decades and a fast growing population, Westerberg says the stadium doesn’t come close to accommodating everyone.

“We did a lottery this year,” Westerberg explains. “But before we did a lottery they were camping outside for a couple days to get maybe 200 tickets that were available.”

Steve Williams, the athletic director for Allen ISD, says people in Allen are more worried about where their seats will be in the new stadium than how to pay for it. And, he says, the $60 million facility will be used for a lot more than just football.

“We’re having a wrestling room in here, and our wrestling program’s really big in Allen, (we're) defending state championships in wrestling,” Williams said. “Our golf team was runner-up and our girls have won state championships twice. We have an indoor hitting area for the girl’s golf team and the boy’s golf team, so it’s a multi-purpose facility.”

As the town gathers for the last home game of the season, sisters Zena Bender and Deborah Del Reyes arrived early for good seats in the General Admission section.

Bender’s daughter is a flute player in the band, and Del Reyes is just a football fan, but neither think it was controversial for their town to spend $60 million on a new stadium.

“Anything for our kids,” Bender says. “We want them to have the best. Always.”

You must think that Allen is one of those rich towns, like Hollywood, where homes are worth millions and kids drive Bentleys. Allen is a white collar community where outlet malls are more common than housing projects. But Bender and Del Reyes are ordinary moms, who live in a city where the median income is $88,000 and the average home price is under $200,000.

Long ago, Allen decided to build just one high school, and that’s why it school serves nearly 4,000 students in grades 10-12.

“That way you don’t have that division,” Bender explains. “In Plano, they have Plano East and Plano West and it’s a great big rivalry. We want to be one, big family. I’ll pay the higher taxes for that, not a problem.”

Allen High School cheerleaders (Karen Given/WBUR)
Allen High School cheerleaders (Karen Given/WBUR)

This is Texas, where cheerleaders lead prayers on the field and the stands are filled with everyone from newborn babies to great-grandparents. This is the eighth time in the past 20 years the district has asked voters to approve a bond for capital projects for schools, and some Allen residents aren’t happy to be spending $60 million on a high school football stadium.

Rob Morton, the father of a Talonette, says he’s not worried about how much the stadium costs. He’s more worried that the new stadium won’t be big enough.

“There was a vote,” Morton says. “We all voted for it. There was no controversy whatsoever. It wasn’t a close vote, and so I think everyone needs to settle down about that. We’re gonna build it and we’ll sell it out.”

Allen ISD Superintendent Ken Helvey could barely takes his eyes off the field long enough to give an interview. With a perfect view from right under the press box, Helvey admitted that he didn’t have to stand in line or enter a lottery to get his seats.

“I did not,” Helvey says. “One of the great advantages of being the superintendent is that I get good seats, and in this stadium that’s pretty tough to get.”

Though Helvey focused on the field, it’s not all about the game, he said. Football is also a way to get more students involved with the school and, with a student body of thousands, that’s important.

“The more students you keep connected to things,” Helvey says, “the more positive they’re gonna feel, and the more they’re gonna be performing academically and feeling good about it.”

At halftime, the Talonettes, dressed as Lady Gaga, danced to Lady Gaga. The marching band didn’t do a lot of marching. With almost 600 members, they can’t do much more than line up on every 5-yard line and fill the entire field.

Allen didn’t always have thousands of fans packing the stands, but they didn’t always have thousands of students in their high school, either.

Bobby Curtis played football for Allen in the early 1960s, before Dallas had sprawled north. There were 18 students in his graduating class, and Allen's population was 650 people.

The team was good back then, but it’s better now. The Eagles went to the state semifinals in 2003 and 2006. They won the state championship in 2008, when 30,000 people drove four hours from Allen to Houston to cheer the Eagles on in Reliant Stadium. But, when Allen was a small farming community and not the home of shopping centers, everybody still came to the stadium to watch football.

“It’s a neat place," Curtis said. "Allen is a wonderful, neat place. We pretty well still filled the stands and supported the kids, even when they wasn’t winning.”

The Allen Eagles won their second consecutive District 8-5A championship on Nov. 5.

This program aired on November 13, 2010.

Karen Given Twitter Senior Producer, Only A Game
Karen is the senior producer for WBUR's Only A Game.

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