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COLUMN ONE

In Texas, drought is a personal foul

A high school's typically lush, green football field is dry and dusty. The sport is a religion here, so that spells crisis.

October 04, 2011|Molly Hennessy-Fiske
  • Eddie Ray Roberts, superintendent of the water and waste department in Robert Lee, Texas, walks the dry bed of Lake E.V. Spence on his way to check a water pump. Each day he checks the pump, which feeds a reservoir.
Eddie Ray Roberts, superintendent of the water and waste department in… (Tony Gutierrez / Associated…)

ROBERT LEE, TEXAS — It is the day before homecoming, and there is trouble at the Robert Lee High School football field.

The field is dying.

The field that was once so lush, so emerald green, that the maintenance staff took calls from other schools begging to know its secret. Visitors sometimes assumed it was AstroTurf, then genuflected and found, to their surprise, real blades of springy Bermuda grass. Then came Texas' punishing drought. The parched field now has patches of yellow and brown while the rest struggles to stay green.

Robert Lee is not alone. All across Texas, in heat-battered towns where water towers hang like giant IVs, high schools are struggling with fields where grass has shriveled, dirt has hardened and artificial turf has become too hot to handle.

In a town this small -- population 1,050 -- everyone holds a memory of the field. It was where wide receiver Lupe Torres learned the meaning of dedication. Where quarterback Aaron Hood made his father, then superintendent, proud. And where defensive end Jimmy Skinner played on the team that won the Region I championship in 1984.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday, October 11, 2011 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 1 inches; 40 words Type of Material: Correction
Texas drought: An article in the Oct. 4 Section A about a drought killing high school football fields in Texas said the Bronte High School football team in West Texas lost its game Sept. 16. Bronte won, 10 to 7.

So people here are doing everything they can think of to save it. After all, this isn't just about a game. Here in West Texas, football is God, and the field is church.

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At the start of a recent school day, Coach Shay Avants, 35, strides past the orange and black "Robert Lee Steers" sign to survey the field. He glances up. Gray clouds have been roiling since dawn. All across town, named after the Confederate general, people are talking rain. Since the start of summer, they have received less than an inch.

Avants stops under a goal post and kicks the field. Dust rises. That's not uncommon in the red clay fields of Coke County, about 250 miles west of Dallas. Around here they quote an old saying about football -- "three yards and a cloud of dust" -- with the emphasis on dust. But it's not supposed to be this bad.

They have been watering twice a day. The record-breaking heat wave evaporated everything, even overnight. Nearby San Angelo recorded 97 days of triple-digit temperatures.

"We seeded," Avants says, "but the seed never came out."

The storm has cooled the temperature into the mid-70s, but it will rise to 100 by day's end. The coach looks up again and scowls. "We're not going to have a miracle overnight," he says. "I'm sure the opposing team ... I can't imagine what they'll think."

The opposing team is the Blackwell Hornets. The Steers once felt sorry for them because they trained on such a paltry little field. Last year, the Hornets got artificial turf, and with it, a sense of superiority.

But even schools with artificial turf, including Robert Lee's longtime rival, the Bronte Longhorns, have suffered. At Wylie High School near Dallas, where the temperature on its field reached 185 degrees this summer -- coaches snapped photos of thermometers to prove it -- crews started watering the fake turf to cool it down, and practices were held on a grass field instead.

In Robert Lee, problems with water go back years before the current drought. The level of a nearby lake dropped during the last decade, and with it the town and school population, with 100 fewer students. Seven years ago, the school rolls fell to about 275 students, down from five to two busloads, and the Steers were forced to go from 11-man to six-man football.

Avants crosses the field to where Lupe Torres is kneeling in the balding grass. Torres, 46, runs school maintenance, but specializes in keeping up the field.

He has tried aeration, he's tried fertilizer. Today he was supposed to paint an intricate diamond or checkerboard pattern in the end zone, "pro-style," to surprise the Steers. But the paint won't stick to dirt.

He's not even sure whether there's enough grass to emblazon the image of the school mascot at center field, a homecoming tradition.

Torres is embarrassed, depressed even. He feels for the seniors. They were supposed to write their names in paint on the grass. Now that's canceled. Robert Lee runs grades K through 12, so he has known these kids most of their lives.

Hood, the former quarterback who returned to Robert Lee a decade after he graduated to succeed his father as superintendent and athletic director, joins Torres and the coach at center field. All three sport Steers shirts, their hair cropped short. They look like a team huddling up.

Hood, 33, walks Torres over to a circle of green at midfield. On the edge of the sprinkler's range, the turf is starting to brown.

"We got to try to hit these stations again," he says, kicking the dirt. "Look at this -- it's nothing but powder."

Hood has a school budget of $3.5 million. When the town, like many across Texas, came under watering restriction in April, he started paying about $200 three times a week to truck in water. Each 6,300-gallon load is piped in through the sprinklers.

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