In Texas, football might seem to be a constant, like hot weather or the presence of ageless oaks. But in the state’s largest city, football has been more like the Texas cowboy—once a dominant feature of the landscape, then a vanishing presence.
The Houston Oilers pulled out of town and an entire city yawned. The UH Cougars plunged from powerhouse to punching bag. The Rice Owls drifted toward gridiron irrelevance. Even pee-wee leagues disappeared or diminished, particularly in neighborhoods with aging residents or international populations who prefer soccer to football.
If Houston is about anything, it’s about change. As we started a new century with light rail and electric cars, someone turned back the clock on football. The NFL returned. Rice has hired a new coach and will soon have a newly renovated stadium. The 2006 Cougars are hoping to display more roar and less meow.
While the big boys struggle to recapture the old magic, the kids in the oversized helmets and pads are back, and they’ve got it going on. The Spring Branch Memorial Sports Association, which serves both Memorial and Tanglewood, has three-times the kids enrolled to play football this season than it did some-10 years ago.
The youngest players are a tender five years old and probably look more like bobble-head dolls than fierce warriors. The oldest are 12, straddling that doorway between childhood and teenaged life. For the past six years, the SBMSA’s volunteer league director has been Murphy Graham, who played in the very same league back in the ‘60s.
As a boy Murphy played under the watchful eye of his father, Bill Graham, who coached SBMSA teams for 18 seasons. Bill’s mission was to teach boys life lessons as well as the finer points of football. “He taught us that it’s not about winning and losing. It’s about giving your all for your teammates and for yourself,” said Lee Vaughn, who played under Coach Bill and alongside a young Murphy. Today he is an assistant coach at Memorial High School. “Mr. Graham is a big reason I went into coaching. He made the game so much fun for all of us.” Lee also has vivid memories of teammate Murphy. “He played harder than anyone I ever played with.”
Together, Murphy and Bill Graham are like a bridge, spanning generations of football families in Memorial and Tanglewood. Both men started volunteering so they could coach their boys, and both caught the fever and stayed with the job after their boys moved on.
“I am still involved because I see it as a holy mission,” Murphy said with a serious expression. Because he was a lineman who did play some college ball, it might be a mistake to laugh at such a man when he is saying such a thing. “I truly believe football is the best thing a boy can do. Life is hard, and you have to learn to overcome adversity.”
Lots of guys can talk tough. But those who know Murphy tell a story that shows he isn’t bluffing. It involves a freak accident while he was jumping a chain-link fence. A school ring snagged on a metal loop and snapped off the right ring finger. “One day Murphy called me and said he would miss his banjo lesson that day. He said he’d lost his finger at a football game the day before,” recalled Tony Ullrich, a banjo teacher at Memorial Music who has instructed Murphy for the past eight years. “When I asked him if he would ever be able to play again he answered, ‘Oh, I’ll be there next week.’ And he was.”
While serious injuries to football players 12 and younger are rare, Murphy said, learning to conquer fear and apprehension is a core part of the experience. At age 10, Will Bredthauer of Memorial is already starting his sixth year in the league. He can’t recall ever getting hurt, but he can easily remember his favorite part of the game: “The hitting!”
Will is one of three brothers who have played in the SBMSA. The oldest—16-year-old Ben and 12-year-old Max—played under Coach Murphy. “Basically the Grahams have made the association what it is today,” said Jennie Bredthauer, mother to Will, Max, and Ben. “Murphy has no kids of his own in this league anymore, but he still does it for the love of football.”
Seeing boys grow into men of character and courage keeps him volunteering year after year. “This is very fulfilling,” Murphy said. “Dad still has grown men who call him and say what a difference he made in their lives.”
“It is a fantastic experience,” Bill Graham admits. “When the players know you love them, it makes all the difference.”
Editor’s Note: For more information about the Spring Branch-Memorial Sports Association, call 281-583-3600 or visit www.sbmsa.org.