By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Keegan Hamilton and Francisco Alvarado
By Jake Rossen
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Chris Joseph
By Michael E. Miller
They stare at the untied ties hanging around their necks. In the humid weight room at Cypress Bay High School in Weston, several players from the varsity football team are confounded by the unfamiliar swatches of silk in their hands. Despite going to school in the affluent suburb, many of these young men have never worn — much less actually tied — a tie before.
A few players mill around, repeating to one another what Coach Mark Guandolo has preached every day in practice. "This is a business trip," coach says. "We're going there to do a job."
This is no ordinary game, though. In two days, the team will play in front of a national television audience on ESPN. Cypress Bay — ranked in the top five of Florida football teams — will fly to Houston to play the Texas state champions. Private schools have traveled out of state, but no Broward County public school team has ever made a trip like this.
It's Thursday, just two days before the October 4 game. Getting ready for the trip, the players speak in the same sports clichés as the college stars and professionals they watch every weekend on television. "We expect to go out there and give it everything we've got and leave it all out on the field," linebacker Austin Gamble says.
"This isn't a vacation," says Eddie Cabrera, a defensive back. "We're focused and disciplined and prepared for a great game."
"I expect it to be a battle," senior running back Vincent Mantuo says.
"We're blessed to be in the position we're in and to get to do the things we do," quarterback Zach Green adds.
As they speak, some fidget with their dress shirt collars. A few sophomores try to decide whether the fat end loops around the thin end. At one point, a defensive back turns to a photographer and asks, "Sir, do you know how to tie a tie?"
For the players, the game in Texas is an opportunity to impress college scouts in a big game, maybe even get a highlight on SportsCenter. For the school, however, it means national notoriety and money. Playing on national TV could attract better players to transfer to Cypress Bay, and better players means possibly adding new sponsors, which already include Rolex and Outback Steakhouse.
The team files out of the weight room, leaving one player alone with his thoughts. Sitting quietly on a weight bench in the middle of the room, Leslie Tripp adjusts his gold shirt and black tie. He examines the black wristband above his left hand with the word Mom stitched into it.
Ordinarily, Tripp, a senior and starting center for the Lightning, has a voice that carries down the hallways and a coy grin that can keep him out of trouble. But that Tuesday, two days before he was supposed to fly to Texas for the game, Tripp came home from practice to find an ambulance in front of his house.
"I knew from the way the paramedics weren't, like, rushing around that it was either really, really bad or not bad at all," he says. "My stepdad didn't even want me to come into the house."
Tripp's mother died of a heart attack that night.
The next day, Coach Guandolo held a chapel service for the team at the church across the street from the school.
Tripp says he decided to play. "These guys are my best friends. A lot of them were at the hospital with me the night it happened. Being around them is how I'm dealing with this. I can focus on football and the hard work we've put into this season, and it keeps my mind off things."
A teammate's mother had the wristband made in a rush and two more for Tripp's best friends. "There was no chance I wasn't making the trip," he says. His voice trembles a bit. "My mom would've killed me if I missed this."
Once everyone is dressed, the players gather outside the cafeteria for a final team meeting before the trip. There are jokes about which linemen will be the worst to sit next to on the plane and who will be sleeping on the floor at the hotel — there will be two beds and three players in each room.
Principal Charles Scott Neely calls out to Zach Green as soon as he sees him in the cafeteria. "You look good all made up, Green," Neely jokes. Then he finds Tripp and tries to make him smile. "Tripp! What in the world did you do to your hair?"
The players munch on food from the 125 goody bags put together by Guandolo's wife, Cindy. She started organizing the donations for the bags last spring. Each player got a sub, fried chicken, a cookie from Grampa's Diner, snacks from Wrigley's, and some fruit, an energy bar, and a Vitamin Water from Whole Foods.
Guandolo speaks to the players, reminding them that they'll be representing not just Broward County but the whole state of Florida. Neely echoes the coach's sentiments, adding in his scratchy, enthusiastic voice, "Let's go put a whuppin' on Texas, baby!"
The team boards a line of buses waiting in front of the massive school. They drive through the lush landscaping of Weston, a land of homeowners' associations and picture-perfect golf courses — there are three between the school and the highway. They pass the clean, well-lighted strip malls, the Circuit City, the Office Depot, the Olive Garden, the McDonald's, the sushi places and steak houses. Then they hit I-75, headed south to Miami International Airport.
During spring practices in March, Coach Guandolo knew his team would be good this year. He had a deep, speedy running attack, a trio of linebackers with hundreds of thousands of dollars in scholarship offers among them, and a core of seniors with experience on both sides of the ball. So he put a call in to a friend, Dave Stephenson.
Stephenson is owner and founder of Titus Sports Marketing, a Dallas-based company leading a quiet but lucrative industry aimed at bringing big corporate money together with high school athletics. Titus arranges — then markets — football games among the top programs in the nation. They've also secured naming-rights contracts for corporations to advertise in high school athletic facilities.
Before starting Titus, Stephenson was president of Dave Campbell's Texas Football, a yearly magazine that previews every team in Texas — professional, college, and high school — and is often called "the Bible of Texas football." In 2005, Stephenson organized a game between Robert E. Lee High School in Tyler, Texas, and Chaminade-Madonna College Preparatory, a private school in Hollywood, Florida. At the time, Chaminade-Madonna was coached by Mark Guandolo.
When Guandolo called Stephenson again last spring, it just so happened Titus had been in talks with Katy High School — an historically dominant football program west of Houston. Guandolo agreed to bring his team to Rhodes Stadium in Texas the first week in October.
Hyped as "The Battle at Rhodes," the game was sold to ESPN, the first time either school would play on national TV. It was scheduled for prime-time broadcast, with Old Spice, Nike, and the U.S. Marines as sponsors.
Titus would put up the money to pay for the flights, food, and hotel expenses of the Cypress Bay team, including travel for a hundred people. Katy and Titus split the revenue from ticket sales and the fee ESPN pays to broadcast the game. Cypress Bay got free national exposure.
ESPN doesn't pay high schools directly to broadcast the games. It pays a third-party firm, Paragon Marketing Group, which in turn pays Titus, which then pays Katy its share. None of the three companies involved would disclose the terms of the agreement. And a spokesman for ESPN would not say how much the network charges for commercial time. Rusty Dowling, athletic director for Katy Independent School District, says the school is still calculating revenues and would not discuss specific numbers.
Last year, Titus brokered a deal to bring then-state champion Miami Northwestern to Dallas to play Southlake Carroll. More than 30,000 people filled Southern Methodist University's Ford Stadium to watch Miami beat the Dragons 29-21, snapping a Texas state record 49-game winning streak.
Since then, Stephenson says, high schools from all over the country have contacted him asking if he can do the same thing for them.
"If we can help out high schools to bring in more revenue in this day and age where schools are hurting for money, that's huge," Stephenson says. "It's a little bit different if we were selling advertising in a classroom, if we were selling advertising on a blackboard or students' lockers. But we're selling advertising at a football venue."
To broadcast the Cypress Bay versus Katy game, ESPN sent in a crew used to filming college football. The week before, producer Steve Melton worked a game between the University of South Florida and North Carolina State. Melton says most of the high school stadiums aren't as equipped for TV broadcast as college venues are. The crew installs steel and wood scaffolding for cameras at the top of the stadium. Another platform and camera are placed in the home end zone, not far from the stuffed Katy tiger. Microphones and wires are installed along the sideline for cameras on the field and easy access for the sideline reporter.
For ESPN, this year is the first season that the network has broadcast a full, 19-week schedule of high school football. "Go back to 2002; ESPN took a chance and aired a high school [basketball] game that LeBron James played in," Melton says. "The ratings for that game were huge. There was a lot of interest. Between that and different internet hits for ESPN, it was determined that there was a huge audience out there."
ESPN Rise, a new company brand, is devoted to everything high school-related. "I think it's untapped on the sports side," says James Brown, senior vice president at Rise, which is aimed at enlarging the station's 12- to 17-year-old audience. "It gives us an opportunity to not only talk about what they do on the field but also what's going on in their lifestyle, what shoes do they wear, what music they listen to, what kind of things they do in the community."
When the school year started, it looked like this could be the biggest game in the country this year. But then something unexpected happened: Katy lost its first two games of the year, one of them in a blowout. The ESPN game was moved up from the original prime-time slot to Saturday afternoon. But for Cypress Bay, Katy's rough start meant they would be playing a team with something to prove.
In its final game before the Katy trip, Cypress Bay is as good as advertised. A crowd of soggy blue-and-gold-clad supporters packs the grandstands despite a heavy thunderstorm to watch the Lightning take on rival Western High School from Davie.
Cypress Bay is known for its running attack, and Coach Guandolo starts the game by calling 13 straight runs. Cypress Bay moves down the field easily. On a pitch-out play to the right, running back Jason Douglas turns the outside corner and streaks 25 yards before the first defender touches him. Cypress Bay eats up seven minutes on the 80-yard drive. Craig Dee caps it off with a five-yard plunge into the end zone.
Zach Green doesn't drop back for his first pass until there is less than three minutes to go in the second quarter. The tall, slim quarterback misses on his first attempt but eventually connects with Corey McCabe down the left sideline.
The Lightning looks inspired — perhaps motivated by vandalism of the home field. The night before the game, someone carved the letters WHS six inches into the turf across the middle of the field, then threw the dirt onto the home team's bleachers.
On defense, linebackers Phil Walker, Shane Gordon, and Austin Gamble help hold Western to just 16 yards rushing and two first downs in the first half. In the second quarter, Gamble wraps up a Western running back in the open field, lifts him off his feet, and drives him into the mud near the carved-out letters.
Cypress Bay Athletic Director Bill Caruso stalks the sidelines wearing jean shorts, tennis shoes, and a Harley-Davidson raincoat. With a walkie-talkie in either hand, he sloshes through the grass, in constant communication with the swarm of camera crews and student producers filming the game for Cypress Bay's own internet television station.
The school is no stranger to big business. Last year, MTV featured the school on The Paper, a reality show chronicling the melodrama of a high school newspaper. MTV wrote the school a check for $10,000.
Outback Steakhouse banners dot the fence around the football field, and every time the announcer mentions the game clock, Rolex gets a plug. It's the kind of place where the mothers collecting money in the parking lot don't hesitate to tell a stranger that his 10-year-old pickup truck is a "clunker." One Cypress Bay student wears a shirt declaring Western — from considerably less affluent Davie — "Trailer Bums."
The campus itself looks more like a bustling college or a military base, a web of pavement and colorful new buildings. It matches a city where the streets are each perfectly manicured, lined with evenly spaced, cropped palm trees and bright-green landscaping.
"Yeah, a lot of these kids are well-off," Caruso says, referring to the football players and the student body in general. "People think Weston, they think money, but a lot of parents aren't rich. They move here. They rent apartments here so their kids can have the chance to go to Cypress Bay."
Weston epitomizes the new era of high school football in South Florida. The top-ranked teams used to come from inner-city Miami or the rural sugar-cane towns south of Lake Okeechobee. Now, scouts flock to public schools like Cypress Bay and private ones including St. Thomas Aquinas in Fort Lauderdale, which recently ranked third on ESPN's list of the top programs in the nation.
The biggest programs in Texas all come from wealthy suburbs as well: Austin Westlake, Southlake Carroll, Highland Park in Dallas, and Katy, which has appeared in the state championship game in seven of the past 11 years and has taken home four titles. KatyNation, a book chronicling the school's athletic dominance, is being turned into a movie.
Zach Green says he's seen Friday Night Lights and Varsity Blues. "I know how big high school football is in Texas," the quarterback says. "It's big here too. I know we're going against a good team, but we're confident we can take care of business and get the job done."
By halftime against Western, Cypress Bay has more than 300 yards rushing and a 28-0 lead. If there's any flaw in the dominant performance, it's the passing game. Green throws just five passes and completes only one, for 23 yards.
In the second half, Guandolo rests many of his starters, making sure they're fresh for Katy. Cypress Bay wins 35-3, with 468 total rushing yards. It was Guandolo's 200th career victory.
The Cypress Bay coaches begin the October 4 game against Katy with a surprise. They knew Katy would expect them to bring their dominant run game. So on the first play in Texas, Green, who had attempted just 18 passes all year, fakes a handoff and drops back to pass.
But when Green turns around, he finds a Katy defensive lineman ready to snap him like a dried palm branch. Green tries a quick juke. Then he grips the ball with both hands as he's introduced to the fine artificial turf at Rhodes Stadium. The result of the sack is an eight-yard loss.
Most fans at the game wear Katy red, though Cypress Bay is not without supporters. Many players have friends and relatives in the stands. Austin Gamble's mother and brother made the trip. Green's entire family — Grandma and all — flew out for the game. Principal Neely sits near the end zone, kicked back with his shoes off, shouting encouragement to his team on every other play.
When Katy gets the ball, it looks like men playing boys. They've got players bigger than anyone Cypress Bay has faced. The Katy offense marches down the field with ease.
Tough Lightning defense, however, keeps the score close for most of the first half. Katy leads 7-6 when Tiger fullback Chris Roberson breaks a long touchdown run just before halftime. Lightning defenders bounce off Roberson, and he literally drags Eddie Cabrera across the goal line with him.
Back in Florida, a group of fans and boosters has gathered to watch the game at Uncle Al's Café in Sunrise. Cabrera's girlfriend puts her hands over her eyes when she sees Katy's second touchdown.
Janet Vasquez, whose son Matt has two receptions in the first half, is nervous at halftime. She sits at a table with School Board member Phyllis Hope and a few other moms. She grips a pile of napkins and speaks with tears in the corners of her eyes.
"It's amazing to see your baby just like a pro, getting his bags ready, getting his clothes pressed," she says. "I can't even explain all the feelings I have right now watching this."
Hope passes out her business cards and blue, white, and gold (the school colors) Hawaiian leis to students and parents. "In the second half, Florida's gonna take over!" she exclaims.
Both defenses hold early in the second half. But then, early in the fourth quarter, Katy quarterback Parker Ray connects on a deep route to wide receiver Taylor Brandt that catches the Cypress Bay secondary off guard. Brandt sprints to the end zone. The play leaves the Lightning fans deflated.
Any hopes of a Cypress Bay comeback are dashed when a Green pass is picked off by a darting Katy defensive back and returned to the Lightning one yard line.
Cypress Bay's speed is no match for the size and strength of the Texas players. Katy holds Cypress Bay scoreless in the second half. By the end, the usually dominant Cypress Bay offense has managed just 82 yards rushing. The final score: Katy 31, Cypress Bay 6.
"It was hell on Earth," Leslie Tripp says later. "I couldn't wait to get out of that God-forsaken state and get back home to Florida."
The plane ride home the next day was quiet. On the Monday after the game, players said practice was more focused, more intense. The team had been humbled, "punched in the mouth," as Coach Guandolo would say.
Tripp isn't at practice, though. He's getting ready for the viewing. "The shock of this whole week still hasn't sunk in," he says. His hair is out of the rubber-band spikes he wore for the game and back to a wavy blond mop.
Principal Neely took Tripp out for breakfast when the team got back. Had the team beaten Katy, they would have returned to a pep rally and parties across Weston. Instead, Tripp had a quiet meal with the principal.
"Leslie is such a kind, loving young man," Neely says. "He realizes what's important in life, and a better friend you couldn't ask for."
The loss doesn't seem to affect the team. A week after the Katy game, Cypress Bay beats Miramar — an undefeated district rival — 41-40, foiling a two-point conversion attempt with six seconds left in the game.
Tripp says the team is back on track. And he's being recruited by colleges. Some have excellent marine science programs; Tripp says he's interested in exploring the oceans eventually; he has a 130-gallon reef tank in his bedroom.
The Tuesday after the Katy trip, Tripp's family holds a funeral service for his mother. The entire Cypress Bay football team attends. For some, it was only the second time they'd worn a tie.
Paul Knight of theHouston Press contributed to the reporting of this article.
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