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The Graveyard

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Grave Consequences

Legend of San Saba's football field alive, not as intimidating

 

By MIKE LEE , Special to the Standard-Times

September 19, 2006

 

SAN SABA - The Graveyard has settled into a quieter, gentler role befitting of a 71-year-old.

 

The legend of The Graveyard isn't posted for everyone to see. It's not bragged about openly by most locals - unless someone else asks first.

 

All it takes is one unusual happening during a high school football game at Rogan Field, and San Saba fans are cutting their eyes at one another and thinking the same thing.

 

''Everybody knows about it - the locals, the coaches and players, and fans from the other teams,'' said Johnny Clawson, who is in his 12th year as the San Saba school district's superintendent. ''It's still here, but it's not something people here talk about all the time anymore.

 

''There's no mystique about it ... well, there's some.''

 

The Graveyard's official name is Rogan Field, which in 1935 became the home football stadium for the San Saba Armadillos. Yes, it once was a cemetery. Yes, not all the graves were removed before it was converted into a football stadium.

 

The graveyard-turned-football-stadium received national attention in 1990 with an article in Sports Illustrated. Regionally, Fox Sports Net did a television piece in 2004, and information about Rogan Field is available on the Internet.

 

There are no tangible markings around Rogan Field informing the public of the stadium's unique history - at least not since Brad McCoy's tenure as head coach from 1990-94. The legend of The Graveyard is as real as the wall of trees that have lined each end of Rogan Field since anyone can remember.

 

James Harkey, a member of the first San Saba team to play at Rogan Field in 1935, helped move tombstones from the cemetery during its conversion to a football stadium.

 

''There were a lot of people buried there,'' said Harkey, now 85. ''When we started playing there, we didn't think about the graves underneath us. We just needed a place to play. We were just interested in playing football.''

 

The Armadillos' previous home field had been on the infield of a horseracing track at the fairgrounds just north of town.

 

In the early 1960s, San Saba players digging water ditches underneath the home bleachers unearthed three tombstones. Around 1990, McCoy said pieces of old tombstones were dug up when a new field house was being constructed.

 

More recently, Clawson said some bones were dug up when a new watering system was being installed.

 

''They may have been animal bones, we're not sure,'' Clawson said. ''But given all the graveyard stories, it sounds better to say they were human.''

 

Last spring, the Graveyard won a statewide, Texas government-sponsored contest encouraging students to learn more about their local history. Tara Henry, a senior student, compiled a power point presentation about how a graveyard became the football stadium. It won for best use of images.

 

Henry's interest in Rogan Field's history was easy to figure. Her father, John Henry, who played from 1980-82, still is San Saba's career rushing leader. A younger brother, also named John Henry, is the Armadillos' starting quarterback.

 

Unexplained events

 

Unusual happenings during high school football games - things forgotten in other towns after the Saturday morning coffee-shop sessions - become part of the enduring legend when they occur at Rogan Field.

 

''Sometimes a player from the other team will break into the open field, but he'll trip and fall for no apparent reason. We'll just laugh about it,'' said Ronnie Schulze, a San Saba assistant football coach for 30 years.

 

Legend has it those players who fell were tackled by ghostly arms and hands reaching up from their graves to help their hometown boys.

 

''Sometimes we'll beat a team at home that we shouldn't beat. We'll just look at each other and grin about it,'' Schulze said.

 

Never was that more evident than in 1993, when San Saba upset Goldthwaite 13-6 in a district game at The Graveyard. State-ranked Goldthwaite recovered to win the Class 2A state championship. San Saba finished 6-4 and missed the playoffs.

 

Go figure.

 

During the early 1990s, Goldthwaite won two state championships, but the Eagles lost four straight times at The Graveyard.

 

''A time or two in the locker room before the game, we burned candles and hung a plastic chicken with a rope to escape the curse of The Graveyard,'' said Tim Spradley, an assistant coach at Goldthwaite since 1985.

 

Which is exactly what McCoy was hoping to accomplish when he began hyping The Graveyard legend during his tenure as San Saba's head coach from 1990-94.

 

''If we could get the other team thinking about anything other than the game, we felt that was to our advantage,'' said McCoy, now head coach at Graham. ''Our kids started believing in to, too. In that '93 Goldthwaite game, they had a receiver running wide open. It would have been a touchdown, but he dropped the ball. Our kids were saying, 'That was The Graveyard helping us there.' ''

 

With help from a woodshop class, McCoy in 1992 approved the hanging of a wooden sign over the entrance to Rogan Field that read: ''Welcome to The Graveyard.''

 

The sign didn't hang there long. The First United Methodist Church is across the street from the Rogan Field entrance, as is the back of First Baptist Church.

 

''Some of the church people thought it was inappropriate and disrespectful to have the sign over the entrance,'' McCoy said. ''So we moved it over the visiting team's locker room (underneath the bleachers). It was where the other team could see it, but not the general public.''

 

The sign disappeared altogether in 1993 - rumored stolen by Goldthwaite students during the week of their annual grudge match. Sign or no sign, the legend of The Graveyard continued.

 

McCoy's graveyard ploy worked for him. He compiled a 38-13-1 record in five seasons as the Armadillos' head coach. In the 11 seasons since McCoy left, the Armadillos are 29-82.

 

Ironically, McCoy had to return to The Graveyard as Jim Ned's head coach in 2003 and '04. He found himself downplaying to his Jim Ned players - including his quarterback and son, Colt McCoy, now the starting quarterback for the University of Texas - the legend he spent five years playing up to his San Saba players.

 

Recent struggles

 

McCoy's Jim Ned teams easily won both games played in The Graveyard by a combined score of 108-6, supplying a microcosm of what happened to the San Saba football program and The Graveyard legend over the past decade.

 

Once a larger Class 2A school, declining enrollment at San Saba has aided the decline of the Armadillos' football fortunes. San Saba's enrollment is 242, leaving it as the only school in District 6-2A with fewer than 300 students.

 

Longtime observers blame declining enrollment for the Armadillos claiming only one winning season and one playoff berth in the past 11 years. As long as the Armadillos are struggling in football, talking about The Graveyard and its legend simply isn't trendy.

 

''I don't want our football team to be about hocus-pocus or mystique. I want our team to be competitive and win,'' said Owen Parks, a 65-year-old San Saba native who rarely misses a game. ''I don't have a perspective about The Graveyard thing. My perspective is that we need to drop to Class 1A so we would have a better chance to win.''

 

Some opposing players, coaches and fans thought Rogan Field had enough built-in home field advantages without The Graveyard legend. The field sits low in the San Saba River valley, and being surrounded by trees, breathing can be difficult.

 

Before the chill of fall arrives, everyone in the stadium is usually smothered by sweltering humidity. Since San Saba practiced at Rogan Field, its players were used to the humidity and lack of air.

 

The grass was left to grow higher than at most fields, which probably had something to do with players tripping and falling in the open field.

 

Rogan Field also was tough on opposing fans, who had to sit in makeshift bleachers amid hanging pecan tree limbs that dripped thick sap. The visitors' bleachers typically seated only a fraction of the crowd.

 

Even that has changed.

 

Changing times

 

The lush green turf, always one of the finest around, is cut short these days. New aluminum bleachers have been erected, and there's enough seating to hold most visiting crowds. There are no trees behind or hanging over the visiting bleachers.

 

San Saba practices football at its track facility several blocks from The Graveyard, where there's plenty of air. So having Rogan Field feel like an oven is no longer an advantage for San Saba players.

 

Thus, the Armadillos' home field has become a kinder, gentler graveyard that's more fan-friendly for visiting teams. That puzzles Tim Gates, a longtime San Saba sports historian.

 

''The Graveyard has lost a lot of its luster,'' Gates said. ''There's no home field advantage any more. We used to dominate at home. We don't any more.''

 

Like most San Saba head coaches before McCoy and all of them since, Joel Johnson has chosen not to use The Graveyard as motivation for his team. Johnson has endured back-to-back 1-9 finishes, but his focus on rebuilding the program centers around the players, not the history of the stadium.

 

''If it traditionally had been big, and there was still a sign about it being The Graveyard, I'd be all for playing it up,'' Johnson said. ''But that's not the case.''

 

In 1995, San Saba built a baseball park and track facility behind Mill Pond Park. A bond election for a new high school and football stadium at the same location failed, prompting Clawson to say San Saba's football games will be played at Rogan Field ''for a long time to come.''

 

Which is fine with Johnson.

 

''The field is right where it needs to be,'' the San Saba coach said. ''As long as San Saba plays football, the games should be played at Rogan Field. I think that means a lot to the alumni. There's a lot of history and tradition there.''

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