Forty years ago this weekend (Dec. 18, 1982), one of the most improbable and unexpected things happened in the history of Texas high school football. A school just entering its fourth year in existence playing in the Texas 4-A State Championship game for the second time, and winning it all that year. The feat was unexpected by most, but was no surprise to members of the Willowridge Eagles family who rolled—and still roll—under that mantra “Class and Character.”
Several factors made that Willowridge High School 1982 15-0 football state championship season so singular in the annals of Texas UIL history. First, when old-timers talk about the greatest high school gridiron squads in state history, names like Beaumont Hebert, Odessa Permian and Jack Yates are usually the focus. And when you narrow the discussion to best teams ever to come out of the Greater Houston area, sure those with only knowledge of more current teams will list North Shore and Katy. But those with a longer memory will wax poetic for days about various teams emerging out of that Third Ward power known as those mighty Jack Yates Lions.
But talk to the people who know the game of football; they will tell you that few teams ever—if any at all—could have stayed on the field with the Willowridge Eagles. And when you discuss the power of those Eagles with members of the opposing teams they defeated, they are perfectly clear that this school that no one ever heard of; this school that local media absolutely ignored during their playoff runs until all other Houston-area teams were out of contention; this school that was called out of its name a million times by sports writers when they finally did make the news (Ft. Bend Willowridge, Sugar Land Willowridge, Mo City Willowridge, Chimney Rock Willowridge, Briargate Willowridge, etc.); this team became an instant power.
And to let the players who brought the state championship home to 16301 Chimney Rock Rd. tell it, their 15-0 season was not just their doing; it was a total WHS affair.
WE ARE FAMILY
“What I remember most is how the championship was a complete Willowridge High School effort,” said Ron Garner, who was an all-state running back during the 1982-83 school year, his senior year. “The whole school was involved; the Band, Wings (award-winning Drill Team), cheerleaders, faculty and staff. I think the word family is used too often but in this case, it fits perfectly.”
According to Garner and others, everybody in the Willowridge universe, those mentioned and others like FFA members, the theater students, Junior Achievement members, and especially the parents, was singularly focused on winning state.
“Willowridge football helped to cultivate a collective identity,” said Carolyn Clansy, a junior during the 1982 season and member of WHS’s Wings Drill Team. “We didn’t spend a lot of time questioning if we could win. We just showed up prepared and won. It was simply who we were.”
Clansy said the state championship was more than a victory on the football field.
“You had to be an Eagle to know what winning the State Championship truly meant to us. It was more than bragging rights. We were a little-known community, new school and new football program. No one knew us. Winning the championship game was a moment that cemented what we already knew about ourselves. We were champions,” said Clansy.
Dean Colbert, who was a senior WR during the Eagles’ 1982 season, agreed with Clansy and Garner.
“The support was awesome, the season was very exciting and the entire student-body supported the team well,” said Colbert. “One teacher, in particular, stuck out, Mr. Wilson, our Government Teacher. He would make these ‘fearless predictions each week’ and he always predicted a victory! He loved Willowridge Football and he showed it every day as he taught class. The parental support was very good as well. I remember the banquet at the end of the season. It was packed with supportive parents.”
And those supportive parents regularly rented busses to show up and show out at every away game during the regular season and the playoffs. There was as much comradery among the parents as there was among the players, drill team, band and cheerleaders.
And from Garner’s perspective, the ’82 state championship wasn’t just accomplished by the player of that specific season.
“Much respect to Mike Leblanc, Gerald Guidry, Rodney Washington, Anthony White, Tony Hubbard, Charlie Guevara, De’ Angelo Sherman, Andre Jenkins and all the others who set the culture for Willowridge football when they walked through those doors in 1979 and started things off with a 10-0 first year,” said Garner.
CREATING A WINNING CULTURE
What many outside Eagles Nation don’t know is that when the school opened in the fall of 1979, Willowridge had no seniors. Students who were seniors and zoned to the new school were instead allowed to stay that their current school (which for most was Dulles High School) instead of having to go to a new school in their last year. Thus, during that first year, the Willowridge varsity football team (made up of predominantly high school juniors and sophomores, with a few freshmen) played other school’s junior varsity teams. And that first-year team went 10-0.
No high school football experts paid any attention to that 10-0 team that didn’t even play other schools’ varsity squads. But as Garner said, their dedication to putting in the work laid the foundation for a winning culture.
The next year, the 1980-81 school year, saw Willowridge field its first “official” varsity squad. The prognosticators, the folk who make predictions about how teams were going to do that year, picked Willowridge to either go winless or maybe luck up and win one or two games.
However, that 1980 squad went a surprising and more than respectable 5-5, shocking several in the 14-4A district, but barely causing state high school football observers or local media to bat an eye. From their perspective, Willowridge literally did not exist. The school was a non-entity.
Thus, going into the 1981-82 school year, the state high school football experts again expected little-to-nothing out of Willowridge. But they didn’t know what Alan Sims and Alan Walker knew. There was a meeting at Missouri City Junior High School that laid the foundation for a run at destiny.
THE MO. CITY JUNIOR HIGH MEETING
“I remember being an 8th grader at Missouri City Junior High and hearing an announcement over the loudspeaker for all students interested in playing football for the new high school opening up to report to the cafeteria,” said Walker, who was a senior guard on the ’82 state championship team. “That was the first time any of us met our future head coach Neal Quillin. And he told us on that day that we were going to win a state championship.”
Walker said for some of the 8th graders that day Quillin’s prediction was insane.
“I know, personally, I had been to several high school games with Run Garner and his family, and we saw Stratford with the legendary Craig James play the Madison Marlins, and countless other games. And I looked at those dudes as darn near pros. So, to think that we could not only get on the same field with them, but actually compete and win a state championship, I thought Quillin had lost his mind. But I did appreciate his passion.”
Walker said that from his freshman year at Willowridge, the first year the school opened, all the way to Dec. 18, 1982 when the Eagles defeated Corsicana to win the title, “all work, all talk, all off-season conditioning was all about winning state. And I’ll be damned; we did it. We won state.”
Walker’s friend and namesake, Alan Sims, remembered that first meeting with Quillin slightly differently.
“The thing I will always remember is when we were in 8th grade and met Coach Neal Quillin and we all told him that our goal was not to win district but the goal was to win a state championship,” said Sims, a senior CB in 1982.
FIRST STATE GAME
The year before winning it all, that 1981-82 Willowridge team went on to win the 14-4A district title and qualify for the playoffs. Many were shocked, but thought that surprise district title was as high as the Eagles were going to fly that year. Surely, this new school, only in its second year of varsity-on-varsity competition, will not be able to compete with long-standing traditional football powers.
But those ’81 Eagles must not have received the memo, because they kept winning and winning until they were scheduled to face a Texas high school power with such a deep-rooted history of football greatness that their name was known across the country: Beaumont Hebert.
Hebert not only had a long list of former players who made it to the NFL, they had players in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. And in the late 70s and early 80s they were still just as much of a football force as they had always been.
So, when the Mike Tyson-level invincible Beaumont Hebert squad took the field and saw the still unknown upstart Willowridge Eagles on the other sideline, no one in the state of Texas expected this new school to stay with 30 points of Hebert, who would surely beat Willowridge and play for another state title.
But when the clock ran out, after a John Simpson field goal made the score 15-14, it was Willowridge who was headed to state. Simpson went on to play a major role during the ’82 state championship season, his junior year, and later starred at Baylor University and beyond.
Yes, you read that right. In only its second year of varsity-on-varsity competition, that little, unknown school out of Fort Bend Independent School District (FBISD), had made it to the state finals. And FYI, that very next year, the mighty Beaumont Hebert merged with another Beaumont school to create Beaumont Westbrook, who went on to win the 1982 5A state championship that year, with the majority of players coming from the team Willowridge beat in 1981.
Before that victory, not even FBISD recognized or acknowledged Willowridge. But after winning the right to play for the state title, at least a few people started taking notice.
Willowridge lost that state game in December 1982 to perennial power Brownwood, 14-9. But what stood out to most was that even though no one outside of Willowridge expected an Eagles victory, the Eagles players, coaches and parents fully expected a victory, and were pissed—to say the least—afterwards.
But by then, a state title was not just a pipe dream for members of Willowridge Nation (players, teachers, band members, etc.). They saw it as their destiny.
“I remember walking off the field in 1981 after we lost the state game to Brownwood 14-9 and seeing my longtime friend Deirdre Rigsby who was a member of the WHS Wings Drill Team,” said Walker. “She was crying because we lost. I remember hugging her and telling her, ‘Don’t worry. We’ll be back next year and win it.’ But how many folk lose a big game like that and say they’re going to win it next year? All of them. But how many actually do it? Very few. We were that very few.”
“I always think about the previous year (’81) when our goal was to go to State. I was new to Willowridge and all I heard was the goal of ‘getting there!’ The next year (’82) we wanted more than that. We knew we were capable of winning State, and that was the goal,” said Clansy, who is now a psychologist and minister.
Here are some specific quotes and memories from Willowridge Nation:
THE STATE CHAMPIONSHIP SEASON
The expectations were high because the team had gone to the state championship and lost the year before. However, several good players graduated from that team (Tony Hubbard, Anthony White, Scott Zuniga, the list goes on and on), so it was interesting to see several role players develop and step up to meet the challenge. (Dean Colbert)
I remember sitting in (Offensive Coordinator) Coach Demel’s driver’s ed class watching endless 16mm film of the Delaware Wing T offense and game film. (John Simpson)
I remember the first two-a-days practice. Our team leaders were out in front leading us in stretches. I remember Rodney Green, our star safety saying during that early, early morning practice, “Man, let’s just take this to the cosmos until the season starts.” Translation: I wish we could skip these grueling, tiring two-a-way practices and get to the real games.” We all felt the way Green felt. But those two-a-days, like all the work we put in leading up to those practices, prepared us for the challenges of the season and paved the way for a 15-0 record. (Alan Walker)
15-0 Undefeated!! I remember going into each game with confidence, knowing that we were going to win the game. We ran the perfect offense (Delaware Wing T) considering the personnel that we had (Thurman Thomas, Ron Garner, Terry Rose, Rodney Brown, John Simpson and several others). It was an amazing team of 4.4 sprinters playing football. The 1982 Eagles were definitely one of the fastest teams of all time! It was exciting to be a part of such a talented, athletic and well-coached team. The coaching staff led by our head coach Neal Quillin and assistant coaches Dennis Demel, Rex Staes, Belton Narcisse, Coach Henderson and John Merriweather were the best! (Dean Colbert)
I remember getting hurt on the first play of the game versus Tomball. During halftime, I was sent to the training room to get my knee checked. Tomball’s superstar running back (Roger Vick) was being checked out on the table next to me. Vick happened to be the cousin of one of my best friends on the team, and fellow offensive lineman, Colin Clarke. Vick must have been wondering why I was staring at him. The reason was, he looked like Colin’s twin. It was crazy. But that was the first of five games I missed: our last three regular season games and the first two playoff games. Missing those games was tough on me emotionally and mentally. The only positive was the fact that we kept winning. But when I finally was cleared to suit up again, I remember that first week of practices, preparing to play our nemesis the Bay City Blackcats. I was out there, but everything I did was just a step off. Everything. I had no concept of rust. But that’s exactly what I was—rusty. The turning point was words from my homie Colin Clarke. After we ran a play in practice where I was just a step off, Colin said just a few words, but they made all the difference in the world. “C’mon Walk. We need the old Walk out here.” That was it. No coach said anything to me. It was just the words from my friend and teammate who was basically saying, “I don’t care how long you were out with an injury. If you’re out here on the field, we need your best and nothing less.” That was the turning point. From that moment on, I went on to play my best and/or most memorable three games—the last three games of our seasons: Bay City, New Braunfels and Corsicana. (Alan Walker)
Every Monday we would go head up with each other (Board Drills). I was not very big, but I gave it all that I had. I remember going home each Monday sore with bruises on my arms and shoulders. I wanted to prove to the coaches that I deserved to be on the field more because even though I was not very big, I was tough and that I would give it my maximum effort. (Dean Colbert)
STANDOUT MEMORY FROM THAT SEASON
For me, one of the coolest moments all season was running a play that worked to absolute perfection and ended with Ron Garner running a 70-yard sweep for a touchdown, untouched down the sideline against New Braunfels to earn another trip to play for state. After running for 70 yards, Garner took one step into the endzone, set the ball down and calmly turned and walked to the sideline. It was the coolest TD I’ve ever seen in my life at any level. And the fact that Garner and I grew up as close, close friends (basically brothers) and playing football together since little league with the Westbury Steers, just added to the coolness of the moment. When I think about that play, I think of the famous clip of Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi diagramming the Packer’s bread-and-butter play, a sweep to the right. Lombardi draws it up and says the blockers will make a seal here and a seal here and the running back will run it straight up the gap. All coaches draw up plays like that. The problem is, there’s a defense out there hell-bent on messing up the coaches’ perfect plays. But on that play, everything worked to perfection. Every block (seal) was made, and Garner ran 70 yards untouched into the end zone… just like Lombardi drew it up. (Alan Walker)
My favorite game was the semi-final game versus New Braunsfels HS in the Astrodome. I caught two passes in the game. My favorite moment was the pass I caught right before halftime. It was a post route that I had to leave my feet for because the ball was thrown high. It seemed like a routine catch that I had made several times while working out on my own. But my dad, brothers and several teammates said it was an incredible catch and several people said ” How did you catch that pass”? To this day when I pass up the old “Astrodome” on 610 I remember that moment! (Dean Colbert)
While we were making our playoff run, my friends from Madison and Worthing and other HISD schools would always say, “Y’all okay, but you’re only 4A. Y’all couldn’t hang with us teams in 5A.” When we were in the Dome playing to go to state, I remember our team walking and there were people on both sides of us as we walked towards the field. For some reason, I was able to spot a homie of mine from little league baseball, Steven Spencer, who went to Madison. He was one of my friends who said Willowridge couldn’t hang against 5A competition. As I walked passed him the thought occurred to me, “You say we couldn’t hang, but you had to pay to get in here to see us play.” Petty, I know. But I thought that was pretty funny. And then a couple of years later, Willowridge finally got a chance to play Yates at Rice Stadium, and beat them 35-0. (Alan Walker)
WINNING STATE VS. CORSICANA
Coaches emphasized defense first. (John Simpson)
The State Championship game was the most difficult of the year. But what stands out in my memory was the last minute of the game, just before the 10-second countdown. The Willowridge fans and football team stood to our feet and with our fists in the air, we filled the stadium with one sound, “We Want State! We want State! We want State!” As a member of the Wings, it felt like this moment… this chant pushed us to the finish line. We counted down to zero and continued to celebrate that moment for many years to come. (Carolyn Clansy)
I remember those days. Awesome backfield & team (Brunell Terrell, star Willowridge basketball player, C/O 83)
The best backfield I’ve ever seen. Speed and power! (James A. Thomas Jr., star Willowridge basketball player, C/O 83)
THE AFTERMATH: GREATEST TEXAS TEAM EVER?
Umpteen times I’ve been sitting in the crowd of a HS football game and I hear old-timers telling each other that none of these teams today and certainly none of the schools from back in the day could beat Willowrdige (Ron Garner, RB, senior)
My dad, Horace Garner, said the only team he thinks could have given Willowridge a run for our money was the 1969 Booker T. Washington squad. He said they were legendary, but still probably would have fallen to the Willowridge Eagles. (Ron Garner)
I remember hearing Thurman Thomas being interviewed and the reporter introduced him as the one who carried Willowridge to a state title, and “Thurm” corrected him saying, “I didn’t carry anybody. We were loaded with talent all across the team, and had three 1,000-yard rushers in the backfield and a quarterback who threw for over 2,000 yards in an offense that barely passed the ball.” Thurman Thomas, the Pro Football Hall of Fame running back gave his Willowridge teammates that kind of love and respect. That’s Willowridge. That’s family. (Ron Garner)
Went to college and played ball with a lot of players from Corsicana. One day at lunch one of the former Corsicana cheerleaders came over to our table talking about “Y’all cheated. That’s the only way y’all beat us.” The former Corsicana player told her she needed to shut up because Willowridge beat us down, and the only reason the score was even as close as it was was because of the horrible, windy conditions that day. (Ron Garner)
Something else not always voiced is, the result of us winning so much, it opened opportunities for many coaches to move on up. (John Simpson)
Played football at Baylor with some Brownwood guys. They said their whole OL and DL were juicing (taking illegal steroids) in high school. (John Simpson)
Ironically, I raised my family in Corsicana. Rumor has it Coach Don Denbow (Corsicana) had them all on busses to workout all during the summer. We didn’t do that. Corsicana lost the game on character when down late in the game. I have an old DVD copy of the state game thanks to Corsicana local television station. (John Simpson)
Because I was playing offensive line, out there with the big boys and going up against the opponents’ biggest and strongest players each week, I was always David going against Goliath. I was 6 feet, 162 lbs, having to most often block defensive linemen and linebackers who were between 200 – 260 lbs. Since we ran a lot of sweeps, I had a chance to take on and block a lot of cornerbacks—the only folk who were my size. But because I always went up against dudes way bigger and stronger than me, I never went into a game with the bighead. It was always a challenge; and one that I’m proud to say, I met each week. That experience has fueled me my entire life. When I’m faced with a daunting or overwhelming situation in life, I reflect back on the fact that I was able to take on and beat those Goliaths, and I’m reminded that I have the stuff to take on any challenge. (Alan Walker) The state championship weekend is a weekend that me myself, and I know you guys, my teammates, will never forget because we put our school, our community and our city on the map. And even though no one else said it, I will say it: thank you, I love you, and I’m forever proud to be an Eagle. (Alan Sims)