After 101 years of football, El Campo looks for 1st state championship
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At 17, El Campo High School senior Cole Hunt is looking forward to starting college at Rice University in the fall. One of his greatest achievements, he said, is helping pull off a win against the Carthage football team on Dec. 7, qualifying El Campo for the state championship game.
At 73, Gene "Pee Wee" Wier, of El Campo, is a store owner, husband and father of two.
Wier served in the U.S. Army after graduating from El Campo High School in 1957 and has since traveled around the world.
But despite the 56-year age gap and vastly different life experiences, the two men have a close friendship, forged through family and El Campo football.
"It makes us stay young," Wier said about football. "I even get goose bumps when they play the national anthem; I just want to hit somebody."
Hunt laughingly agreed, saying he also remembers getting goose bumps during the Ingleside game. Football is not just about the game, he said.
"It brings everybody close together," Hunt said. "Everyone can agree on something - most of the time everyone's not going to agree on something, but we can all get behind the Ricebirds."
He said when the Ricebirds step out onto the field, everyone - the team members, the school, the community - sets aside their differences to come together as a unit, as a team.
"You have to play sports to realize all that," said Wier, who, standing at 5 feet 7 inches, got his nickname "Pee Wee" when he played El Campo football in the 1950s with Hunt's uncle.
Looking up exactly a foot to Hunt, who stands at 6 feet 7 inches, Wier said he has been waiting for El Campo to make it to the state championships since 1967, the last and only other time El Campo made the cut.
"Did I go to the game?" Wier said, incredulously, about the last state championship. "We went on a bus and had the biggest party you have ever seen. We just made a party out of it."
Wier said most of El Campo made the trek to Austin to watch the championship game, and he thinks it will be the same this year.
"I know everyone who is going to be on the bus," said Wier, a longtime member of the booster club, despite having no children on the football team. "It will be just a hootin' and a hollerin'. It will just be fun."
The only difference, he said, is he expects this year El Campo will win the championship.
Hunt agreed, saying he believes the team has what it takes to come out on top, especially after the win against Carthage.
"Last week wasn't just the greatest memory of football, it was the greatest memory of my life," Hunt said. "I hadn't had anything like that happen in my life."
Stacie Dluhos, of El Campo, who owns Merle Norman Cosmetics Studio downtown, said she will close up shop on Friday, because so many people will be out of the 11,000-population town.
"As long as I can remember, there has always been so much support for football and other sporting events," said Dluhos, a former El Campo cheerleader. "It is a unique small town where everyone comes together and supports the team."
Wier estimated about 4,000 Ricebird fans will make the five-hour drive to Cowboys Stadium in Arlington on Friday to watch the game.
"This will be the perfect time to rob El Campo. No one will be here. We just ask that you turn the lights out when you leave," Wier joked.
Bob Gillis, head coach of 101-year-old El Campo football team, said this state championship game is decades in the making.
"It is just a dream come true for me personally and I think for our coaches and our kids," Gillis said. "We have been close, but have just never gotten there; it is a great feeling . we certainly want to take that next step and go ahead and win."
Hunt, who has been playing football since he was 8 years old, said the entire community is ready for Friday's game.
"It is more than our football team. It is more a community to all of us. The community is part of the team, the fans are part of the team, everybody is part of the team. It is not just the football players out there," Hunt said.