The high school football team that did not win the state football championship was lionized in print and by Hollywood in Friday Night Lights. The team that defeated that famous Odessa Permian team in the 1988 Texas high school football playoffs actually is the better story. It just took awhile to find it, and for the right guys to fund it.
The Dallas Carter Cowboys were arguably one of the best high school football teams in the state’s history, as well as one of its most controversial. They were big. They were fast. They were loud. They were boisterous. There were arrests. There were infractions.
This year is the 25th anniversary of the book Friday Night Lights, a good time to release the story about the inner-city school that defeated the Permian Panthers in the state semifinals. And so now there’s Carter High, opening Friday.
“This was a story and a team that I had heard about through the grapevine,” said producer Greg Ellis, who is from North Carolina and was drafted in the first round by the Dallas Cowboys in 1998. “When the movie Friday Night Lights came out, it was the other school that was so good in football.”
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When Ellis retired from the NFL in 2009, he began a small production company that made videos and small films. His desire was to do a full movie, but he quickly learned that finding the right story and then raising the money to make it were both far more difficult than he could have conceived.
Ellis was working on a project with former Dallas Carter football player Arthur Muhammad when a mutual friend told them the project they should be working on was about Muhammad’s former team.
Muhammad developed the script and directed the film, which stars veterans Charles S. Dutton and Vivica A. Fox. The movie also features former TCU running back Aundre Dean as one of the Carter High players.
The movie chronicles the 1988 team, which won a state title, was loaded with future stars and ultimately was disgraced. It lost its championship because of University Interscholastic League infractions and three high-profile players being arrested.
Five players from that team played in the NFL, most notably linebacker Jessie Armstead, who after playing in college at Miami lasted in the NFL for 12 seasons. Le’Shai Maston played at Baylor before playing in the NFL for several years.
Dallas Carter was the first team from the Dallas school district to win a state title since 1950. Two years after winning the Class 5A title, it was stripped of the championship by the UIL for using an ineligible player.
By that point, however, Carter High’s run was over. Five players from the state title team had been arrested for participating in a series of armed robberies around Dallas. Among that group was linebacker Derric Evans, who had previously garnered fame by signing his college letter of intent to attend the University of Tennessee while sitting in a hot tub.
Evans and teammate Gary Edwards, the latter of which had signed with the University of Houston, were sentenced to 20 and 16 years, respectively. The sentencing enraged the Dallas Carter community as excessive and racially motivated.
“Of course, we live in a world that is better about its racial issues, but race did seem like it played a part of it,” Ellis said. “This could have been any kid and any grown-up. This is about choices and this is about living with the consequences.”
The Carter Cowboys were the equivalent to the Miami Hurricanes of the ’80s. They had panache, controversy and sadness.
They were the antithesis to the Permian Panthers, but now they have their own movie, too.
“This was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, but it was worth it,” Ellis said. “I am really proud of it and I think we did what we wanted to do with it.”