When linebacker James LeGrand saw a Fort Worth football team on the schedule, he and his Everman teammates laughed.
Fort Worth schools can't beat anyone but each other.
But now LeGrand, who transferred to play for Fort Worth Southwest, is a part of the Fort Worth resurgence.
"This year, we aren't going to take the negative comments," LeGrand said. "We are going to do what we have to, and I want to see the Fort Worth schools look good in the playoffs."
With strong teams such as Southwest, which won its first-ever playoff game last season, as well as Arlington Heights and Western Hills, this season could be different. Fort Worth is ready to prove it can win outside of Loop 820.
"There is no doubt that we are getting better," Arlington Heights coach Ged Kates said. "There has never been a doubt that there is talent in Fort Worth. There are always great athletes. We are starting to get the right coaches in here and across the district, we are building good teams."
Heights started the comeback in 2009, becoming the first Fort Worth team to win a playoff game in eight years. Southwest continued the process last year with a thrilling 35-34 win against Springtown in the first round of the playoffs.
"Last year was huge for us, like the monkey was off our backs," said Southwest coach Lanny Trammell, who has been with the Raiders for 16 years, four as a head coach. "We don't have to hear about how Southwest has never won a playoff game anymore. It was big for the district as a whole."
Fort Worth came close to having two winners in last year's bi-district round. Heights lost a heartbreaker to Boswell 52-49 in the first round. But this year, both the Jackets and Raiders are ready for a deeper run.
Like last season, Southwest has an explosive offense with playmakers such as quarterback Wesley Harris and wide receivers Robbie Rhodes and Willie Robinson. Now, the Raiders have a defense to match, a scary prospect for their opponents.
Heights is right along Southwest in terms of talent and experience. The Jackets have their best offensive line in Kates' four years with the team; he is entering his second as head coach. Heights has an experienced quarterback in Omar Valadez and playmakers such as linebacker Nate Guidry on defense.
"We have really improved our work ethic," Kates said. "It's going to pay off."
With an improved district with tougher teams, the top Fort Worth schools can get ready for the playoffs by facing stiff competition in District 6-4A. In years past, the 10-team district hurt itself. Opponents outside of the Fort Worth schools were few and far between.
Things are changing.
"We feel like there used to be one or maybe two playoff-caliber teams in our district," Trammell said. "Now we have at least five."
Trammell, along with Kates and John Naylor Jr. at Western Hills, are members of a head coaching group that is turning the Fort Worth football legacy around.
"The level of coaching has gotten better, and we are getting a lot of support from our administration," Trammell said. "They are helping us get more competitive. We have a ways to go, but we are making strides. And now, we are showing that we aren't afraid. We are scrimmaging and playing teams like Denton Ryan and Everman."
The Fort Worth athletic administration has helped the high school programs by instituting consistency.
In the past, middle schools ran completely different systems than the high schools. Now, coaches are working together at both levels -- each high school has feeder middle schools -- to help players learn each system earlier.
"That used to be the big difference between us and the power teams from the suburbs," Naylor said. "Those kids out there are running the same plays and systems for seven years. We are starting that, and it will show."
Western Hills is another experienced Fort Worth team capable of winning in the playoffs, and Dunbar and Wyatt aren't far behind.
"Programs are getting better, and you can see that improvement on all levels," Naylor said. "Watching Heights and Southwest prove they can win playoff games motivates us. We have that incentive. We want to prove we can get in the playoffs and make some noise."
Brent Shirley, 817-390-7760