Mac Engel

ESPN documentary on 1988 Carter Cowboys tells a tale of lost hope

Gary Edwards was at the center of a grade-eligibility scandal at Dallas Carter in 1988.
Gary Edwards was at the center of a grade-eligibility scandal at Dallas Carter in 1988. Star-Telegram

There are too many to declare which is best, but ESPN’s latest “30 for 30” documentary on the 1988 Dallas Carter high school football team is equal to any of the previous award-winning episodes.

The Dallas Carter Cowboys are one of the best teams in the history of Texas high school football, and this story contains every essential component to comprise a gripping narrative, including a tragic finale that is painful to watch. Because the fall of the ’88 Carter Cowboys affected so many people beyond just a Dallas neighborhood.

The consequences were felt from Houston to San Antonio to Austin to Fort Worth, right down the street to Wyatt High School.

“When all of that happened, and the way it all ended for Carter, it was sad because it was like, ‘Maybe there goes our hope,’ ” former Wyatt and current Arlington Sam Houston coach Anthony Criss told me. Criss was an assistant coach under his father, Willie, at Wyatt when they lost to that Carter team in a non-district game.

“Playing that Carter team will forever be etched in my memory,” Criss said. “I will always contend that that ’88 Carter team and the ’85 (Houston) Yates team were the best in the history of Texas.”

Former Star-Telegram columnist Randy Galloway provides the voice-over for the intro and the finale of the 75-minute documentary, “What Carter Lost,” which ESPN will air at 8 p.m. on Aug. 24. His is the ideal voice to capture Texas, and it hits the appropriate note to score the pain that is the ’88 Carter Cowboys and the impact the scandal had on inner city football teams all over the state.

“After we would play them, we would quietly pull for Carter,” Criss said. “They were the model of what we wanted to become.”

The team “enjoyed” a resurgence in popularity when the movie “Friday Night Lights,” based on the best-selling book about the 1988 Odessa Permian Panthers, was released in 2004. Carter defeated Permian in the state playoffs, and in the movie director Peter Berg went to extreme lengths to paint the team as dirty thugs.

In 2015, former Cowboys linebacker Greg Ellis produced an effective feature-length movie about that Carter team, “Carter High.”

Of the trio, the documentary scores the most accurate and moving hit. Director Adam Hootnick interviewed all the major players from the team and the story.

Regionally, the team is known as one of the most talented in the history of Texas high school football. Twenty-one players signed to play college football, including future NFL Pro Bowler Jessie Armstead and Florida State defensive back Clifton Abraham.

The team battled the UIL to keep academically ineligible players on the field during the playoffs. Carter beat Converse Judson 31-14 for the 1988 title, but eventually lost the court case and was stripped of its title in January 1991.

The sordid story reeked of priorities run amok amid undeniable racism that still, despite “our advances,” breathes heavily today.

After the season, however, six players, motivated by the need for quick cash to shoot dice games and to buy Air Jordan shoes, were part of a ring of 15 teenagers linked to 21 robberies.

The crime spree started just five days after Carter won Dallas ISD’s first state title in football since 1950.

In the documentary, Armstead admitted he had been approached to join his teammates on the crime spree, but stopped because he did not want to blow his chance at college. He planned to tell coach Freddie James, because he felt the coach could stop it. Armstead did not want to roll on his teammates, so he said nothing.

His regret is evident in the film.

The highest-profile players, Gary Edwards, who had signed with Houston, and Derric Evans, who had signed with Tennessee, served multiple-year sentences. Evans was known as a dominant defensive back who announced his decision to attend Tennessee while sitting in a hot tub.

None of the six young men busted for their crimes was arrested again. The players, now all grown men with jobs, living from Dallas to Houston, expressed regret. For the pain they inflicted on themselves. For the pain inflicted on an entire community.

“They had always been close and when they finally won it we thought that was it,” Criss said. “We really thought they were going to go on a run; maybe four or six titles. They were that good.

“To see those guys get that title taken away that they had earned on the field was sad. We had played with them and we know they were a great team. The one [potentially ineligible] player probably would not have made a difference and to see the implosion that happened was sad. You look at that 30 years later and it’s, like, ‘Wow, what could have been?’ No one knows if they keep the title, the next team, in my estimation, is better than the one that won it all.”

Carter remains the last inner city team “to win” a Texas state title in football. Since then, the titles have gone to teams in the suburbs of major metropolitan areas, such as Katy, Southlake, Aledo, Allen, DeSoto and Austin Westlake.

“What Carter Lost” is not just about losing a state title. It’s about the loss of hope that the Carter Cowboys were for so many.

Mac Engel: @macengelprof