By LORETTA FULTON
Open Michael Hurd’s book, “Thursday Night Lights,” turn to page 108 and you will be looking at a familiar face, although in an unfamiliar pose.
That’s the Rev. Andrew Penns as a student at the old Carter G. Woodson High School in Abilene, when he weighed 150 pounds and was considered “large for my class” and played guard, center, and tackle. His number 74 is partially visible as he is shown part way through a push-up.
Penns was one of several former Woodson High School Eagles who attended the Feb. 19 Texas Author Series program at the Abilene Public Library. Guest speaker was Michael Hurd, author of “Thursday Night Lights: The Story of Black High School Football in Texas.”
Hurd is director of Prairie View A&M University’s Texas Institute for the Preservation of History and Culture. Hurd said he had enjoyed getting together with Penns and his old teammates during his visit to Abilene. He learned something right away–these guys weren’t ex-teammates.
“They were still teammates,” Hurd said.
Penns, pastor of Valley View Missionary Baptist Church,” graduated from Woodson High School in 1967.
A blurb about Hurd’s book on amazon.com explains that African-American teams could only play on Wednesday and Thursday nights because Friday nights were reserved for white teams.
Many of them competed in the Prairie View Interscholastic League, which was the counterpart of the University Interscholastic League. The UIL excluded black schools from membership until 1967. Many great football players came from the PVIL such as “Mean” Joe Green (Temple Dunbar), Otis Taylor (Houston Worthing), Dick “Night Train” Lane (Austin Anderson), Ken Houston (Lufkin Dunbar), and Bubba Smith (Beaumont Charlton-Pollard).
In a PowerPoint presentation at the Author Series talk, Hurd showed other people of note who attended PVIL schools. People like U.S. Rep. Barbara Jordan (Houston Wheatley), Pearl Harbor hero Doris Miller (Waco Moore), Chicago Cubs great Ernie Banks (Dallas Washington), and the Houston Kashmere High School stage band that was featured in the documentary “Thunder Soul,” produced by Jamie Foxx.
Hurd, a member of the Houston Worthing Class of 1967, said he became inspired to write the book after attending a PVIL coaches hall of fame ceremony in 1997.
“That’s what got me going,” he said.
Hurd interviewed more than 100 people for the book, which was published by the University of Texas Press. The book provides an overview, he said, of what the Prairie View Interscholastic League did and what it meant to black students. The league didn’t form to support athletics, he said, but rather to support academics and arts programs.
“It was about education, community, history, and heritage,” he said.
Before integration, black athletes attended Prairie View A&M University, located in Prairie View, northwest of Houston.
“Prairie View was the University of Texas back in the day,” Hurd said.
According to the Amazon promotion, Hurd’s book is filled with” information on players, coaches, schools and towns where African Americans built powerhouse football programs under the PVIL leadership.”
One anecdote that Hurd related at the library program was about a coach who had a reputation for being pretty rough on his players. But he was beloved by parents, who had just one request.
“Here’s my son,” they would say. “Take him, just don’t kill him.”