EARLY — Ask Verna Maye Blackwell why Robbie Tindol, of all the Early High School football coaches, was able to end the Longhorns’ 47-year playoff drought. Without hesitating, Verna Maye goes back to when she met Tindol — Nov. 11, 2005 — the day before Tindol coached Early in its first playoff game since 1958.
When Tindol wanted to track down some players from Early’s last playoff team in 1958 in an attempt to inspire his current players, everyone in town said he needed to talk to Verna Maye. After all her oldest son, Tommy Blackwell, had been a halfback on the ’58 team and even scored the winning touchdown in the Longhorns’ 18-12 bi-district victory against Baird that season.
Verna Maye delivered, finding 11 players from the 1958 Early regional finalist team that agreed to come back for the pep rally prior to the Longhorns’ 2005 bi-district game against Colorado City. The day before the pep rally and the historic playoff game, Tindol went to meet Blackwell, who has been an Early fan since 1951, in person.
“I was having new carpet put in my house that day,” Verna Maye said. “They put the carpet down, and they were fixing to move the heavy furniture from the garage back into the house. One of the carpet men had injured his knee and the other man needed help.”
About that time, Tindol knocked on the door to meet the first lady of Early High School football.
“He introduced himself and said everybody had been telling him he needed to come meet me,” Verna Maye said. “He loved my neck and gave me two Early football shirts — one purple and one white. When he was on his way out, he overheard the carpet man say something about needing help to get my furniture back in the house.
“It wasn’t but a few minutes later there was another knock on my door. It was four football players. They told the carpet man that Coach Tindol had sent them over to help move the furniture. I just started crying. I couldn’t believe it. Those boys, they moved all that furniture back in.
“Now do you know what kind of person Coach Tindol is? Now do you know why he was able to get us back in the playoffs?”
Verna Maye, who had three sons play football for Early, has seen the best and worst of Early football over the last 55 years. She has witnessed 0-10 teams and a 9-1 team from the 1970s that had the misfortune of being in the same district as eventual state runner-up De Leon.
Because of health issues, 86-year-old Verna Maye can no longer attend Early football games in person, but she listens loyally on the radio. She also sends the team a poem each week, which Tindol shares with the players.
“I always had confidence we’d get back in the playoffs,” Verna Maye said. “We had some good teams in basketball through the years, but we just couldn’t break through in football. But I never lost confidence. I never like to be negative.
“Watching these last two teams make the playoffs makes my heart throb.”
After going almost five decades without making the playoffs, Tindol has coached the Longhorns to back-to-back playoff berths and a 22-5 record over the last two seasons. Expectations have changed to the point that Early, despite losing 15 starters from last season, is picked by most to make the playoffs again simply because of its new winning habit.
Some fans like Verna Maye remained loyal through all the losing seasons and near playoff misses. But making playoff runs to the state semifinals in 2005 and state quarterfinals in 2006 has brought new fans to the Longhorns.
“It’s good for the little ones — the younger kids. They’re wanting to play football earlier and earlier these days,” said Beverly Holleman, elementary school secretary and a 1979 Early High graduate. “The kids in elementary, they idolize those high school players. By winning, they (football players) started a precedent that wasn’t always there.”
Holleman said former Early students, who for decades had little reason to come home and see their alma mater play, are regulars in the stadium on Friday nights now that the Longhorns are winning.
“Winning has brought the community back into the school,” Holleman said. “There has always been support for the teams, but community morale is so much higher now. And it’s not just football. It has carried over to other sports and the girls’ sports, too.
“I hate to say it, but it almost makes you greedy. Once you start winning, you like it and keep wanting more. You want every kid to experience playing in the playoffs.”
Winning also has put Early on the map, literally. Overshadowed by neighboring Brownwood, with a population six times larger plus a legendary football tradition, Early was largely unknown in other parts of the state. Until the Longhorns began winning in football.
“Our two daughters (who graduated in 2005 and 2007) used to go to summer camps, and no one they met had ever heard of Early. They didn’t know where Early was,” Holleman said. “But the last few years, other kids had heard of us because we went a long way in the football playoffs.”
Tindol, a native of Coahoma, says all the right things about Early’s football resurgence. He says he was in the right place at the right time, that he has good kids to coach and that hard off-season work in the weight room has been a big key.
Perhaps the biggest key, though, had nothing to do with Xs and Os or the improved performance by the Longhorns’ special teams.
“After being here for the first year, we noticed the kids just didn’t treat each other right,” said Tindol, who lost 15 of his first 20 games at Early in 2003 and 2004 before the turnaround. “We sat the kids down and talked to them about how to treat other people.
“The biggest thing we did was establishing the mindset of getting the kids to trust in their teammates and to care about each other. You can execute anything on the field, but it won’t matter in a team game like football if the kids don’t trust each other.”
Tindol has seen the high school hallways come alive with students and faculty who are excited not only about the football team, but other sports and other activities around school.
“We told our players that it’s their school,” Tindol said. “We’d like for them to care about other sports and other things — the band, drill team, cheerleaders, the class play — but you can’t tell them to do it. It’s up to the kids to decide how they do things and how they treat other people.”