Political football: In a changing Texas, the candidates and the players mix it up

Published 12:00 am Sunday, October 28, 2018

By Kent Babb

The Washington Post

DALLAS — The former NFL linebacker had come back for homecoming, and as a student’s father sold Hillcrest High T-shirts and the homecoming court assembled, an old friend approached Colin Allred and patted his shoulder.

They smiled and embraced, doing what you do at these things, catching up and noting the many changes since graduation: the new gymnasium on campus and a new wing of classrooms; the rising cost of living in northern Dallas; and changing demographics that have significantly altered how the city — and, in many places, Texas in general — looks and feels.

“It truly is not the same,” Justin Graves would say, and doesn’t Allred know it.

Seventeen years after his graduation from Hillcrest and eight years after his final game with the Tennessee Titans, Allred is a 35-year-old Democrat running for Congress in Texas’ newly competitive 32nd District. The mostly suburban community has seen overwhelming growth over the past decade, infusing neighborhoods in Dallas and Collin counties with an influx of youth, new money and nonwhite voters.

Allred, an African-American former civil rights attorney who worked in former President Barack Obama’s administration, says he doesn’t believe his football career — four seasons at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, then 32 NFL games — is why he’s in a statistical dead heat with Rep. Pete Sessions. But it doesn’t hurt. This is Texas, after all, and in this massive and rapidly diversifying state there aren’t many things more culturally important and deeply personal — or highly polarizing — than the team you cheer for and the candidate you vote for.

“A microcosm of Texas culture,” Allred said, and it’s striking how his new job — passionate followers and opponents, intense public scrutiny, unseen rehearsal before public performance — blends with his old one. So maybe it should come as no surprise that, more and more as Texas becomes a bellwether of the nation’s mood and leanings, politics is infiltrating football and football is infiltrating politics.

Over the past year, Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones has forbidden his players from participating in pregame protests that bring attention to police brutality and racial inequality; in 2017, Jones and President Donald Trump were in lockstep as the NFL protest movement overshadowed the action on the field. About a year ago, Robert McNair — the owner of the Houston Texans and a prolific donor to Republican campaigns and causes — apologized for referring to the strengthening voice of players as “inmates running the prison.”

More recently, the campaign of Sen. Ted Cruz aired re-election ads during nationally televised games featuring Texas A&M and the University of Texas, and support for Cruz’s Democratic challenger, Rep. Beto O’Rourke, surged in August following his passionate interpretation of NFL players’ right to protest.

“I can think of nothing more American,” O’Rourke said during a video that has been viewed nearly 20 million times. Among the hundreds of thousands who shared the viral tweet were Kurt Warner and Tony Dungy, members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Earlier this month Arian Foster, a former Houston Texans running back, appeared at a rally for O’Rourke, who took issue last month when Cruz proposed that each of their debates be scheduled for Fridays — when much of the state is watching high school football.

And in a district north of Dallas, where around 50,000 new residents — including former President George W. Bush — have moved in over the last decade, there’s a former NFL player with a realistic chance to unseat Sessions because of the demographics of that influx. Front yards on Hillcrest Road are decorated with political signs, and a high school game has become a campaign stop.

Members of Allred’s staff shadow him near an end zone as he slides on one of the “Crest Side or No Side” T-shirts that Max Lefeld, a 54-year-old immigrant from Venezuela, is selling before kickoff.

Allred greets Lefeld, who promises his vote and has already pledged his support. Lefeld will say he used to watch NFL games with a neighbor in Preston Hollow, still a mostly Republican enclave in the Texas 32nd. They could disagree about football, but in 2016, the neighbor voted for Trump and Lefeld did not. They don’t watch games anymore.

“Politics, it’s a deal breaker,” said Lefeld, who, just to rile up his neighbor, recently pinned 10 Allred signs in his yard.

Motioning to Allred, surrounded again by old friends, the T-shirt vendor said there’s a way for some Texans to even the score.

“He would be one of us,” Lefeld said.

• • •

It’s a Saturday evening in Arlington, a Dallas suburb, and a few dozen visitors have filed into what is usually a barbershop in an office park. Trey Wilder is in a corner near the back, where he has been most of the last week, now welcoming visitors as they stream into his second art show. Wilder doesn’t usually name his paintings or repaint the same image twice. But “The Dak” was a hit, and Wilder knows a performance is disappointing if the act doesn’t play the hits.

“Any time you elicit emotion, it’s good work,” the artist said.

That’s what artist and subject did, and now here they both are: Wilder in the flesh and a spray-painted mural of Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott with tears streaming down his face. In late July, the real Prescott flatly told reporters he would “never protest” during the national anthem. Some Cowboys fans celebrated that response. Others believed Prescott, a 25-year-old African-American quarterback, had abdicated his platform in an effort to save face with Jones, who last year threatened to cut or bench protesting players.

Wilder, however, saw inspiration: In early August he brought six spray cans and a photograph from “Get Out,” a 2017 film about stereotypes and race that received four Academy Award nominations, to an open venue for graffiti artists near downtown Dallas. When he finally walked away, before him was The Dak: Prescott, like the movie’s main character, under a hypnotic spell by his white captor.

Fans and media streamed to the Fabrication Yard to view the rendering. Prescott himself was asked about it. After a few days, Wilder’s mural was defaced: Prescott’s eyes painted over, blue letters suggesting the work had been paid for by the media or George Soros, the billionaire investor and Democratic donor.

Almost overnight, Wilder had created something provocative — leading to his first show, in nearby Fort Worth, and he has since repainted Prescott and added a canvas of former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick on horseback, dressed as the revenge-minded main character from “Django Unchained” — but also something complicated. Describing himself as a lifelong Cowboys fan, Wilder said he still supports Prescott, even if he doesn’t entirely understand the quarterback’s opinions.

“His responsibility is to his family. He’s not here to please us,” said Wilder, and if he nevertheless disagrees with some of what Prescott has said — or hasn’t — maybe this is merely a window into the plight of the Texas football fan in 2018, an era of identity preservation and extreme racial and political inflammation.

Last month, a school superintendent resigned after posting on a newspaper comments page following a Texans loss that “you can’t count on a black quarterback.” Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson, one of five African-American starting quarterbacks in the NFL, wished the former superintendent peace and love.

Last year, two players at a private high school near Houston were kicked off the football team for protesting during the national anthem. Two months ago, a school district in Fort Worth passed a formal anthem policy after players at Dunbar High expressed interest in demonstrating; the policy encouraged students to “respect and obey the law.”

Football, around here, seems to occasionally be about more than just football, and that’s why Frisco resident John Mitchell has turned his back on the sport.

“The players kneeling down, I’m just not going to support that,” said Mitchell, who on a recent Saturday wore a bright blue T-shirt that read “I’m a Hillary Deplorable” when he and a few relatives attended the State Fair of Texas in Dallas. “I’ve got better things to do on Sundays.”

Mitchell said he was a longtime Cowboys fan, going on to suggest the last two years of protests acted as a tipping point for him to boycott the team. Reminded that no Dallas player has protested and that Jones has expressly forbidden it, Mitchell responded by suggesting players throughout the NFL are “against my rights to praise God” and that he was more interested in punishing the league overall and its commissioner, Roger Goodell.

“I’m letting the NFL suffer with me not watching the games,” he said. “But I love the Cowboys.”

• • •

Not long before kickoff at Hillcrest, Allred is leaning against a fence, chuckling as he talks about senior class pranks. The seniors of 2000, a year before Allred’s graduation, hoisted basketball coach Von Harris’ Volkswagen onto a loading dock. The class of 2002, a year after Allred had left for Baylor, put Superglue on door handles.

But what about the prank executed by the seniors of 2001? Allred thinks and thinks, and he simply cannot remember.

“I didn’t do any of it,” he said, and for a first-timer in politics, he’s good at this.

A few minutes later, a marching band assembles on the field and begins playing “The Star-Spangled Banner.” One of the most common questions Allred has received over the last 15 months, he said, is about NFL players and the anthem; as it begins at Hillcrest, Allred stands at attention with his right hand covering his heart.

“It’s normal and healthy within our democracy for us to disagree: for some people to support it, for some people to be against it,” he will say a short time later. “But what isn’t healthy for our democracy is when people try to crack down on people’s right to protest.”

He has the countenance, the drive, the story — the son of a single mother, he worked his way to the NFL, played for the league minimum and earned enough to put himself through law school — to make his race interesting. But if Allred pulls the upset against Sessions, who Democrats identified as vulnerable but who nonetheless shrugged off support a year ago from the Republican Party, it’ll be because the people Allred has spoken with here at Hillcrest are correct: The Texas 32nd has changed.

Between 2006 and 2017, more than 110,000 Latino voters moved in, according to figures provided by the Texas Demographic Center, and about 110,000 white voters moved out. Hillcrest High, Allred says, was always diverse; the rest of the district, not so much.

“When I come here and look at the field and everything, this doesn’t feel that different to me,” he says, and it is around this time that a potential constituent approaches.

Field Scovell, 45, played wide receiver at Texas Tech during the 1990s and — like the trophy awarded to the winner of the annual Cotton Bowl — is named for his grandfather, a giant in the local football community. After more than two decades in Lubbock, the younger Scovell recently moved back to northern Dallas and has joined friends at Hillcrest, his alma mater, for homecoming.

He knows Allred’s name from what he used to be on the football field, but now Scovell wants a closer look at what Allred hopes to become.

Scovell begins by asking which Allred feels more suited for, football or politics (both are a grind, Allred will say), whether the candidates plan to debate, how long the incumbent has been in office.

“Twenty-two years,” Allred said, shifting into campaign mode. “This your little one? Hey, young man.”

“This is Mr. Allred,” Scovell told his son. “He’s running for Congress.”

“We should get you a Baylor shirt.”

“Eww!” the boy said, and they all laugh.

They pivot to a discussion of Patrick Mahomes, the former Texas Tech quarterback who has the Kansas City Chiefs off to a 6-1 start. They go on about the expanding high school, the Hillcrest team when it actually won its homecoming games, the way Scovell’s dad used to invite neighborhood kids to eat ice cream and play on the family’s basketball court. But that court, like so much else around here, looks nothing like it once did.

“But I see a lot of your signs up, man,” said Scovell, an orthopedic surgeon whose new home is the affluent southwest corner of the Texas 32nd. “They’re all over. A lot of Beto signs, a lot of Allred signs. We see them all over the place.”

“Well, we’re plugging along,” Allred said.

“When is the election? November … ”

“Sixth.” Early voting began in the state Monday.

Scovell nods, the men shake hands and grimace as Ranchview scores yet another touchdown on the way to a 62-7 win. Before they part ways, Scovell wishes Allred luck.

A “reasonable Republican,” Scovell will admit he probably won’t vote for Allred or place one of those signs in his yard. But Allred played football here, brought Hillcrest a little glory under these same lights, and in these parts that counts for something. So whatever happens on Election Day and beyond, the former wide receiver tells the ex-linebacker that even if Scovell might not agree with everything Allred is doing, he said he’s at least proud of what he has done.