Premont, in Jim Wells County, is more than 400 miles from Dallas. And its sports programs perhaps a world away from the bright, multi-million dollar Friday night lights of North Texas. But after a 5-year hiatus the Premont High School Cowboys are finally on the field again.
When you drive into the South Texas town of Premont, population just a few hundred north of 2,700, the scars of a not-so-booming oil economy are easy to see. The intersection of Highway 281 and Main Street is home to some of its oldest buildings. Many of them, including a theater, and the original 1940’s era school auditorium, are shuttered, pockmarked with shattered windows, and considered by some even too expensive just to tear down. And at the western edge of town at Premont High School, the future wasn’t looking all that bright either.
“Five years ago many had lost faith, said Ernest Singleton, the Premont ISD superintendent at the time. Faith lost because school finances were a mess, test scores for the district’s 500 students a mess too. And the state was seriously threatening to shut the struggling school district down.
Unless, Singleton acted on his most unpopular idea.
“Football is sacred,” he said. “It was probably one of the hardest administrative decisions I’ve ever made.”
He’s the superintendent who decided to end Friday night lights in Premont, taking the sport’s roughly $150,000 a year budget and paying for teachers, supplies, and technology instead. He reluctantly considered it the “big ticket item” necessary to sacrifice to turn a district and its severe financial shortfall around.
“It’s kind of, it’s shameful I guess you could say,” said student athlete Joel Perez when asked about his memories of the 2011 decision.
“Like, the community just fell down,” said student Ricardo Ortiz. “There wasn’t that much pride in our school anymore and our community.”
“It was sad,” said student and cheerleader Alyssa Guerra. “Everybody was kind of like depressed.”
Pride in a now 102-year-old school district, much like its aging buildings, began crumbling too.
“It just kind of felt like everybody was a zombie,” said Perez. “Like we were missing somebody, missing something in the school.”
That was the atmosphere in Premont five years ago. But Singleton says the tight-knit community understood the options and the seriousness of the situation. If they didn’t try something drastic, Premont ISD might be dissolved, the schools closed, and the students bused to another more highly-rated district up to an hour away.
So, since 2011, the Premont ISD stadium, an aging facility that dates back to the late 1940’s, has sat empty and quiet. The field is hard-packed south Texas dirt covered in a mixture of grass and weeds. The guest bleachers roped off with caution tape. Disuse and the passage of time have left the wooden bench seats warped and splintered. If the stadium were ever used again Singleton says the guest bleachers at least would have to be torn down.
But, it’s been a long five years. And the good news is that in 2016 in Premont the financial Hail Mary, appears to have actually worked.
The district, in cooperation with the Texas Education Agency, agreed on a variety of steps to keep Premont ISD open. Singleton says the district is now financially sound, maintains more than the proper fund balance required by Texas law, and continues to see improvements in test scores. While still rated by the TEA as being under “accredited probation”, Singleton says the district is headed in the right direction.
And earlier this year, the town decided it was time to bring the football team back. Fundraisers brought in the more than the $10,000 needed to purchase new uniforms, helmets and equipment.
Parents and community members formed the group “Premont Pride" (Premont Residents Involved in Dynamic Education) to help motivate students and the community while promising to “foster a spirit of community to help provide financial resources and other support necessary to strengthen the quality of learning for every child.” The mission statement also says “we are committed to doing Whatever it Takes to Save our School.”
And this year, for the first time since 2011, the Premont Cowboys are on the football field again. The school, with just 196 high school students, fielding a team of 26 student-athletes on a JV squad. Next year they hope to be able to field a Varsity team too.
“We come together in adversity,” said parent and 1983 Premont High School graduate Arabella Montalvo after a Thursday midday pep rally in the Premont High gymnasium. “We are going to prove that in adversity we stand together and we get the job done.”
“It’s kind of like a family reunion,” added student and now JV football halfback Joel Perez. “Everybody just seems more like a family now, the whole town.”
And educators are using football, and other sports, as motivators too. An hour of daily tutoring is mandatory for each student-athlete. If they want to hit the practice field at 5pm each day, tutoring from 4 to 5 is required. And passing grades are also mandatory for each and every athlete.
“Oh yes sir I guarantee it’s going to have the right impact,” said Premont High principal Michael Gonzalez. “Not only for our kids but community wise. Community involvement, pep rallies, fundraising activities. It’s been huge. Very motivational for our kids.”
“Most small communities rally around football. You know that’s what brings the community together,” said head football coach Ruben Cantu. “And it’s working. The kids are coming to school, the kids are in tutoring, the kids are doing really well and that’s all we can ask at this point.”
“Kids are actually wanting to come to school. They want to be here. They want to make good grades. They want to play,” said senior cheerleader Alyssa Guerra.
“Everybody loves it! Finally have something to be happy for,” said her younger brother and starting quarterback J.R. Guerra.
“Before football came they wouldn’t pass, they wouldn’t care,” said student and football player Andres Nevarez “Now that football is here we have more people passing and it’s raising standards for more people. So it’s a good thing.”
“It’s really inspiring really because we come from a small town but we have big dreams,” said freshman Alexis Zuniga.
But as those dreams were just taking shape with the Cowboys’ first football games in a half decade, an unexpected distraction happened. Premont ISD interim superintendent Eric Ramos was arrested in Early September following a traffic stop by the Duval County Sheriff’s Department and arrested for possession of marijuana. Ramos apologized to the district and its students and in an agreement with the district is no longer with Premont ISD.
So who did they call to replace him? Ernest Singleton, the former superintendent who made the decision in 2011 to end the football program, agreed to come out of retirement on an interim basis to shepherd the district through its continuing financial and academic recovery and its first games for the reborn JV football Premont Cowboys.
"It's odd for me because I'm the one who took it away,” Singleton said
But he was on the sidelines Thursday night as the Cowboys faced Freer High School on the football field. Freer, with a newly-built modern stadium complete with an artificial turf field, ran up a quick 14 to 0 lead. But the Cowboys rallied in the second half, the game coming down to the final play. The Cowboys were only a few yards from the end zone when the clock ran out. They lost 20 to 14.
“I wouldn’t trade this team for anyone,” said Coach Cantu at the end of the game as the players knelt for a post-game prayer. “I am so proud of all of you,” he said.
And in that willingness to fight to the finish, Singleton sees a bit of hope.
“In a way a real hard decision turned out to be the right decision,” he said of the 2011 dissolution of the football team in an effort to focus on academics. “While we might not see a bright, bright light,” he said of the district’s academic recovery, “we do see a light at the end of the tunnel.”
But for the players, their parents, and the community of Premont, the lights are bright again on the football field. And under those lights Premont ISD finally has the chance to shine again.