SAN ANTONIO - They met at midfield two weeks ago, Harlan’s Sam Carter and Southwest’s Leif Griffin, football leaders, academic standouts and future engineers shaking hands before the drama of Thursday Night Lights unfolded.
Carter is a defensive lineman, homecoming king, Fellowship of Christian Athletes spokesman and senior team captain at stylish $110 million Harlan High School, the newest gem in the Northside Independent School District.
Griffin spent three years working hard to even get a shot at the varsity football squad in his final year at 67-year-old Southwest High School. The fullback distinguished himself for his leadership and dedication. A powerlifter, 4H-er and company commander in charge of 70 cadets, he dreams of on ROTC scholarship and career in the Navy.
Carter’s burgeoning neighborhood in northwest Bexar County boasts a median home price of $198,500 and average household income of $91,618. Gourmet coffee shops, new bank buildings, churches, strip centers and convenience stores battle home developers for the remaining tracts of undeveloped land. Across Culebra from the high school sits Kallison Ranch, where the median price for the 38 homes listed is $300,000.
Griffin’s modest rural area in the southwestern part of Bexar County features $113,200 median homes and $56,707 household incomes. Dollar General, Country Roads Driving School and a Valero are nearby. While there are signs of growth, there is also neglect, with abandoned buildings and homes serving as a daily reminder that much of the area’s development is occurring elsewhere.
Carter is thriving in a community set up to help him succeed via an immaculate 14-month-old 488,000-square foot school complete with a 3D printer in the library and a weight room, locker room and athletic training center that many small colleges would envy. It’s a quarter mile walk from the athletic department to the opposite end of campus.
Griffin is excelling in an environment where school leaders maintain a clothes closet for needy students and their families, the reality in a district where 77 percent of the students are considered economically disadvantaged, twice the rate in the Harlan area.
The inequality is stark, evident in the scenery surrounding both schools. Football, though, is the great equalizer.
Southwest, built in 1951, boasts a Heisman Trophy winner in former BYU star Ty Detmer. Harlan is in its inaugural season.
Carter chose to be among the first group of seniors at Harlan, which opened last year, leaving Taft for the chance to make a mark with the Hawks.
“I’m hoping that I can help establish a legacy that will carry on,” he said. “My goal was just to bring us together and to have us work as a unit instead of thinking individually. Because we come from different schools, a lot of people have their own agendas. But I feel like if we get everyone together and work together, then we’ll have a great season.”
Harlan took a 7-3 record into its first playoff game Thursday, having lost to 9-1 Southwest on Nov. 1 in a 42-35 District 14-5A-I thriller. Prior to the opening kickoff, Carter and Griffin met at midfield for the captains’ coin toss.
The contrast between the two schools is apparent when visitors step inside Southwest Dragon Stadium. This is the venue Detmer put on the map a few years before he won the Heisman Trophy at BYU, a fact emblazoned across the press box which looks down on one of the few grass fields left at any 6A or 5A school in Texas. That’s in contrast to the expansive practice field several hundred yards away, which features artificial turf inside of a running track.
Harlan literally has no football history. There is no on-campus stadium either, but there is plenty of room for multiple practice fields, even as encroaching subdivisions have all but surrounded the school’s footprint.
While Carter is helping establish tradition at Harlan, Southwest revels in it. And developing athletes in a diverse community comes with the territory. Griffin, who is white, is in the minority at Southwest, a school that is 95 percent minority. The school has conducted food drives for years to help hungry students and their family members.
“I learned to understand where other people come from and I’m able to relate to them and they’re able to relate to me,” Griffin said. “It’s a great experience and I have a lot of great friends on this team.”
Spending three years on the freshman and junior varsity teams revealed traits like perseverance and dedication for an athlete who was not blessed with an inordinate amount of natural athletic ability, his coach said.
“Leif has grown through his hard work. He hasn’t necessarily always been the kid with the greatest athletic tools, but he works harder than anybody else we’ve got and his hard work has paid off with a good senior year on the field,” coach Matt Elliott said.
Griffin knows this will be his last year as a football player. A fullback and linebacker who scored a touchdown in a lopsided victory earlier this season in the first Fire and Armor Bowl against new district rival Southwest Legacy, he has made his senior year one to remember. It has been enhanced by the lessons he learned from ROTC, where he proudly serves as Bravo Company Commander.
The parallels between football and ROTC are everywhere for Griffin, who is a high achiever in the classroom too, currently ranked No. 6 in his 502-person class with a 4.01 GPA.
“You have got to remember orders to the sentry just like you have to remember plays,” he said. “You’ve got to have communication between the chiefs just like you have communication between the coaches. Also with my peers and players. It’s very important.”
Hoping to emulate his brother and study nuclear engineering at Oregon State, Griffin has built an impressive and diverse resume that goes beyond football, academics and ROTC. The second of six children, he was a standout catcher growing up, a karate aficionado and a two-time state qualifier for UIL calculator. Taking a slew of AP classes now, he has also somehow found time to raise and show pigs, including a 100-plus pounder named Betty. In addition, he is No. 4 in the competitive Dragon Warrior rankings at Southwest, a ranking based on academics, attendance and grades.
A strong family upbringing is evident in everything Griffin does. The son of a chemical engineer and former teacher, Leif has lived his entire life on a 15-acre spread a couple of miles from the high school. Each of the Griffin siblings is named after a famous explorer and politician. Leif Quincy Griffin’s name pays homage to Leif Erikson and John Quincy Adams.
Unlike Harlan, which is the 11th comprehensive high school in the Northside Independent School District, the Southwest Independent School District just added its second high school, Legacy. Much of the growth in the area correlates to a new Toyota plant built about 15 years ago, “a game changer for Southwest,” said Leif’s dad Timothy, a lifelong southsider.
Southwest has an astounding 98 percent graduation rate, which is well above the state average. according to counselor Elisha Frausto. “We’re very blessed to have a variety of advanced academic courses and Leif is one of the students that is taking the top courses that we do offer at Southwest,” she said, citing dual credit and On-Ramp courses like Physics 2, Calculus and English 4 that will allow Griffin to start college with 40 credit hours.
The district also passed a $75 million bond proposition earlier this month, with $18 million earmarked for renovations at the high school, where several projects are already under construction from a previous bond measure .
At Harlan, Carter is quite familiar with advanced classes too.
“I take a lot of AP classes but I like the challenge,” he said. “If I was taking regulars it wouldn’t challenge me enough. I love math.”
He also loves his school, but not just because of the sparkling hallways and abundant Hawks signs.
“I really think all the new stuff is nice but it’s not exactly the new stuff that means a lot to me,” he said, a smile perpetually pasted on his face. “I think it’s the people who have touched us and stuff.”
One of those people is Priscilla Williams, Harlan’s head counselor. She gets to see Carter on a daily basis since he is an aide in her office.
“You can just tell that there is something special about him,” she said. “You know he’s going to do well. He’s doing well now and you know he’s going to do well after high school. Sam is going to accomplish great things."
You won't find any disagreement from Carter’s coach.
“Kids just gravitate to him. He’s full of energy. He’s always about doing the right thing. He’s No. 11 in his class of about 390-something kids. He’s good when things are going wrong. He’s good at stepping in and filling that role of a leader,” coach Eddie Salas said.
A stud at getting teenagers to excel – his 212 water-boiling point posters are plastered around the locker room – Salas said he draws motivation from an unlikely source.
“I think (Sam) is inspirational to the coaching staff too,” Salas said of the oldest of Wave (retired Air Force) and Petra Carter’s two children.
Carter, who also runs the 400 meters and relays for the Hawks’ track team, wanted to continue working at SeaWorld this fall after enjoying his food services job over the summer. But between football and a heavy academic load that often has him doing homework until midnight, his schedule is full.
His tentative plan is to study engineering at Texas AA&M next year.
Coincidentally, Griffin might end up there too, if the Oregon State opportunity does not materialize.
Two role models from diverse backgrounds share a love of football and prove to everyone around them that despite the hardships or benefits of their circumstances, success is available to those who approach the daily grind with an upbeat attitude and commitment to excellence.