The 1988 Carter Cowboys football team won a state championship, which was stripped from the school in 1991.
The 1988 Carter Cowboys football team won a state championship, which was stripped from the school in 1991.
ESPN

The story of the 1988 Carter High School Cowboys is tough to get right. There are so many moving parts — one of the most talented high school football teams in history, a school fighting for a new grading system that leads to an eligibility scandal and a group of middle-class high-school kids participating in an armed-robbery ring — that connecting the dots without underplaying one of the saga's aspects requires care and, more than anything, a lot of time. Austin-based documentarian Adam Hootnick took the time, spending half a decade putting together What Carter Lost, an ESPN 30 for 30 documentary that's as comprehensive a history of the Dallas ISD team's tumultuous season any released.

"In the media coverage at the time, there was a real tendency to make a lot of assumptions about what was going on in this story," Hootnick says, "both the football piece and the controversy over Carter's legitimacy. Very few people tried to dig in and look at what was going on within Carter and ask whether it was this football factory where adherence to rules didn't matter. It was clear to me that, at least, Carter was no worse than a lot of other schools."

In the fall of 1988, Carter's roster featured 36 seniors. Nearly half of those fourth-year players, 16, went on to earn full football scholarships from Division I schools. Another 12 underclassmen eventually received scholarships from major colleges. Five players from the team, including five-time Pro Bowler Jessie Armstead, played in the NFL, a remarkable feat for an underfunded public school.

Carter played 15 games, including the playoffs, in 1988, winning 14 and tying district rival Duncanville, 24-24. In the state semifinals, Carter dispatched Odessa Permian, then in the midst of the season chronicled by Buzz Bissenger in Friday Night Lights. While Bissinger did a decent job covering the Carter side of the story in his book, Hootnick says, the Friday Night Lights film adaptation gave casual fans the wrong impression.

"I get that if Permian is your hero, Carter needs to the villain," Hootnick says, "but I took issue with the fact that there seems to have been a clear decision made to attach a racial identity to that villainy, to make not-so-veiled gang allusions. I know you need a bad guy, but this is another high school team with its own story." 

Contrary to what Hootnick says was presented in Friday Night Lights or the narrative that's developed in the nearly 30 years since Carter won its state championship, the story is about a school and team that, despite being racially segregated and located in what might be pejoratively called the inner city, were filled with middle-class kids facing the same challenges star athletes faced across the country.

"That perception led into assumptions that people made about values — where people's priorities were placed," Hootnick says. "I think the fact that one had this parent base that was very engaged, very concerned about what was happening academically. Nobody took the time to understand that; everybody just thought, 'Of course, they must be re-engineering their academics.'"

As Carter prepared for its first playoff game against Plano East Senior High School, the University Interscholastic League announced that the team was ineligible to play in the postseason. The UIL had received an anonymous tip that Gary Edwards, the team's star running back, failed an algebra class before having his grade changed so he could continue to play football.

While it was true that Edwards' grade had been changed, the fight over his score was far from cut and dried. Carter principal C.C. Russeau had implemented a new grading system intended to more fairly score Carter students' efforts in the classroom. Many of the school's teachers — including Wilfried Bates, Edwards' teacher — did not like the new policy. Bates pushed back, continuing to calculate students' grades as he wished. Bates' grade-book was filled with symbols only he understood, rather than scores, and when he was asked to show how he calculated Edwards' grade, he came up with as many as four different values, according to contemporary media reports.

With cash raised by Carter parents, the school hired Royce West to appeal the playoff ban and, after winning an injunction, Carter rolled to six straight victories, eventually beating Converse Judson 31-14 in the state championship game. The battle over Edwards' grade raged until 1991, when Dallas ISD decided to stop fighting on behalf of the team. Carter's championship, the only one won by a Dallas ISD school since 1950, was stripped.

Hootnick, along with many of the parents, players and journalists he interviewed for his film, believes that the district stopped fighting for the team because of what happened after the Cowboys won the championship. During the 1989 spring semester and the summer that followed, 13 Carter students, including six football players, committed 21 armed robberies, mostly in fast food joints and video stores in the neighborhood.

Texas State District Judge Joe Kendall threw the book at the players. Edwards got 16 years. Derric Evans, an all-American defensive back with a full scholarship to the University of Tennessee, got 20 years. Keith Campbell, a backup wide receiver, whom Kendall identified as the ringleader, got 25 years.

"To this day, they don't have an explanation for it," Hootnick says. "I don't think they understood how serious or dangerous what they were doing was. They thought that whatever trouble they got in, someone would get them out of it [because they were star athletes]. They certainly didn't understand that they were creating a situation in which somebody could get hurt or killed. I don't think they processed all of that."

While Hootnick believes that the sentences might have been different if the robberies were committed by middle-class white kids rather than middle-class black kids, he didn't come away from his interviews and research believing that they were unfair.

"These were serious crimes," he says. "I certainly think it was harsh, but there were a lot of robberies.

What Carter Lost premiers Aug. 24 on ESPN.

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