When it comes strictly to on-field preparation, the Plano Senior football team is doing the best it can to treat this week like any other.
They grind through the rigors of a typical Tuesday practice like usual, but do so with TV cameras and media members stationed on the sidelines. There are plenty of extra eyeballs on the Wildcats this week in advance of Thursday’s 7 p.m. matchup at The Ford Center at The Star between Plano and El Paso Eastwood — two high schools linked through tragedy after the mass shooting in El Paso just over one month ago on Aug. 3.
The cavalcade of events to transpire since have elevated Thursday’s game to a platform like no other the Plano and Eastwood players have been a part of, preparing to play in front of a primetime TV audience and in one of the area’s most pristine venues.
For as much normalcy as the Wildcats have instilled into their preparations for the week, they know that the stage for tonight’s game goes beyond football. Just as Plano seeks its first win of the season, it also hopes to help a grieving community heal.
“I’m just happy that we can use the platform of high school football in Texas to bring these two communities together after what happened,” said Christian Sabatini, Plano senior tight end. “We can have fun, play football and not worry about all the outside stuff; just be happy as a group and enjoy each other.”
The Wildcats and Troopers look to do so despite the atypical backdrop of Thursday’s contest — one that was, at least for 24 hours, in doubt just a couple weeks ago when Plano ISD announced on Aug. 15 that, citing safety reasons and the timing of the matchup, it was cancelling the Plano-Eastwood game.
The decision generated statewide attention and a flurry of social media backlash, with PISD reversing course one day later and reinstating the game — shifting the location from Murphy’s Kimbrough Stadium to The Star in Frisco to satisfy the school district’s security concerns. In between, the initial reaction among the Plano football captains to the cancellation was one of frustration and acceptance.
“We want to play football. It’s why we’re part of this organization and part of why we practice everyday, so obviously we were upset to not get to play the game we love,” said Cody Crist, Plano senior running back. “But we didn’t have any control over the decision, so we just rolled with it and are excited that it’s back on.”
The Wildcats’ student body shared a similar sentiment.
“As soon as practice was done that day … I got home and on SnapChat kids were already making petitions to bring the game back and reinstate it,” Sabatini said. “Everyone wanted us to play and see these two communities come together and play football.”
It’s that same belief in the unity of high school sports that has fostered what Plano hopes will be a welcoming and supportive experience for Eastwood and the El Paso community.
Throughout the week, the high school is selling T-shirts with the words “Texas Strong” flanking the Eastwood and Plano logos for $20, with all proceeds going to a charity of Eastwood’s choice — they can be purchased online at the Plano Quarterback Club website (planoqbclub.membershiptoolkit.com/home).
Crist mentioned inviting Eastwood to participate in Plano’s pep rally on Thursday, as well as some gift giving from the student council and a school-wide initiative to promote acts of kindness. Later in the day, PISD announced that a pregame reception will be held from 5-6 p.m. at the Baylor Scott & White Sports Performance Center at The Star, with the Wildcats and Troopers planning some additional gestures of togetherness before kickoff.
“We felt honored that we had the opportunity to play El Paso Eastwood, so with all the things that have transpired, it has become more than I ever dreamed it would,” said Jaydon McCullough, Plano head coach. “All I can say is that I hope it brings honor to the people of El Paso, because that was the intent and everything that we started talking about doing … it was to show unity.”
That sense of community will carry over onto the gridiron for tonight’s 7 p.m. kickoff, when both teams attempt to suppress all that has preceded the game and seek their first win of the season. They’ll both be looking to erase a pair of difficult opening-week performances, with Eastwood shut out by El Paso Americas, 63-0, and Plano routed by Hebron, 53-26.
“What happened last week had probably played a role in how practice has gone this week,” Crist said. “We were really unfocused and undisciplined last week and we know that, so everybody’s focus this week has been working hard and staying disciplined, and I think that has helped our eyes stay forward instead of focusing on external things.”
McCullough admitted to some concern as to how his young team will handle the spotlight that comes with Thursday’s contest, particularly in the face of an Eastwood squad that he carries a great deal of respect for.
“There’s no doubt [getting that first win is] a motivation, but I’ll be honest that I am concerned,” he said. “We have to stay focused because we have an opponent over there that isn’t a pushover. They won five district games and [made the playoffs] — this is not a pushover football team.”
The Wildcats won last year’s meeting against the Troopers, 72-48, in a game that didn’t lack for bizarre twists and turns. One year later, the two rematch under a different set of circumstances, but one where both programs and communities are unified in their focus.
“We want to honor the victims of El Paso, we want to honor the community, and what a greater way to do that than one of the most unifying sports in the world — football — and bring two wonderful communities together to grieve and celebrate and let people know that good wins,” McCullough said.