WILDER'S WHOLE WORLD: A good story

By Dwayne Wilder
Special to the Herald Democrat

I love a good story, especially when it is true.

There is an incredible one coming to a theater near you June 11. It’s the story of the Fort Worth Masonic Home and its iconic football team from the Great Depression years. The movie was scheduled to debut in 2020, but the pandemic stopped its journey to the big screen. Now, it is back on track to open that first week in New York and Texas; and then, June 18 nationwide.

I’m going to be in the theater June 11…

I have been waiting for this movie since I read it was going to be made! Like all good movies, this one is based on a book. Coincidently, I had just finished reading Jim Dent’s book, “12 Mighty Orphans,” when the film announcement was made. Local actor Luke Wilson is set to play Coach Rusty Russell, the devoted coach for the rag-tag group of orphans who barely had enough players to field a team. Robert Duvall and Martin Sheen also have prominent roles, so this is a big-time production.

The ‘twelve’ in the title means that everyone played both ways; and there was only one substitute for injuries. So, you better not get injured, or you are going to play hurt at the least. Wow! This team inspired a nation during the hard times of economic depression; and garnered national press as they regularly competed for the state championship against schools with hundreds of students and dozens of players on the football team.

I’m going to hit the highlights from Dent, who was an award-winning sportswriter for the Ft. Worth Star Telegram. If you recognize this name, it’s probably because you have heard of “My All-American” and “The Junction Boys,” two other famous football books. Both were written by Dent, a native Texan who knows his football.

The Masonic Home was an orphanage serving the Freemasons in Texas and beyond from 1899-2005; it was situated just outside of Ft. Worth on a beautiful hillside campus. It went along doing its business until that national recognition with its tiny, undersized football team came to front pages and sports pages across America. Coach Russell wanted to play against the best, so he routinely played bigger schools. He would drive the team to games in a beat-up, old pick-up truck that became their mascot. If you missed the truck, you missed the game.

At the beginning, they didn’t have matching jerseys or shoes; they played barefoot. That first season, there wasn’t even a football on the campus; they practiced without one. Remember, this is the Great Depression—things were not assumed or bought easily, even a ball for a game. You had to make do; and they were in an orphanage!

 They routinely beat the powerhouses of Texas football such as Highland Park; I can’t remember how many times they beat Sherman and Denison, but it is mentioned in the book; and hopefully, our cities will get some screen time as the Mighty Mites barnstormed the state in hopes of finding opponents willing to play them. The friendship and relationship with Highland Park was really neat; it was so special that Coach Russell went on to coach HP after leaving the Masonic Home in 1942.

The book, of course, sets the stage for Russell’s tenure at the school, which was 1927-41. He had an 81 percent winning record at the Masonic Home; and a 71 percent overall. He also coached high school at Granger and Temple; and he coached college at SMU and Howard Payne, his alma mater, where he was an All-American end. He coached Doak Walker and Bobby Layne as an assistant at SMU before he became head coach. Russell is widely considered the ‘father of the spread offense.’ So, all these ‘four wides’ you see on every level of football today—that’s all because of Rusty Russell and his innovative football mind. In addition, he helped write the code of ethics for football coaches in the 1950s, which is still in play across the country. Russell died in 1983 at the age of 90.

Even with the story and the movie, I can’t say enough about the book that Jim Dent wrote. If you have the opportunity to read it before the movie comes out, please do! It is so well-written; and gives so much insight to the coach, the setting, the Masonic Home and the boys who were on the team. Of course, this is not a secret story; there have been documentaries about it and other stories written. ESPN has done a show or two about it over the years. The one leader on the team played for the Green Bay Packers in the NFL; and it was his ‘forearm shiver’ that became famous over the years. (But not anymore, you’ll get flagged – unnecessary roughness or personal foul - if you try it nowadays!)

The story is just so incredible; it’s just what the nation needed at that time in its history. There are so many lessons and relationships to celebrate; and so much history to see. The football you see today on the television owes much to Coach Russell and his Mighty Mites.

It’s so cool that the movie producers filmed most of the movie in the Fort Worth area, where the action actually happened some 80 years ago. It was filmed in 2018-19 with the movie set for a 2020 opening. With all the COVID-19 stuff, it has finally now gotten a landing spot this summer. Check out the newest trailer on-line if you get the chance; it is going to be such a good movie! Go Mighty Mites!

Dwayne Wilder

Dwayne Wilder is a Sherman native who currently lives in Denison. Wilder’s Whole World is his commentary about life in Texoma and the world. Wilder can be reached at cmandad17@gmail.com. The views and opinions expressed here are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Texoma Marketing and Media Group.