The city of Crockett in East Texas, halfway between Houston and Dallas, remains a community left largely unchanged over the past few decades of growth across the state. With a population hovering around 7,000, everybody seems to know each other.
And, not surprisingly in this state, the people of Crockett take great pride in their football team. On Friday nights in the fall, the town goes quiet as its residents flock to the road games. The home games provide a rallying point for members of the community. It was a bit of a culture shock for head coach Paul Parsons, who previously coached at The Woodlands, a megaschool in the Houston suburbs.
"Out here in East Texas things are a little different," Parsons said. "We take our football seriously. It was like that at The Woodlands too but it wasn't every single person in the city. Here, that's the way it is. I like it but it's still a little different being in a small town."
What Crockett gets in support from its community, it lacks in exposure from the rest of the world. Not this year. Wide receiver Dominique Wheeler has quickly become one of the top prospects in the entire state, garnering offers from Texas, Texas A&M, TCU, Texas Tech, Baylor, SMU and Auburn. However, with the advent of early recruiting, the attention for the 6-foot-1, 176-pound Wheeler started relatively late.
"We didn't really start getting too much attention until January," Parsons said. "His tape got out there and then my phone starting ringing off the hook with college coaches wanting to know more about him. We've had a bunch of guys through here since then. It's really been amazing.
"To be honest, I was surprised it took this long. I know it's tough being in a small East Texas town but he's been a starter for me since his freshman year. I knew he was going to be a big-time player the first time he came out to practice as a freshman. We can't keep him off the field."
For the soft-spoken Wheeler, the newfound attention has caught him off guard.
"It surprised me a little bit when all these college coaches started talking to me," Wheeler said. "They saw my film and liked it, I guess. To me, I was just playing football. I'm just doing what coach tells me to do and colleges seem to want me to play for them now. It's pretty cool."
Despite speaking on the phone and visiting in person big-name coaches such as Mack Brown, Mike Sherman and Gary Patterson, Wheeler has managed to stay quite grounded.
"I don't think things have really changed," he said. "It got pretty crazy for a while with all the visits and the interviews but I just sort of took a step back. I didn't want to let it all get to me. I'm still going to go out there and play as hard as I can and I hope my teammates do the same thing. I have the same goals for my senior year as I did before all this started."
Wheeler did take great pride in one recent development, though. He was invited and accepted an invitation to play in the 2012 U.S. Army All-American Bowl on Jan. 7 in San Antonio.
"I've seen the game on TV before and there are a lot of guys in college and in the NFL that have played in it," Wheeler said. "When coach Parsons told me I had been invited to play in it I couldn't believe it. That was really exciting. It's a big deal to be in the same game that all these superstars played in."
Though recruiters and college football fans now have a keen awareness of the city of Crockett, Parsons says things are not likely to change with the program.
"Dominique may have a little bit of a target on his back," he said, "but we've still got to go out there and play and do what we need to do to win. We've got to get him the ball and, even though more coaches may know about him, he's still going to be hard to stop."
In the end, Wheeler embodies everything the small town stands for. With a new All-American among their ranks, the population of Crockett may just end up turning off the lights in the city on Jan. 7 and making their way to San Antonio to support one of their own.