Religion and football in Texas

W. Curt Vincent

“Kum Ba Yah” can sure cause a fella some serious trouble.

Hard as it may be to believe, the high-school football season is officially, as of tonight, four weeks old.

What do those two things have in common? I’d be happy to tell you …

About 30 years ago, somewhere in the Central Texas Hill Country, a sports editor was covering the local high-school football team on its home gridiron. It was, of course, a Friday night — which is only slightly less important a time for Texans than Sunday mornings and way more important than the family’s Taco Tuesday Nights.

The season had progressed to its eighth week, and the local varsity had run its record to a perfect 3-0. The opponent for Week 8, which was from a small town “down the road a piece” (as Texans like to say, which usually means about 100 miles), was also boasting a 3-0 record. Each team was highly ranked in the state by The Associated Press football gurus.

So this was THE game, and the hype during the week leading up to the game was of Super Bowl proportion — even by Texas standards.

The first half belonged entirely to the home team. As our sports editor roamed the sidelines trying to balance a notebook and camera for his weekly newspaper, the local guys rolled to an 18-0 halftime lead and headed to the locker room with an air of confidence.

And then it happened.

Out came the home team’s band. After some fancy marching around the 50 yard line they came to an abrupt halt and — as the crowd coolectively waited with edge-of-the-seat anticipation — the announcer claimed the band would now perform its competition routine to the tune of … “Kum Ba Yah.”

And it did.

Moments later, the two football teams returned to the field of battle and the home team went on to … lose, 21-18.

The crowd was stunned and had no idea what had just happened or why. But the sports editor did. He went back to his office and pounded out a tongue-in-cheek column about how the local football team had been lulled to sleep by the band’s less-than-rousing rendition of “Kum Ba Yah.”

It was not well received, and resulted in threats of pulling advertisements, calls for the sports editor’s firing and even included a death threat or two. At each of the next two football games, spectators (probably the parents of a band member) and band members alike carried signs stating “Kum Ba Yah rocks, Vincent sucks.”

Yes, I was the sports editor.

I learned a lesson that season — never question the power of the song “Kum Ba Yah.”

It’s the very same lesson that Bill Sadlo learned in 2000. He was the director of operations at the Boys & Girls Club in North Port, Fla., and he had just banned an 8-year-old youngster from singing the song at the club’s day camp talent show, calling the song an unconstitutional establishment of religion simply because it contains the lyrics “Kum Bay Yah, my Lord.”

“We just can’t have any religious songs,” Sadlo reportedly said. “You have to check you religion at the door.”

Well, just as it’s ridiculous to think the high-school band playing “Kum Ba Yah” at halftime had anything to do with the football team losing its lead and the game, it’s ridiculous to think singing a religious-based song at a day camp talent show is going to offend someone.

I not only managed to keep my job those many years ago, but also remained alive. The “power of the pen,” however, met its match up against “Kum Ba Yah.” In fact, it was something I was regularly reminded of for a few more football seasons — though, thankfully, I never again heard the song played during halftime.

I just know there are many of you with the burning question of how that high-school football team did the rest of that season. It was a bitter-sweet season in that the team won its way into the state AA championship in the Houston Astrodome, where it lost 7-0 when the local team’s safety went for an interception on a long pass — only to have the ball bounce off his shoulder, into the air and right into the receiver’s arms. He ran to the end zone untouched.

It was only the home team’s second loss of the season — one after “Kum Ba Yah,” the other after a Hail Mary. You do the math.

The hometown coach, who had remained pretty cool after the “Kum Ba Yah” column, told me after the championship game “maybe we should have played that song at halftime … for the other team.”

I didn’t quote him. I knew better.

W. Curt Vincent can be reached by calling 910-862-4163.

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