Jewish World Review Oct. 20, 2004 / 5 Mar-Cheshvan, 5765

Dave Lieber

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Important chapter missing in ‘Friday Night Lights’ | His name is an obscure footnote in Texas high school football history. But even now in retirement, Wilfred Bates is sometimes recognized by folks as the Dallas high school math teacher who in 1988 unintentionally determined the winner of the Class 5A state football championship.

Bates did not attend the famous championship game between Carter High and Judson High. He was too concerned with his personal safety, and after what happened, he had little interest. But looking back 16 years later, what Bates did can only be described as principled and brave.

Without meaning to, he took on the Texas high school football establishment, almost lost his job, received death threats and, as a punishment, was transferred to a middle school.

What did he do?

He failed the star running back in algebra class.

Bates' off-the-field glory is described in my favorite chapter of the football classic Friday Night Lights by H.G. Bissinger. The story didn't make the new movie based on the book. But Chapter 15 — "The Algebraic Equation" — could be made into a movie of its own.

"I was trying to be the best teacher that I could," Bates told me in an interview Thursday. "I did what was right. I stood up for right."

Back in 1988, as the Carter Cowboys played their way toward the state championship game, not too many people at the Dallas high school saw it that way.

Gary Edwards, a student in Bates' class, was the team star. Edwards and the other Cowboys acted as if they were invincible, Bissinger wrote in his 1990 book.

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"No one could ever touch them, ever get to them no matter what they did," Bissinger wrote.

Many of the players, led by Edwards, broke the rules, and nobody called them on it. They skipped class, didn't do their homework and didn't take exams (except when teachers gave them the answers). They hung out in the hallways and sometimes left school in the middle of the day, not returning until football practice.

Everybody turned a blind eye. Everybody except Wilfred Bates, who, Bissinger wrote, "looked like his name, rotund, sallow-looking, with the exact mannerisms that one might expect from a man who had dedicated his life to the teaching of math and industrial arts. He seemed intent on not turning his classroom into a mill where everyone passed regardless of how much or how little they knew. He had a notoriously high failure rate."

Bates, who has a doctorate in higher education, told me he didn't follow the football team's exploits, except to know that they were winning. He didn't care that Edwards was the star — only that he wasn't learning math.

He gave Edwards a 40 on his first weekly test, then a 60, then another 60 and then a 35.

The problem was the 4-year-old state law — No Pass, No Play. With any grade lower than 70, Edwards would be ineligible to play.

With a week to go before the end of the six-week grading period, the Carter principal transferred Edwards to another math class. In the new class, Edwards "earned" a grade of 72.

But as the team headed into the playoffs, somebody made an anonymous phone call to state officials: Check out Edwards' grade in algebra.

Because Edwards had played games after the six-week period, if he were deemed ineligible, those games would be forfeited. The school would be tossed from the playoffs.

Bissinger wrote, "Agatha Christie couldn't have erected a more chilling, more perfect plot."

The investigation began and the grade was recalculated: 68.75.


But after the principal changed the grade to 70.4, the Cowboys were back in the playoffs.

At first, that grade change was upheld by the Texas Education Agency. Edwards scored touchdowns, and Carter kept winning.

But at a hearing in Austin, Texas Education Commissioner Bill Kirby seemed to take Bates' side. Noting how many people attended the hearing, Kirby said, "Put some of your time and effort and attention on improving academics."

Kirby ruled that Edwards flunked algebra, and the University Interscholastic League ejected Carter from the playoffs.

But lawyers for Carter and the Dallas school district, showing "the kind of frantic behavior that is usually associated with trying to stay the execution of a death row inmate," Bissinger wrote, rushed into an Austin courtroom seeking a temporary restraining order to keep Carter in the hunt.

Bates, who was suspended with pay and eventually transferred to a middle school, was ordered to take the witness stand. The case was making headlines, and Texans took sides.

Bates testified that Edwards missed a class to watch football game films, hadn't done all his homework and failed most of the tests.

"I was on trial," Bates told me.

The judge allowed the semifinal championship game to take place between Odessa Permian and Carter. The education commissioner decried the verdict, saying, "Well, this decision today says football is still the king."

The semifinal game was played in Austin, and, as shown in the movie, Carter won.

A week later, Carter beat Judson to win the state championship.

Months later, the Austin judge ruled that Carter should not have been eligible. Carter was forced to return the championship trophy. Record books today show that Judson won the championship in a forfeit by the improbable score of 1-0.

Gary Edwards eventually served four years in prison for armed robberies committed during the spring of his senior year at Carter. He now works as a helper at a Dallas dairy.

Bates ended his 37-year teaching career when he retired in 1993. He lives with his wife in Duncanville. In all the years since, Bates and Edwards have never spoken.

The retired teacher told me that he still thinks about this chapter in his life several times a week, especially when he hears about ongoing controversies to raise academic standards.

"I wanted him to pass," the former teacher said. "If he had just done one more assignment, he would have. But he didn't do it. He wasn't willing to do it.

"I feel this whole mess was a fiasco caused by the administration, from the superintendent down to the principal, down to the coaches. But I was upholding the basic principle of the education of our children."

Does he think anything has changed?

"I see that some of the same things are being repeated," Bates said.

Dave Lieber is a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Comment by clicking here.


© 2004, Fort Worth Star-Telegram Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.