It might be a sweltering Friday night in early September or a crisp autumn night in late October–it doesn’t matter. It’s Friday night and every high school stadium light in the state of Texas is turned up full blast, shining spotlights on the Cougars, the Eagles, the Buckaroos, or maybe the Blizzards and the Pied Pipers.
Welcome to Friday night, Texas style, home of “Friday Night Lights,” whether they be blazing in a state of-the art stadium that would rival the home of the Dallas Cowboys or a more modest field that still has real grass.
For tradition, it can’t be beat. The football heroes, the marching bands, the twirlers, the cheerleaders, the booster club concession stands all add up to an experience that can only be fully appreciated in Texas.
An added ingredient to that mix is the play-by-play account and color commentary provided by familiar radio voices. In fact, it’s not unusual to see fans in the stands watching the game live while listening to it on the radio.
“That’s very typical,” said Al Pickett, who for years partnered with Chuck Statler to broadcast the Abilene High School football games.
Statler continues to broadcast Abilene High games, but Pickett stepped away from the booth a few years ago so that he could be a fan at his grandson’s games. He continues to broadcast Hardin-Simmons University football games.
Jimmy Pogue has been the play-by-play man for the Cooper Cougars for years, along with Rick Cason, who does the color commentary. One year, a friend of Pogue’s from Ohio was in town the weekend of the Abilene High/Cooper game. Shotwell Stadium was packed well beyond its 15,000-seat capacity with screaming fans. The man was awed.
“I’ve never seen anything like this,” he said.
That’s a common comment from first-time visitors to a Texas high school football game. Fans who can’t make it to the game often tune in to the radio broadcast, which also can be heard on AISD TV and around the world via the internet. Nobody enjoys that experience more than Steve Warren, who coached the Abilene High Eagles for 19 seasons, from 1996 to 2014.
Warren retired in the spring of 2015 and now works in the oil business. He lives at Lake Coleman.
“If I’m not at the game,” Warren said, “I’m on my porch listening to it out at the lake.”
Statler and Pickett were excellent, Warren recalled, partly because of their preparation. They would stop by his office once a week to get information needed for an upcoming game.
“That’s part of the reason why they were so good,” Warren said, “because they were prepared and did their homework.”
A highlight of Warren’s career-and Statler’s and Pickett’s–came in 2009 when the Eagles won a state championship. That season was highlighted in the book, “Brother’s Keeper,” that Pickett co-wrote. It was made into a movie, “Under the Stadium Lights,” that premiered in June.
Following is a look at three veteran radio announcers and their insights into a tradition big as Texas – Friday night football:
Since 1998, Statler has served as Taylor County Commissioner for Precinct 4. But back in the ‘70s, he did a different kind of bulldozing as an offensive and defensive lineman for the Breckenridge Buckaroos. The local radio station broadcast the games on Friday nights and replayed them on Saturday mornings.
“For kids like us, we couldn’t wait to hear our names announced on the radio,” Statler said.
And he remembers that thrill when he’s in the press box. Moms, dads, and grandparents are listening, either in the stands or on the radio–maybe both-just waiting to hear their kid’s name called.
This year marks the 41st season for Statler to announce sports, including Abilene High School football. His first broadcasting gig came in 1981 for the same Breckenridge radio station that occasionally called his name.
Over the years, Statler has picked up a few bits of wisdom and “tricks of the trade,” like having fillers on hand to eliminate dead air time, mentioning the score at least every three minutes, saying the names of as many players as possible, and being comfortable with your broadcast partner.
“Always try to find somebody you enjoy traveling with,” Statler advises.
Statler and other veteran broadcasters know that preparation is essential for a knowledgeable broadcast, but they also know they’d better be prepared for the unknown.
“When the football gets kicked off,” Statler said, “all that stuff can go out the window.”
That actually happened to Statler in the 1980s when he was broadcasting a game in Winters between the Albany Lions and the Winters Blizzards. His game day preparation didn’t prepare him for not having a phone line set up. A man sitting in front of the press box heard the conversation and came to the rescue.
“Oh, hey, I’m with the phone company,” he said. “I can fix you up.”
Five minutes later a phone cable stretched over the press box, and life went on. Those kinds of mishaps can occur anywhere, but they’re more likely in small towns. Statler and other local broadcasters have set up shop in the tiniest communities and in the biggest cities. They’ve sat in the bleachers and in lawn chairs if the press box wasn’t big enough. On the flip side are stadiums like the one that serves the Birdville ISD, the stadium where Abilene High School beat Cedar Hill in 2009 en route to the state championship. It’s a favorite of Statler’s, but he keeps in mind that no matter the state of the facility, the broadcaster has the best seat in the house and it’s his responsibility to share that view with listeners.
Statler’s broadcast partner for years, Al Pickett, has five sports-themed books to his name. Statler has none, but if he decides to write one, it won’t be from the press box view.
“Probably if I wrote a book,” he said, “it would be a little bit about football and how many chicken fried steak places I’d been with Bill Hart.”
Hart was a longtime sports writer for the Abilene Reporter-News who knew every cafe in the Big Country that had good chicken fried steak and barbecue. He died April 21, 2015.
Pickett gave up calling Friday night games after the 2017 season so he could sit in the stands and watch his grandson play. Giving up the Friday night gigs was tough for Pickett, who was sports editor of the Abilene Reporter-News for 15 years and is the author of five sports-related books.
“I loved doing it,” Pickett said, “if I could have all home games.”
In Texas, especially West Texas, the travel can be a killer. Pickett remembered a back-breaker when he broadcast a game on a Friday night in Odessa and then had a Saturday afternoon game in Tyler, a distance of 450 miles.
“That about killed me,” Pickett said.
Sports runs so deep in Pickett that in 2002 he founded the Big Country Athletic Hall of Fame, which has a museum in the Mall of Abilene. Pickett was inducted into the hall in 2016 as a member of the media.
Years of broadcasting games have provided plenty of excitement for Pickett. But the 2009 season may have provided the most drama and satisfaction. That was the year that Abilene High School won a state championship, knocking out two favored giants, Cedar Hill and Katy. And it’s the season that the book “Brother’s Keeper” is based on.
The first shocker of the season came when Abilene High downed the Cedar Hill Longhorns 41-17.
“We were not supposed to win,” Pickett recalled, “and on paper we should never have won.”
But they did. And they won big, although it was a nail-biter with seven and a half minutes left in the game. Abilene High was leading 27-17, but a Cedar Hill player broke a long run to the AHS one-yard line.
The Eagles put up a magnificent goal line stand and took over on downs. On the first play after the goal line stand, star running back Herschel Sims scampered down the field for a 95-yard touchdown. Pickett’s recollection of the game still brings goosebumps.
“As he’s racing down the field untouched,” Pickett said, “I could see Cedar Hill people heading for the exits.”
Abilene High had two more victories, over Arlington Bowie and Klein, before taking on the Katy Tigers for the state championship. Katy brought back-to-back championships to the game and was expected to take home another. But the Abilene High Eagles thought better and won the game 28-17.
Pickett didn’t play high school football but was on the basketball, baseball, track, and cross country teams at Council Grove, Kansas. He knows sports well and also knows that it is important to be as objective as possible when broadcasting games. With the internet, you never know who’s listening.
Pickett, like Statler, is mindful of giving the score frequently. And, he makes sure he sets the down and distance, describes what happens on both sides of the ball for each play, and then resets the down and distance.
“You need to paint the picture for the listener,” Pickett said. “That’s the fun part for me.”
Pogue grew up in Abilene, attended Lincoln Junior High, and graduated in 1981 from Abilene High School. But since then, it’s been all Cooper for Pogue, who’s known to fans as “The Voice of the Cougars.” From 1985 to 1990, Pogue was sports information director at Hardin-Simmons University, where he earned both bachelor’s and a master’s degrees.
Since 1990, he has taught English at Cooper, where he sponsors the Student Council and announces games on the radio. Pogue has had a long interest in broadcasting. He was an English and communications major at Hardin-Simmons and then was sports information director for HSU. He did the radio color analysis for the Hardin-Simmons basketball games in 1985 and 1986. He’s also called baseball and volleyball games and was the voice of the Abilene Prairie Dogs minor league baseball team for five years.
“It’s all been phenomenal,” he said of his radio career. “There are a lot more wins than there are losses.”
A few highlights stand out. One night when he was announcing a Cooper football game, an airman called from Dover Air Force Base, where the bodies of those lost in overseas combat are brought home. The airman was on alert, waiting for word of an incoming flight as he listened to the sounds of Cooper High School football in faraway Abilene, Texas.
“That’s humbling,” Pogue said.
The 1996 football season provided plenty of thrills for Pogue, with Cooper in position to win it all. But it didn’t happen.
“You get to the state championship game,” Pogue said, “and you’re beat by Drew Brees.”
Plenty of teams know the feeling. The legendary quarterback of the New Orleans Saints recently retired after 20 seasons in the NFL.
Other highlights for Pogue involve family members. His wife, Laura, called a baseball game with him in Lubbock once when his broadcast partner was out. And, he’s gotten to call his children’s names over the air. His son, Jamie, was the kicker for the Cougars for two seasons and his daughter, Katie, was in playoff games for the Cooper volleyball team.
“That’ll just make you smile for the rest of your life,” Pogue said.
By Loretta Fulton
Photography By Shayli Anne Photography