I had heard about John Outlaw long before I met him.
17 years ago while living in Denton, I’d heard about the coach at Sherman who helped the team who was second in the district to a Denison team that was a perennial State Championship team at the time; their biggest challenge of the year. And rumor had it, the man behind the famous “indoor practice facility.” Sherman had it first, people. Even before Southlake Carroll. They call it the “Turf Barn.”
12 years later while living in Longview, I’d heard more about his legend while he was coach of the Lufkin Panthers, one of the biggest, baddest teams in the state. Home to Dez Bryant, Jovorskie Lane, Reggie McNeal, and athletes on every Big 12 roster.
This year I finally got to meet him, sideline reporting for his game against the Woodlands. In Lufkin at the Texas High School Football-famous “Abe Martin Stadium,” no less. It’s hard to explain football in East Texas until you are there. There’s a reason so many coaches in Texas recruit East Texas athletes. Not to take anything away from my home of North Texas or Austin, but it’s different. John Outlaw was a big reason why.
I envisioned this tough, somewhat sly man, because sometimes when you hear about a team you think of what a person leading would be like, before you actually meet the person. What I met was a wonderfully nice man in a sweater vest and tie, who smiled when he saw me each time, even before we spoke, during pregame warmups. On the cusp of his 300th win, a game that would decide the district championship, with some of the most intimidating athletes in high school football, he was kind. Calm.
That’s when I realized, they play for him. They are strong, fast, passionate and powerful about the game, but also respect their coach. He gave them a confidence. Just like he did in Texoma. The reputation of his teams isn’t just one of speed, strength and size, but confidence. And because he made you comfortable for being you, you became confident. Your best self.
It was a great game to watch. Just before the half his team drove down the field but missed a chance to get points on the board. I asked Outlaw how that would affect momentum going into the intermission. He told me that it was high school football. You’re not paying these kids. Stuff like this happens. Lufkin came out swinging in the second half and won 30-10.
Outlaw had done it. His 300th win achieved, and the district title in place, his kids soaked him with the Gatorade. We rushed over with fancy camera and microphone in hand, and I asked him how it felt. He got emotional in the interview. He was real. Appreciative. Happy. And honest with us enough to let himself go just a little. Before composing himself, of course.
This by the way, is why I do my job. To share a moment like that with someone and to show other people how rewarding something can be is why I do what I do. I had a pretty big smile on my face. After we were done, I walked away from “The Abe,” thankful for finally meeting the coach behind the Panthers and being a part of a historical game in his life.
I never imagined he’d pass away of a suspected heart attack just a couple months later. John Outlaw, dead far before he should ever be, at the age of 57.
So many athletes at so many levels of football owe so much to John Outlaw. He is a legend in East Texas and loved all over the state. Few times in your life does meeting someone become so pleasantly surprising, and I had that experience with him, as I’m sure so many other people did. John Outlaw is gone long before he should be, but his legacy lives on in the lives of so many people he touched.