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Too much? ‘Friday Night Tykes’ tween Texas football molds boys to men

The compelling show and its spin-off return with a unique look at American youth football

Four years ago, on the first day of shooting for a then-new Esquire Network series about youth football, executive producer Matt Maranz witnessed something unlike anything he’d ever seen. “It’s 105 degrees in August,” Maranz recalled, “and kids were out there for the first day of practice. They’re hitting, and they’re passing out, and throwing up, and crying.”

But this was far from an unfamiliar sight for the fans of the survival-of-the-fittest kids’ football ecosystem that is South Texas. This was and is the hard-nosed, blood, sweat and tears culture of Texas football, through which boys are molded into men. And, boy, do they start molding men early. “These were 8- and 9-year-old kids at the time,” said Maranz. “No one thought this was unusual. No one thought this was abnormal. Everyone just thought this is the way things should be done.” The critically acclaimed Friday Night Tykes returns for its fourth season on Tuesday.

The docuseries follows teams within the Texas Youth Football Association (TYFA). After hearing rumblings from friends about the intensity of the league, Maranz and his team went down to Texas to see for themselves. “We figured if we were ever going to tell a story about youth sports, you might as well go to the league that calls itself the most competitive youth football league in America.”

From H.G. Bissinger’s 1990 book Friday Night Lights: A Town, a Team, and a Dream, which inspired a 2004 film and mid-2000s television series both called Friday Night Lights, as well as the 1999 film Varsity Blues, Texas football has been chronicled for more than two decades, but most often through the lens of high school football teams. Friday Night Tykes focuses on a younger group of athletes, but with similar kinds of captivating coming-of-age stories. It’s still gritty Texas football — but these are children, and it’s very unfiltered.

“I know my style is aggressive. I know a lot of times people don’t agree with my choice of words,” said Clayton Guillory, defensive coordinator of the San Antonio Outlaws, the centerpiece team of Friday Night Tykes. “Even sometimes I look at the show and say, ‘Maybe I shouldn’t have said that.’ But when you get caught in the moment, you just go with what you feel.” In season three, the dominant Outlaws left TYFA to join the Snoop Youth Football League, founded by Snoop Dogg in 2005, to compete on the national stage.

It’s still gritty Texas football — but these are children, and it’s very unfiltered.

It was also in season three that the cameras caught what Guillory considers to be his most memorable “man, I’m an a–h—” moment since he and his son, Esteban, joined the show three years ago. Guillory — a former Division II wide receiver at Angelo State University who tried out for multiple NFL teams and made the training camp roster of the San Diego Chargers before tearing his rotator cuff — was teaching one Outlaws defensive player how to perfect his three-point stance. When Guillory was taught the form, his youth football coach compared getting into the stance to sitting on the toilet. As he taught his pupil on the show using the same logic, Guillory noticed the young player was holding his breath each time he got low. So, two questions came to the coach’s mind.

Do you hold your breath when you take a s—! If you don’t hold your breath when you take a s—, why are you holding your breath right now!

“Some of these coaches have faced a lot of criticism from the media and viewers of the show,” said Maranz. “But these aren’t monsters. It’s not like they wake up in the morning and go, ‘Man, I can’t wait to go to practice so I can screw up some kid.’ Their motors are pure and their motors are really as any other parent’s. They want what’s best for the kids. How they define what’s best for the kids is different, and that’s what kind of makes it interesting.”

Even more interesting is the underlying backdrop of Friday Night Tykes’ fourth season, which was filmed in 2016 during one of the most intriguing and important years in the history of football in America. San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick decided to kneel during the national anthem before games. The Beaumont Bulls, a youth football team in eastern Texas, joined Kaepernick in his stand for social justice by also kneeling during the national anthem before a September game. A month later, their league canceled the rest of the team’s season.

“Even sometimes I look at the show and say, ‘Maybe I shouldn’t have said that.’ ”

Guillory remembers Outlaws head coach Fred Davis speaking with players Xion Lagrant, JuJu Thomas and Myzel Miller about Kaepernick’s protest during the team’s run to the national championship. The topic also came up with Esteban, reminding Guillory that his responsibility as a coach is not restricted to pushing his kids as hard as can be on the football field.

“I’m not trying to help create football players, I’m trying to help create young men,” said Guillory. “I’m trying to help create young men that are going to be great citizens. They’re going to be contributors to society.”

Social justice is also a major component of Friday Night Tykes: Steel Country, a spin-off series set in Pennsylvania, which returns on Jan. 31 at 10 p.m. EST for its second season on the Esquire Network. If Friday Night Tykes provides a different look at Texas football, Steel Country provides a different look at youth football in general. Income inequality, drugs, crime, unemployment, the plight of working families and the outsourcing of jobs are some of the topics tackled on the complex Steel Country, which was filmed this season in a swing state at the climax of the 2016 presidential election.

“The Texas show is really about extreme behavior and parenting, and it’s asking like, how hard we should be pushing our kids,” said Maranz. “The show in Pennsylvania is more of a snapshot of postindustrial America. It’s more about towns and communities that have seen better days and are kind of struggling for survival and relevance during some very uncertain and difficult times.”

Whether in Texas or Pennsylvania, there’s one thing in common between each Friday Night Tykes series. “It’s about sports,” said Maranz, “but it’s not about sports at all.”

Aaron Dodson is an associate editor at The Undefeated. Often mistaken for Aaron Dobson, formerly of the New England Patriots and Arizona Cardinals, he was one letter away from being an NFL wide receiver.