Jeff Miller doesn’t know what will happen after Thursday’s state championship football game.
“Hopefully it’s not another 41 years,” Miller said with a chuckle.
Miller, the head coach of the Rockdale Tigers, is looking forward to seeing his team play against the Brock Eagles at the AT&T Stadium in Arlington. Forty-one years is how long it’s been since Rockdale’s football team has advanced this far. The last time they became state champions was in 1976.
“Every school in the state – they start off with the same goal and as you get to each round of the playoffs, it becomes a little more of a reality,” Miller said.
Miller says all minds are focused on bringing home a win. “We’re so in this moment and that’s what we preach. We’ll worry about next, next.”
It’s something positive for the town of just under 6,000 people. In October, Luminant announced it will close the Sandow coal-fueled power plant in Milam County in early 2018. The company estimates that closure, along with Three Oaks Mine, will affect around 450 employees.
In city manager Chris Whittaker’s office, renderings of a new police station, splash pad and visions of a strong future are on display. Whittaker is also hopeful Amazon will grant Milam County its bid for the next Amazon headquarters.
“We have a lot of potential and that’s what Rockdale’s always maintained – that sort of attitude, maintaining a positive attitude and looking to the future,” Whittaker said.
That positive attitude is something the athletes on Rockdale’s football team have had to also learn. In addition to the town’s struggles, this season saw players dealing with injuries and personal hardships.
“At the beginning of the season, I lost my dad the day before two-a-days, so it made us closer,” Tyler Lehmkuhl, a senior, said.
Matt Lehmkuhl, Tyler’s father, died of a heart attack. A big source of support for the team, the team has honored him all season with a “Victory V” sign on the stadium. The motto for it: Keep it lit.
“If it’s lit, we’re winning,” Miller said.
“It just makes winning more special,” Lehmkuhl said. “If we won Thursday, then it’d be lit for a whole another year.”
Lehmkuhl and his teammates say the symbol has taught them how to be unselfish towards one another, too.
“We grew individually and we grew collectively,” Jaqualyn Crawford said. “You learn lessons as you come out here.”
Torry Locklin says the team has learned to “play with heart.” Thursday will be a big day, but the mentality can’t change, he said.
“Just stay calm. That environment’s going to be crazy and we’re just going to try to get in there and settle our nerves down and get playing,” Locklin said.
Miller says “football is just part of this thing called life.” His family has used the lessons learned from the sport to overcome their own set of challenges, too. In a 2015 Rockdale Reporter article about his son Gunner Miller’s battle with Ewing’s Sarcoma, he’s quoted as saying “winners don’t have better circumstances; they have better attitudes about their circumstances.”
He says seeing the strength on the field translating into positive attitudes among athletes in their daily lives, as well as the community, is what’s special about the sport.
“Life is full of adversity and how you handle those situations are going to determine how successful you are in a lot of cases,” he said.
City employees have the day off Thursday and are encouraged to travel to Arlington to cheer on their football team. The game starts at 3 p.m.
“It’s what’s supposed to happen in small town Texas,” Miller said.
Rockdale knows what it means to be a team.
“These kids are such an important part of this community and they are our future,” he said. “This is more than these 35 guys out here. This is about a whole community and a whole 70 and 80 years’ worth of graduates.”