Somewhere in the neighborhood of 465 days from now, the Texas Wesleyan Rams will take the field for the fist time since the program was suspended during World War II. But for now there is nothing. No stadium, no weight room, no uniforms, no pads -- only t-shirts, and they're rapidly running out of those.
On this clear Sunday afternoon in the middle of May, Texas Wesleyan has camped at L.D. Bell High School in suburban Fort Worth to hold an open combine for any eligible athletes looking at a shot at launching an NAIA football program. Texas Wesleyan printed 200 gold t-shirts with blue numerals on the back and "PROVE IT!" screaming three times across the front, but a larger-than-expected walk-up crowd sent organizers scrambling for another box of gold shirts. These are the problems you're hoping to have when building a football program out of scratch.
One of 63 schools (according to data from the National Football Foundation) to add football from 2008-18, the Rams perfectly fit the profile: a private school of 1,500 students in east Fort Worth that, frankly, this 15-year Metroplex resident wasn't aware existed until news of the football program spread. "A lot of kids, they ask about a football team when we're recruiting them for different sports," athletics director Steve Traicher told FootballScoop. "When they learn that we don't have football it's different for them. For people that are used to that culture it's not a big thing but most kids in Texas, football is such a big part of high school life and college life. We wanted to have that."
While Texas Wesleyan waited on football, the football community didn't always wait on Texas Wesleyan. "The absolute truth is, long before we posted the position we were getting flooded with applicants. There are no secrets in Texas," Traicher said. "Once somebody got wind that we were even talking football, we were getting hammered with people going, 'I'm your guy.' We were getting resumes before the job was even posted. Nothing generates interest like football. Nothing." Once the program was officially announced on Feb. 3, and Joe Prud'homme, head coach at nearby Nolan Catholic High School, was hired Feb. 25. Prud'homme has since hired Temple offensive graduate assistant Calvin Powell as his offensive coordinator and pulled longtime assistant Paul Duckworth from Nolan Catholic to run the defense. Those three are the entire staff for now.
"Coach Prud'homme was one of the candidates that had a lot of skins on the wall, and during the whole interview process all he wanted to do was talk about how to work with young men, to help them be better sons and future fathers and husbands and productive community members," Traicher said. "We'd try to steer back and talk X's and O's and he'd just go right back and talk about developing young men. He won all those state championships at Nolan (seven, to be exact), but if a kid wasn't up to speed academically he'd sit at a table and do homework during practice. We all said, 'That's our guy. That's who we want right there.'"
Because of its location, Texas Wesleyan is uniquely positioned to build a winner -- quickly. Football players are Texas's No. 1 export, and the state is massively underserved in small college programs. Between Tyler and Abilene -- a swath of land that covers nearly 300 miles and more than six million people -- the only small, private offering, until now, has been Southwestern Assemblies of God in Waxahachie, an ultra-religious school in a quasi-suburban, quasi-rural, town 30 miles south of Dallas. The demand greatly outweighs the supply, which is why 215 players gave up their Sundays for a chance to play for a college smaller that's probably smaller than their high school.
"It's a place that they can go to school, get a scholarship and have a chance to play," Prud'homme said. "There's so many that get overlooked here, it's terrible."
"I played football and basketball in Fort Worth ISD. I've been here for 40 years," said Fred Williams, whose son is a Class of 2017 wide receiver at a Fort Worth private school. "I've seen so many kids play four years in high school and there's nothing left. This is a win-win whether they win a game or not."
So, what's the first official football activity for a football team that isn't really a football team yet? Stretching, of course. Volunteer coaches split the mass of 215 players -- some teenagers with high school eligibility to burn, others in their mid-20's; some with obvious college football physiques; others without -- into six groups, and Duckworth performed the football-practice like ritual of stopping the exercise and yelling at the group for not clapping through their breaks enthusiastically enough. The group went outside and recorded typical football measurables -- 40-yard dashes, shuttle runs and broad and vertical jumps. After that, players divided into groups for position work and 1-on-1s.
The format forced Prud'homme and his staff to churn the proverbial logistical wheels while also trying to keep their scouting eyes on for any walk-ups with obvious ability. "There's certain ones that we've been recruiting that we keep a little closer eye, but then there are some that open our eyes that we didn't know about that are flashing," Prud'homme said.
But while showing enough interest for a three-hour tryout is one thing, actually applying to and enrolling in a university of 1,500 students where tuition starts at north of $22,000 a year is another. "We won't like anybody until we look at who's applied and who's been accepted. Then we'll get to getting tape on them, looking at the numbers and all that," Duckworth said. "Have they applied to the school? Have they been accepted to the school? Once that process is completed we'll get to the business of football. It's nice to be out here in a shirt and shorts, but if they can't get into the school it's for nothing."
The hidden paradox in launching a football program is that Texas Wesleyan finds itself with a wide-open roster, but not many players available to take them. The Rams announced a small signing class in April and have steadily grown that number since but the majority of the 2016 class has already declared its college intentions. "At this time (of year) ninety percent of kids have already decided where they're going to school. If they're out there, there's a reason that they're out there," Duckworth said. Because of that, the Rams' staff will spend its summer chasing undeclared players who have already applied and been accepted to the school.
However, every player Texas Wesleyan can sign is paramount -- otherwise, the Rams will hit the field next fall with a two-deep of mostly 18-year-old true freshmen. Each player inked now is one more player the program can incubate in its weight room, sell to the university and public as an ambassador and help establish what will become the program's culture. "We're calling this our leadership class, which will basically be redshirt group of athletes," Traicher said. "The truth is, if you're going to try to play college football with a bunch of young men who are barely shaving, you're not going to compete well."
Texas Wesleyan will play its first seasons at a local high school facility, but the plan is to have an on-campus stadium ready by the end of the decade. From there, TWU thinks a football team on campus will amplify throughout the entire university in a way nothing else can.
"Football has the ability to create ancillary programs organically. It won't be long, I'm guessing, before we have a band," Traicher said. "It won't be long, I'm guessing, before our cheerleading squad triples in size and we have pep squads and spirit squads. That's the kind of stuff that adds to the student population and the student experience. It gets kids involved in stuff."
"We give a Ben Hogan scholarship away every year, and when I interview the reciepients usually say they're excited about small class sizes," TWU strategic communications manager Ann Davis said. "This year's recipient just said, 'I can't wait to watch football.'"