Football team dinners a tradition for players, families

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By Lance Catchings

Playing high school football in Texas is an experience unlike any other. It is the love of the game and often the memory of those experiences that draw so many to fill stadiums every Friday night.

What is seen on the field is only one part of the experience. It is the time spent with teammates in practice and off the field that strengthens the bond between a team and a community.

In Liberty Hill, there is a long-standing tradition of weekly team dinners hosted by the players’ parents. These are the fans seen taking on the heat of early season, enduring the rain, and huddled under blankets in the late fall to support their kids on Friday nights.

“The team dinners have been a tradition at Liberty Hill for many years,” said proud parent and volunteer Hanna Ogle, whose son, Mason, plays defensive back for the Panthers. “It is always organized and hosted by the parents of the varsity football team and varsity trainers. It is absolutely a concerted effort to give the team a chance to hear from the parents and how much we support them. We know how hard they work, so it is just a little time for them to relax and have some camaraderie. It really pays off when dinner has been over for awhile and there are still groups of kids sitting around the tables laughing, talking and hanging out together. That is what it is all about, and letting them enjoy each other’s company and relax. The players are a team, and the parents are a team.”

Team dinners for the 2018 varsity Panthers and student trainers have been held on Wednesday evenings, and according to Ogle, there is never a dull moment.

“Putting on a hot meal for 60-plus kids can be challenging when you never know when they will show up,” she said. “We don’t know if they will show up at 5:55 p.m. or 7:30 p.m., so we are usually waiting for someone to give us a heads up from the locker room that they have left the field. When that happens, we start the final prep for food, so it is always exciting on Wednesday nights.”

Coordinating an event of this caliber that requires food for dozens of teenage boys isn’t easy, but the parents work together to give the kids a great experience every week.

“At the beginning of the season, we ask all the senior parents of the players and trainers to volunteer to be a host,” she said. “We only have so many weeks throughout the season, so usually two to three parents will team up together to host a dinner. It is up to the hosts where they want the dinner to be held. It can be at one of their homes, or this season, Life Springs Church needs a big shout out from us. They have lent us their kitchen and dining facility for many of our team dinners this season. Many of the host families that volunteered their homes because they had great outdoor settings were rained out. Life Springs Church has been a lifesaver for us for many weeks now and have been a big partner for us hosting successful team dinners.”

Each week, the team dinner has a theme, usually related to the opponent on the schedule that week. For the Panthers’ final regular season home game, they enjoyed Chili Bowl 2018. Unsurprisingly, red meat is typically a major component of the team dinners.

“This past Wednesday, the theme was chill out Canyon Lake,” Ogle said. “We had different types of chili with all the toppings. The kids can go through the line and dress their chili however they like it whether it is cornbread, Fritos or French fries. Last week, Halloween fell on a Wednesday, so we did the Boo Burger Bash. Other favorites of the kids are enchilada night, fajita night and barbecue night. We have had several parents spend hours prepping brisket and pulled pork on barbecue night. We try to do something with a big meat component that is not too complicated.”

Feeding that many big appetites every week takes a community effort, so the dinners are 100-percent donated and funded by the parents. If the Panthers are lucky enough to play a team whose mascot is edible, it typically makes its way to the table in some form or fashion.

“On burger night, we calculated two burgers per person,” Ogle said. “We also did duck poppers, because we played the Taylor Ducks that week. We slow cooked some duck, shredded it and stuffed jalapeno peppers with cream cheese, duck and wrapped in bacon. We figured two burgers, poppers, a hot dog and French fries for every player. Some eat more and more, and some eat less. At Costco, we bought over 120 hamburger patties.”

Even when families are not hosting, they are encouraged to help the host family by participating in a sign-up sheet. Many of the families have been in the Liberty Hill community for some time and enjoy the aspect of catching up as adults once a week.

“The host family will supply the main course,” Ogle said. “We then put out a sign-up form for everything else we need, and it is 100-percent donated and contributed by the parents of the team and trainers. Everybody pitches in to make these dinners work. The only thing that makes this work is us coming together as a community. If we need something, we use a ‘GroupMe’ to communicate with the parents. We can put a need on there and it will be answered immediately. It is 100-percent support of the kids and the team. We enjoy spending the time together. We have all watched many of these kids grow up together, and it is a great opportunity to build community once a week and visit. We have all known each other’s kids since they were very young. I pretty much know the parent of almost every team member, and now a lot of the trainers’ parents, as well. It feels like our community is growing so fast everyday that we almost don’t recognize it. At the heart of it, we are still the same community.”

With the playoffs starting next week, the community dinners will continue, but the certainty of having them every week will be gone.

“When playoffs start, we continue the team dinners, and they are even more bittersweet,” Ogle said. “In the playoffs, we know that any one could be the last one. You can’t count on having another team dinner after this week. If you lose, you go home. We are really valuing these last team dinners together, especially those of us with seniors on the team. We are trying to take it all in and appreciate these times. Sometimes, the parents will hang out in the kitchen away from the kids, and it is nice just to hear the laughter and fun they are having together.”

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