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‘What Carter Lost’ is a reality check for a Texas high school football powerhouse

Team featured in ‘Friday Night Lights’ gets a less glamorous depiction in 30 for 30

If you watched the 2004 movie Friday Night Lights, you might be familiar with the football team from Carter High School. That Dallas team, seeking its first state championship, was portrayed as a group of tough-talking cheap-shot artists who checked all the boxes often attached to African-American athletes.

That was Hollywood’s spin on it, anyway.

The reality of the Carter High School football team, often described as one of the most talented collections of players in the history of football-crazed Texas, is told in “What Carter Lost,” an ESPN 30 for 30 film directed by Adam Hootnick and airing at 9:30 p.m. Thursday.

In truth, the football team from Carter High School was a collection of kids from a variety of backgrounds, many of them with two-parent, middle-class homes. In the season depicted in the 2004 movie and the 1990 book Friday Night Lights: A Town, a Team, and a Dream, it’s Carter that stands between Permian High School (the featured school in both projects) and the 1988 state championship.

The team from Carter was stacked: 21 players were offered college scholarships, and three made it to the NFL, including Jesse Armstead, a three-time high school All-American who played in five Pro Bowls during his 10-year NFL career. In the documentary, LaDainian Tomlinson, the Hall of Fame running back who grew up in Rosebud, Texas, describes Carter as “the greatest high school football team ever assembled.”

What Carter Lost highlights the team both living up to its greatness during the season and enduring the self-inflicted challenges it faced once the season ended.

For those unfamiliar with what happened after that 1988 season, we won’t spoil it here. But how those players were portrayed in the book and the movie made it difficult, at first, for them to open up to the filmmakers.

“The director said the members of the team were reluctant to talk because they never felt their story was captured in the right way and they were reluctant to do this,” said Marquis Daisy, an ESPN Films producer who directed “Baltimore Boys.” “Adam convinced them that this project was different than what they do in Hollywood. He gave them a platform to tell the real story.”

Initially, that real story is inspiring. It reveals a committed group of talented young men at Carter who band together in an attempt to achieve statewide fame and dominance in Texas, where high school football players are often placed on a pedestal and worshipped.

How big were the kids at Carter?

The defense came up with its own nickname, the “11-man posse.”

One of its players, All-American defensive back Derric Evans, signed his letter of intent to play football at Tennessee from a hot tub.

Players from the school, located in the largely middle-class Oak Cliff section of Dallas, were mobbed for autographs and often had their meals comped. “We were 18-year-old movie stars,” P.K. Williams, a defensive lineman on that 1988 team, said in the documentary.

That’s a lot of acclaim to have at such a young age. And What Carter Lost does a great job detailing what happens to kids who, after achieving a certain level of prominence, begin to feel like they’re above the law.

“You have everything in front of you,” Daisy said. “And because you’re young, temptation takes over these guys in the prime of their careers.”

What happens to many of the talented players is hard to watch. On the football field, the Carter players were local legends. What six of them did with their lives off the field made them national disgraces.

It’s hard watching the foolish acts having such a horrific impact on the individuals and their families, Carter High and the entire community. It’s an emotional journey that makes viewers debate which had more of a negative impression: the embellished story from Hollywood or the questionable actions by the actual players.

As the documentary concludes, there’s an attempt to make viewers walk away from this emotional journey feeling good. But you can’t help but feel disheartened by how the decision of a few has such a traumatic impact on so many.

What Carter Lost is a jarring documentary that should be required viewing for high school athletes across the country.

It just might help them think about actions that could cause their dreams to be deferred, or derailed.

Jerry Bembry is a senior writer at Andscape. His bucket list items include being serenaded by Lizz Wright and watching the Knicks play a MEANINGFUL NBA game in June.