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South Oak Cliff victorious in a loss: ‘We did things that have never been done’

Dallas public high school fell short of a third consecutive state championship, but exceeded expectations

As South Oak Cliff High School’s football team prepared for its third straight trip to Texas’ Class 5A Division II state championship game Saturday, music blared from a three-foot-tall black speaker.

The players, student trainers, and support staff sang passionately. They bounced to Miley Cyrus’ “Party in the USA,” followed by Katy Perry’s “California Gurls” featuring Snoop Dogg and Vanessa Carlton’s “A Thousand Miles.”

Let’s be honest: these are not the tunes you expect to hear at a football practice from a school seven miles from downtown Dallas, located in a ZIP code where the median household income is $31,063 and 32% of the residents live below the poverty line, according to censusreporter.org.

Nothing about South Oak Cliff ’s football program is traditional … and coach Jason Todd likes it that way.

On Saturday, Port Neches-Grove ended South Oak Cliff ’s quest to become the 19th school to win three consecutive state championships. Port Neches-Grove scored the game’s final 10 points to rally past South Oak Cliff 20-17. In 2021, South Oak Cliff became the first Dallas Independent School District to win a University Interscholastic League championship since Sunset High School did it in 1950.

“I think it’s the best story in Texas high school football history,” Todd said of South Oak Cliff ’s three-year run. “We did things that have never been done.”

South Oak Cliff head coach Jason Todd walks the sideline during the Class 5A Division II state championship game at AT&T Stadium on Dec. 16 in Arlington, Texas.

Ian Halperin/Dallas ISD Athletics

Booker T. Washington won a Class 3A title in 1958, but it was a member of the Prairie View Interscholastic League, the governing body for Texas’ Black high schools. The league was ended after the 1969 season.

David W. Carter High School in Dallas, led by future NFL players Jessie Armstead, Le’Shai Maston, and Clifton Abraham, won a title in 1988. Still, the University Interscholastic League stripped Carter of the title in 1991 after a lengthy court battle involving a disputed algebra grade for its star running back.

Abraham Lincoln High School’s 2004 team was the only other Dallas school district team to play for a state championship. They lost 33-27 in double overtime.

Like many Dallas school district teams, talent has never been an issue for South Oak Cliff. Dallas’ southern sector has produced numerous NFL players. Duncanville High School has appeared in the Class 6A Division I state championship, Texas’ largest classification, in five of the past six seasons. DeSoto has appeared in the Class 6A Division II state championship game for the last two years.

The schools are 12 miles apart.

Duncanville and DeSoto are suburban cities with one high school, which means they have resources and facilities schools in urban districts such as Dallas and Houston typically don’t have. The facilities lagged at South Oak Cliff — the school didn’t even have a practice field with lines — until the Dallas school district passed a $65 million bond package in 2020. South Oak Cliff received refurbished classrooms and athletic facilities that included a new gym, weight room, auxiliary gym, and turf field with lights.

“When we fought for this building, we told DISD we wanted wow factor at 3601 Marsalis,” said Horace Bradshaw IV, a pastor whose son played for South Oak Cliff and whose grandson played on the 2021 championship team. “We told them if our kids had the same equipment the students on the north side had, we would be able to achieve. Two years later, we won a state championship. Historically, it was thought we couldn’t do it, [that] the students weren’t talented enough or disciplined enough.”

Emmett Jones, now Oklahoma’s passing game coordinator, laid the foundation for South Oak Cliff’s recent success. Todd, one of his best friends, continued his work.

South Oak Cliff running back Danny Green (center) runs for a touchdown against Port Neches-Grove in the Class 5A Division II state championship game at AT&T Stadium on Dec. 16 in Arlington, Texas.

Ian Halperin/Dallas ISD Athletics

South Oak Cliff opened in 1952, and it was one of the city’s largest high schools. For its first 13 years, South Oak Cliff was deemed a white school. In the 1960s, the neighborhoods surrounding the school changed, and South Oak Cliff became a Black school.

Coach Norman Jett built a powerhouse. South Oak Cliff has produced 25 NFL players, including former Dallas Cowboys defensive end Harvey Martin and safety Michael Downs, and Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Mike Livingston.

Todd has built a winner that plays with his mentality. Excuses don’t exist, and he welcomes adversity. The Golden Bears play in a district that offers little competition — South Oak Cliff outscored its district opponents 297-29 this season — so Todd seeks it out.

The Golden Bears lost to DeSoto and Duncanville, state champions in their respective divisions, in non-district play by a combined score of 88-27.

“The first four games battle-test us,” linebacker Brandon Jones said. “You’ll never play somebody like that in the playoffs.”

They beat Lancaster High School, a perennial playoff team, and Parish Episcopal, a private school that has won five consecutive Texas Association of Private and Parochial Schools Division I championships.

“We’re not scared of nobody. My kids have seen real-life situations,” Todd said. “Playing Duncanville and DeSoto is just recreation.”

Todd speaks a truth to his players daily that resonates with them. He understands their lives and their circumstances. Todd preaches about what he’s seen and lived as someone who grew up in a single-parent household in South Dallas, a brisk walk from the State Fair of Texas and the Cotton Bowl.

“My street and neighborhood were kind of off limits to a lot of stuff because a lot of older folks stayed there, and prominent people owned homes and rented them out,” said Todd, “but around me, if you wanted to find something to get into it was available.”

Todd has never met his father, but he had many family role models. His grandfather, Dr. Frederick Douglas Todd Sr., was principal of South Oak Cliff from 1975 to 1989. His uncle Michael, is a prominent Dallas attorney, and his other uncle, Frederick Jr., is a neurosurgeon.

“I tried to establish my own identity,” he said. “The biggest thing I tell them is you can’t use it as an excuse because if you look for one, you’re going to find one. There are some people in your life around you — coaches, teachers, people in the church — and other family members you can look to for that same type of guidance.

“It doesn’t have to be just from your biological fathers to have some male guidance and male leadership. They can’t say, ‘Coach, you just talking,’ because they know I’ve never met my father.”

South Oak Cliff head coach Jason Todd (center) at the awards ceremony after the Class 5A Division II state championship game at AT&T Stadium on Dec. 16 in Arlington, Texas.

Ian Halperin/Dallas ISD Athletics

When Jones left South Oak Cliff, he lobbied the administration to hire Todd because he believed the staff needed to understand the mentality of the neighborhood and its residents.

“We’ve seen it all. When I was in school, one of my classmates was one of the youngest to get a capital murder charge,” Todd said. “I’ve seen a number of classmates murdered and killed when I was in high school. There’s nothing new to me or that I’m amazed by, and that’s not just me. That’s the entire staff.

“It’s building trust with the kids. At the end of the day, we’re going to get on them, but we love them, and we’re going to be there at them like we’re treat our kids.”

“Most suburb(an) school teams we play are [in a] one-horse town, and their kids are going home to a good hot meal,” said assistant coach Herman Johnson, a former head coach at Dallas Skyline. “Our kids don’t always have that.”

Running back Danny Green said Todd is more than a coach.

“You can call them whenever something is going on, no matter what time,” Green said.

The environment the players live in, the pressure Todd and the staff apply in practice, and the offseason program have built a resilient team. During its first championship run, South Oak Cliff rallied from deficits of 7-0 and 28-27 to beat three-time defending champion Aledo 33-28. Last year, South Oak Cliff trailed at halftime in three playoff games and the fourth quarter of another before prevailing.

Port Neches-Grove led South Oak Cliff 17-12 at halftime of the 2022 championship before South Oak Cliff scored 19 third-quarter points to pull away.

“We get down, we don’t panic,” Todd said. “When you get down, it goes into disarray many times, but we stay calm. We’ve been here before. We regroup, calm down, and reel the kids back in.”

This year, South Oak Cliff trailed twice at halftime and was tied once in the playoffs. Port Neches-Grove scored its only touchdown with 3:32 left to take its first lead since 3-0.

The Golden Bears’ championship hopes ended when a series of laterals failed on a fourth-and-25. As Port Neches-Groves players celebrated, Todd stood with his hand on hips, a blank expression on his face.

“At a place like this, you have to get buy-in. You have to get kids to believe in you with blind faith because you’re taking them somewhere nobody around here envisions they could go, and they didn’t envision they could go,” he said. “You have to put something around their eyes and say, ‘follow me, and when I take it off, you’re going to be fine.’ ”

Jean-Jacques Taylor is an award-winning journalist who is currently president of JJT Media Group and has covered sports in Dallas-Fort Worth for 31 years.