Those of you not familiar with Jim Dent may recognize his previous book, The Junction Boys, which chronicles the Texas A&M teams under Paul "Bear" Bryant. Dent is an excellent writer who used to cover the Cowboys and still resides in Texas, which is why it's no surprise that Twelve Mighty Orphans includes the mystique of Texas high school football.
Dent chronicles the Masonic Home, an orphanage in Fort Worth Texas that was funded by the Freemasons to provide for orphans of former Masons during the early to mid 20th century. Naturally, during the depression the home reached a peak in terms of students. The home was about as good as an orphanage could be during that era, but the students routinely lacked self esteem and continually hopped the fence in hopes of escaping. Enter Rusty Russell the head football coach. Russel entered the school in the late 20's and fielded one of the top teams in Texas football for roughly 15 years. What's more is that Russell achieved this fielding squads of 12-18 players. Those of you familiar may recognize some of their opponents. The Mighty Mites played the likes of Amarillo, Waco, And Highland Park (Matthew Stafford) High Schools. Furthermore, the Masonic Home played on the highest level of Texas football with a co-ed K-12 enrollment of 153 students.
Now, Dent is a great writer, but anybody could write a bestseller with this story. The first thing that I really enjoyed was the football aspect of it. The Mites achievements on the field are stunning considering the fact that they played with 135 pound guards who faced opposing tackles easily over 200. The other interesting fact is that Russell was not only a motivational coach, but also an excellent tactician. Russell, seeing that his team was outmatched, would throw the ball up to 40 times a game. Dent goes a little far crediting Russell with the creation of the spread offense. (For football elitism, it seems that Russell used a busted out single wing, utilizing short passes. As much as Dent talked about the innovative offense I really wish he would have included some diagrams)
To say that Dent does a great job with character development would be an understatement, and this is really the core of the book. Football aside, it's amazing to hear about what some of these boys and girls went through in order to end up at the home, and how they grew despite the odds against them. Whether going down to the water tower for the nightly fights, stealing grape juice, or feeling up the local city girls, Dent does an amazing job highlighting the personalities of various team members. It's really these side stories that makes the football side of the book so much better. It was also refreshing to see, despite the harsh discipline, that people at the Home truly cared about these kids and in some cases loved them like family. Another interesting note is that some of the players on the team went on to become great college/pro players. Specifically, Dewitt Coulter of Army and Giants fame, and Hardy Brown, known as the meanest man to ever play the game. But other than the orphans and the team, Dent does a good job on the characters that existed during depression era Texas. My personal favorite was "Two Guns" McCoy who was the self proclaimed handspring champion of Texas and dressed in full cowboy gear would sneak onto the field doing handsprings in the endzone after the Mites scored. Much to the dismay of local law enforcement. Essentially he was the forefather of this guy. (NSFWish)
At the end the book is also about how the Mighty Mites served as an inspiration to individuals affected by the depression not only in Texas, but the nation as a whole. Dent uses a fine analogy comparing the Mites to Seabiscuit and how the nation supported the two. Especially when the downtrodden team played Highland Park, which if I'm not mistaken was and still is one of the richest communities in the nation. I won't go into the ending because it is somewhat epic. Not The Junction Boys epic, but amazing nonetheless.
All in all, if you liked Hoosiers you'll love Twelve Mighty Orphans. It's essentially a cooler less Gene Hackmany version of the underdog story. It's in paperback, and if you really are into this type of stuff it's worth the 15 bones. If not you could wait for ESPN to make a half assed TV movie about it like the did for Junction Boys. Still pissed about that bullsh*t. Whatever, I'm over it.