Editor’s note: Sony Pictures Classics recently released a film version of Twelve Mighty Orphans starring Luke Wilson, Martin Sheen and Robert Duvall, adapted from Jim Dent’s bestselling book of the same name.
The following is a review of the book from the Daily Sun archives by former publisher Raymond Linex II and Corsicana’s Tiger football connection.
‘Mighty Orphans’ a football jewel
Originally published Oct. 6, 2007
One day after my birthday, there it sat in my mailbox. Unmistakably bound in vanilla bubble wrap, there was no doubt it was a book.
Since I checked the mail that day, I’d have to act surprised when I got home that evening to find it neatly wrapped with a bow. I expected a book for my birthday. I expected my favorite author, John Grisham, specifically because I own almost all of his previous books, and my wife brought him up only two weeks before.
Sometimes expectations get us in trouble.
When the wrapping paper fell off to reveal “Twelve Mighty Orphans” by former Fort Worth Star-Telegram writer Jim Dent, my first thought was, “Oh.” Upon glancing at the forward, I found out the book was about a high school football program from Fort Worth Masonic Home.
As you might expect, my interest suddenly spiked like FOX’s ratings anytime the Cowboys play.
Being a somewhat-educated Tigers football fan, I knew a little something about the Masonic Home. In 1932, the Tigers and Masonic Home played to a scoreless tie in the state championship game.
Upon inspecting the latter pages of my new birthday present, I found it had an index. Right there in black and white, available on 14 of the 279 pages, was the word “Corsicana.”
I read just a bit about the 1932 state championship game, not enough to bestill my anticipation once I began reading the book in full.
Expectations. The Mighty Mites of Masonic Home never arrived at stadiums with much, even when they started winning with regularity seen only in pin stripes and gold helmets.
Expectations. Eight days after unwrapping a book I was at first unsure about, I closed shop on a piece I now place among the top three I have ever read, right up there with the classic “To Kill a Mockingbird,” and my favorite Grisham novel, “The Runaway Jury.”
Often, my nights are as booked as my days. Not being a late-night junkie, reading times are sparse. But the final 120-or-so pages took two nights to complete.
Another book about Texas football, “Friday Night Lights,” spurned a movie about the Odessa Permian dynasty of the ‘80s and ‘90s. That movie was as much recognized for its real-life football scenes.
If, and when, Dent’s book about the Mighty Mites hits the big screen, I hope it pays less attention to intricate and precise football shots and more to the colorful characters that make this a wonderful tale of some truly amazing underdogs.
Dent does a terrific job of capturing the lives of these orphans, many of whom had dealt with death, poverty and a longing to be loved. They were fighters, loaners and ran around the Masonic Home grounds without shoes for half of the year.
He begins with the events that led Jeff and Hardy Brown to Masonic Home. Their dad, a bootlegger, was murdered when Hardy was 4. The two had been fishing, and the Gossett brothers — angry at Hardy Sr. — snuck up behind them as they walked home, each firing a shotgun into the elder’s back.
Hardy Jr. ran the two miles home as fast as he could and told his mother dad was dead. She put her stockings and Sunday shoes on, and ran the opposite way. Her three boys and one daughter never saw her again. It was always assumed she feared for her life, too, and she scrammed.
The siblings went to Fort Worth.
After success at Temple, Rusty Russell became the coach at Masonic Home before the 1927 season. Few could understand why. He barely made a living, his family lived on the school grounds, the team had no equipment, and it traveled by pick-up.
After a season-opening win, Sherman crushed the Mighty Mites, 97-13. But Russell had agreed to take the trip to Sherman in lieu of a $250 payment. He used the money to buy letter jackets, and a new tradition was born and the orphaned boys at Masonic Home lived to be Mighty Mites.
Masonic Home went on to an 8-2 record that year, and under Russell the Mighty Mites became regulars in the playoffs, making a couple of state semifinals and quarterfinals despite often having to fight for the right to play at the highest level of Texas football. Amarillo, with 2,000 students, often ended the season of Masonic Home, which boasted less than 150.
In the process, the Mighty Mites also became national darlings, right up there with Seabiscuit, another “little guy” that took down a giant in War Admiral. They had fans from New York to the West Coast, and their success led Fort Worth to build a 15,000-seat stadium to accommodate their fans.
And that gets us back to Corsicana. In 1932, the state championship tilt with the Tigers was played right here in town. The Tigers were considered the big, bad bullies. The Mighty Mites were, well, mighty underdogs.
I won’t be a spoiler, but you have to read the account of the game for yourself. You’ll be amazed.
Though I had heard these stories before, Dent’s well-written, completely captivating body of work made me thirst for more about that era of Texas high school football, and more about Masonic Home, which always seemed to have just 12 players.
A state title always drove Russell, Hardy Brown, the Coulter brothers and the other Mighty Mites.
After a semifinal loss one year, as the Mites walked off the field, the opposing crowd started cheering, “Mighy Mites! Mighy Mites!,” Dent wrote.
In my mind, I was cheering too, cheering the Mighty Mites, cheering Jim Dent’s wonderful book.
Fortunately for me, Lynn Heugatter – a former little league coaching pal of mine – steered my wife toward “Twelve Mighty Orphans.” He told her it would make the perfect birthday present.
Having spent a day or two thinking about some I have received in the past, he was right.
I’m passing the favor on to you. If you are fan of Texas football, Tigers football history, just underdogs in general, “Twelve Mighty Orphans” is a worthwhile adventure.
“Twelve Mighty Orphans,” by Jim Dent, St. Martin’s Press, non-fiction, $24.94.