On a steamy summer night in Grand Prairie, in a nearly empty high school football stadium, a film crew is exorcising demons on the field.
The movie is Carter High. It's a drama about the dominant Dallas high school football team that endured numerous wounds, self-inflicted and otherwise, en route to a 1988 5A state championship that was later stripped away. The writer and director, Arthur Muhammad, was a receiver on that team, though he had the misfortune of playing (or not playing) behind a superstar.
That Carter team had a lot of superstars, and a lot of heartbreak.
Now, with the movie opening in Dallas on Oct. 30, Muhammad and some of his former teammates see a chance for public redemption and personal clarity.
Muhammad, a youthful 44, dashes about the set, instructing, delegating, doing what directors do. Charles Dutton, who plays Carter head coach Freddie James, walks up to cast member Pooch Hall and shows him an old black-and-white photo of Dutton's prison football team, from back when the actor did seven years for manslaughter.
Two members of that storied Carter team, Keith Campbell and Derric Evans, are also on the set. They each did about seven years in prison for their part in a series of armed robberies committed in the wake of that championship season.
The Carter story is really two stories. The first concerns a disputed algebra grade and a yo-yo-like series of disqualifications and reinstatements. The second concerns the robberies, depicted in the film as a spree of pranks that escalated into something far worse.
Muhammad doesn't flinch from the mistakes his friends and teammates made. Indeed, he hopes Carter High can serve as a cautionary tale for young, superstar athletes who think themselves invincible.
"Every time you turn on the TV or check the Internet, there are some athletes making some bad choices," Muhammad says in a recent phone interview. "This is a story that hopefully can impact other teenagers to not make those bad choices and bad decisions. You don't have to be a bad person to make bad decisions, but those consequences will be the same."
You don't have to tell Evans about the consequences. A fearsome defensive back, he was on par with his Carter teammate Jessie Armstead, who went on to star at linebacker for the NFL's New York Giants. Evans famously sat in a hot tub as he signed his letter of intent to play at the University of Tennessee. Then came the robberies, and the arrests, and a 20-year prison sentence handed down by a judge, Joe Kendall, who was blunt about his intention to make an example of the teen athletes.
Evans, now a project manager in Houston, couldn't watch the courtroom sentencing scene the first time he saw Carter High. "It brought me back to that moment when all of that happened, and what I was about to go through when I was getting ready to be sent away," he says in a phone interview. "But I'm at peace where I am right now. I don't blame anybody for what happened, because I did it. I own that."
You can read a lot between the lines of the Carter saga. The vast majority of Carter students are black, and the football team had a swagger that rubbed defeated opponents the wrong way. "We were despised," Muhammad says. "It was the swagger, the cockiness. And then we were able to back that up on the field."
In the movie version of Friday Night Lights, the story of the Odessa Permian football team, the Carter players are cast as the thuggish bad guys. (They're also shown beating Odessa Permian in the state championship, when in fact they took care of them in the semifinals.)
"I didn't like it at all," Muhammad says. "But I tell people all the time, 'It's filmmaking, it's Hollywood, it's cinema.' People tell the story that they want to tell, the way they want to tell it. If you don't like it, then you tell your story the way you want to tell it."
That's exactly what Muhammad has done with Carter High. He was there -- for the triumphs on the field; the disputed algebra grade of Gary Edwards, who also did time for the robberies (and who wrote his own book about the saga, Carter Boyz); and the subsequent now-they're-eligible, now-they're-not roundelay. He shared the disbelief of the Carter community at the crimes committed and the severity of the prison sentences.
Evans, who felt the brunt of the Carter drama as much as anybody, initially didn't want to revisit it.
"When Arthur first reached out to me about it, and I read the script, I wasn't feeling it," he says. But he thought about it more and changed his mind, largely because he trusted Muhammad to get it right. "After the time went on, I understood what Arthur was trying to do. He was trying to tell the real story. He wanted to keep it true to form. That's when I decided to show up on set. I got closer to it, and I told Arthur at that time, 'Hey, you got my stamp of approval on this.'"
Back on that set, Pooch Hall, who plays Carter defensive coordinator Arvis Vonner, keeps things loose by running up the bleacher stairs and shouting in his best Gladiator voice: "Are you not entertained?" Muhammad directs crowd footage, exhorting extras playing Carter faithful to stand and cheer, sit down, and stand again.
It's just a movie set, but the image remains potent. After 27 hard years, the 1988 Carter High School Cowboys have fans cheering once again.
Read Brad Townsend's stories on the Carter High School scandal and its aftermath, originally published in 2008: