What to Know
- Gainesville State School is a juvenile correctional facility in unincorporated Cooke County near Gainesville.
- The kids in the detention center run by the Texas Juvenile Justice Department range in age from 13 to 18 years of age.
- The Gainesville State School Tornadoes compete in 6-man football against teams in the TAPPS division.
In Texas, football is a big part of high school, but at the Gainesville State School, football is just one part of the rehabilitation for juvenile offenders who are locked up for committing serious crimes.
The Gainesville State School in Cooke County, about 70 miles north of Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, is full of repeat juvenile offenders who are given a second chance.
During a series of reports, NBC 5 takes a look inside the detention facility and the effort to help kids turn their lives around.
Earning Trust and a Chance to Play
18-year-old Damondre Williams has been in and out of the juvenile justice system for more than five years.
"My first time I was 13, I had criminal trespassing," he said.
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He's been behind bars since he was 16.
"One day I was doing too much, moving too fast. I was riding a motor scooter and the police pulled me over," said Williams. "[They] searched me, asked me what I'm doing and I had crack, ecstasy pills and some marijuana on me."
His good behavior has allowed him to work off campus, at a warehouse owned by Laurie Leahy.
"This is the first time many of these kids have been out, in years, from the facility," said Leahy. "And it's the first job any of them have ever had."
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"What we do is pay them a fair wage — try to teach them how to work, how to get along with others, encourage them to save that money and pray that they have a nest egg when they get out to start their life," she said. "Many of these kids came in with nothing, they'll go out with nothing and nothing's waiting for them."
The work isn't easy, but then again no one said it would be. A full-time job at Thirstystone is just part of Williams' busy schedule.
He has qualified to play football, and since he can be trusted to leave campus, he soon will experience the highs and lows of the Friday night lights — beyond the razor wire.
"I'm ready. I'm anxious to get out," Williams said.
Gainesville Tornadoes head coach Roy Burns and his players have big dreams.
"The whole goal has been to get to Waco in December," said Burns. "That's the state championship game."
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Burns is well aware of the kids' troubling past.
"These are kids who are locked up. They committed a crime, but I don't hold that against them," said Burns.
It'll take hard work and a near-perfect season from a group of kids hoping for a second chance.
"When you get in, just relax man. Let the game come to you," said 18-year-old Gary Cole. He's part encourager and part team manager. And he can relate to Williams.
"11 felonies and 16 misdemeanors," Cole said. "The main thing I did, when I was out, was robbing people."
Cole's crimes escalated to a convenience store robbery in Fort Worth two years ago. The guys he called friends turned him in.
While serving a two-year sentence, alone in his cell, he's been forced to reflect on his past.
"I can't just focus on the past, now I just got to focus on the present," Cole said.
Football Not the Only Form of Rehab
Just weeks away from being released, Cole is in the prison's closet. Volunteers sort through donated clothes, that the offenders take with them as they re-enter society.
"Man, I feel like a new man, I'm not going to lie to you," said Cole who looks and feels ready to leave. "Just dressing like this makes you feel good."
His picture, dressed for success, goes up on a wall, alongside those who served their time before him.
"They don't look at us as criminals," said Cole "They look at us as young men who made a mistake and want to change their life when they get out."
Cole then rang the victory bell, so that everyone on campus knows — he's on his way out.
"Now it's time to go out there and show everybody that I am who I am,” said Cole. “I gotta change my ways and make a better future for myself."
The football team rings that same bell after every win. This season they rang the bell a lot, but would their season end with a state championship like the team hoped? CLICK HERE to find out in Part 2 of the series of reports.