That Championship Season

In their own words, Westlake's players and coaches recall
their remarkable run to the 1996 Class 5A football title.

The passage of time hasn’t diminished Westlake High’s remarkable run to a University Interscholastic League state football championship in 1996. If anything, two decades’ worth of perspective only adds to that team’s aura.

A rising program finally crests. A burgeoning community bursts into a statewide spotlight. A future NFL Hall of Fame quarterback shrugs off the recruiting snubs of the big state schools to prove everyone wrong. An outstanding coaching staff draws forth a championship effort from a collection of undersized but scrappy athletes eager to prove themselves as the best in the state.

Twenty years later, those Chaparrals remain the only Austin-area football team to win a championship at the highest level of competition since the UIL created a Class 5A bracket in 1980. Lake Travis will attempt to reach that bar Saturday at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, where the Cavaliers will face The Woodlands for the Class 6A, Division I championship.

Westlake claimed the 1996 Class 5A, Division II championship in resounding fashion. The Chaps won every game they played by double-digits, including a 55-15 romp past Abilene Cooper in the title game at Texas Stadium. Behind future NFL all-pro quarterback Drew Brees, Westlake finished the season with the top-ranked offense in the state and scored fewer than 30 points just once.

To compile this oral history, the reporter talked to the players and coaches from the 1996 team as well as to some from the news media who covered them during that championship season. Regrettably, repeated attempts to contact Brees fell incomplete.

Westlake entered the 1996 season with minimal fanfare. Coming off a 12-1-1 season, the Chaparrals were ranked 12th in Class 5A by “Dave Campbell’s Texas Football” magazine. They had just eight starters back, and Brees was coming off a serious knee injury he had suffered in the 1995 playoffs.

Ben De Leon, Westlake’s senior starting nose guard: No one gave us a chance coming into the ’96 season; going 5-5 and just sneaking into the playoffs was what we heard consistently, and that only fueled our desire to prove everyone wrong. Truthfully, I didn’t know what to think entering two-a-days, and I imagine our coaches felt the same way. That’s what made our season so special.

Ron Schroeder, Westlake’s head coach from 1987-2002, when he compiled a 187-27-3 record at the school: After playing in the state championship game in 1990 (a 19-7 loss to Wilmer-Hutchins in the Class 4A title game), we felt we could win the state championship every year. I had the players write personal and team goals before the season and prior to ’90 it was to win locally. Never a state championship goal. But, after ’90, the team goal became the state championship; 1990 created a state championship reality.

Matt Matza, a senior starting linebacker: We were accustomed to winning, so the expectation was always to compete for a title.

Derek Long, defensive coordinator for the 1996 Chaparrals: I never paid much attention to the polls. It was a compliment to the program to be in the preseason rankings, but I was concentrated on doing my part with the defense to keep us there.

Jamie Tyler, a senior who moved from linebacker to starting fullback in 1996: I played defense for the ’95 team, and knew how strong we were on that side of the ball, but I have to imagine, the loss of Ryan Nunez (an all-state running back who played at Colorado and Texas) going into the ’96 season would initially cause anyone to second-guess us. Playing high school football at Westlake, every year brings the possibility of title contention.

Brett Robin, a sophomore running back: This was a team whose outside expectations were that we would be one of the lesser Westlake teams in recent history.

Olin Buchanan, who covered high school football for the American-Statesman in 1996: They were absolutely a strong preseason contender. Westlake might have won the year before, but Drew Brees got hurt against Alice and did not play in the semifinals against San Antonio Roosevelt. Coach Ron Schroeder had some great players who were returning — Brees, Jamie Tyler, Seth McKinney and Ryan Read — so going into the season there was no doubt the potential for a state championship was there. The only question was whether they could get it done. Westlake had come close several times before.

Jonny Rodgers, a senior starting defensive back: There was no hype surrounding our team. I remember that there was one sports writer that picked our team to win the state championship in “Dave Campbell’s.” We were supposed to be the rebuilding year, but we had other plans.

Brees’ knee injury in the 1995 playoffs scared away several college programs, including Texas and Texas A&M. However, he was ready for the start of two-a-day workouts before the 1996 season.

Schroeder: He was finally released to go full speed in August. There was an anxious moment in a preseason scrimmage with Hays. Drew took a direct hit on his injured knee during a Hays blitz and survived. What a relief.

Buchanan: From the outset it was clear Brees was special. He seemingly always found the open guy. He also had the ability to hang onto the football and maintain composure under pressure while waiting for a receiver to break open. Then he had such a quick release and was so accurate, defenses were just frustrated. Before the (1995) season there was speculation that Jonny Rodgers would start because his older brother had been a star quarterback at Westlake, but coach Schroeder kept talking about this Brees kid and how much potential he had. As usual, coach Schroeder was right.

Rodgers: I probably had the best vantage point considering I replaced Drew at quarterback when he got hurt (in 1995). Drew was still a bit slow coming into the season, but no one has ever outworked Drew Brees. If you watched any of our 1995 film, you saw exactly what Drew could do. We had 100 percent confidence in him as our leader; it was up to the rest of us to fill in the missing pieces.

Neal LaHue, Westlake’s offensive coordinator in 1996: Drew looked great. I’ve never seen a player more committed to his rehab. I think he even became a better athlete from his rehab.

Robin: Drew never missed a beat. He was so determined to be at the top of his game for his senior year. It’s interesting to compare my perspective now (as an orthopedic surgeon) with being in high school. I had no idea how big of a deal it was to come back and play as well as he did after ACL surgery.

Schroeder: As the season progressed, he showed marked improvement. We extended our receiver cuts from 12 to 20 yards as his rifle arm developed. A bullet on the skinny post. He was just a humble, likable leader.

Rodgers: It was an interesting time for me because we knew Drew was going to be the starter once he returned. I had to take the snaps in the off-season at both starting QB and starting FS so I had a full plate. But make no mistake — this was Drew’s team.

Buchanan: I thought Brees was one of the most polite, humble kids I’d ever interviewed. It makes me laugh to see him now because he’s so self-assured and has such a strong personality. He never acted like a big-shot quarterback. You’d have thought he was a second-team punter with his attitude.

The loss of Nunez lowered expectations for the 1996 Westlake team, especially since there was no proven running back to take his place. Schroeder and the coaches moved Tyler from linebacker to fullback and promoted Robin, a promising youngster with great speed, to the varsity.

Tyler: It was my first season to play on offense, so I didn’t know what to expect. I had obviously watched the offense play in years prior so I had an idea of the load, but nothing for certain. Coach Schroeder called me into his office one day and said, “You know we don’t have any big backs this year so I’m going to move you over to offense.” I wasn’t thrilled at the time, but I think it all worked out.

Schroeder: Our secret weapon was the running ability of Jamie. He was just a natural, perfect body lean with quick feet. After the state championship game, Jamie was offered a scholarship to Rice. His parents, at that time, loved the move to offense.

Robin: I definitely felt the pressure of trying to replace Nunez. My first practice on varsity in two-a-days was a disaster from my perspective. I got beat up, cramped up and had never been through something like that before. I remember waiting for my parents to pick me up — I was the only one that couldn’t drive — after practice and Drew and Jamie Tyler walking by and telling me that I was going to be all right. Knowing they had confidence in me was huge.

Tyler: In my opinion, Ryan Nunez was the greatest high school running back ever to play the game, and his graduating created a void that could never be filled, but Brett Robin proved to be the best person for the job. None of us seniors had any idea who this guy was or what made him qualified to take on such a big role, but his speed, toughness and positive attitude quickly made us all Robin supporters.

Rodgers: Me and few seniors took a trip to Six Flags during the summer and invited Brett to join us. I’m sure his parents had some reservations that their boy was going on a trip with some senior guys, but Brett was there. It was on that trip that we got to know him and accepted him as our equal. We didn’t care what year you were. If you were a sophomore playing on varsity for the first time, it didn’t matter — you were one of us. You were on the same page as us, and you had the same goal as us — to win a state championship.

Robin: Every Friday, we would play rugby on the turf in our offseason period. The first rugby game we played, I got blindsided by Jonny Rodgers while chasing a guy. My head was the first thing to hit the turf. My feet flew straight out from under me. My head literally bounced off the turf. It stung me pretty bad and knocked the breath out of me, but I bounced up immediately and kept playing, determined not to show any weakness. I think I won them over after that.

Rodgers: Brett had what looked like a breakaway score. He got a little cocky and started to high step a bit. When Brett hit the corner, I lowered my shoulder and knocked him off his feet. Brett popped up, slapped me on the rear and said, “Good hit, let’s go.” From that moment on, I knew Brett was one of us.

Before the first game of the season, all-state offensive line prospect and future NFL lineman Seth McKinney broke his foot performing the Mexican hat dance, a pep rally staple still favored by Chaparrals offensive linemen.

De Leon: I just remember it didn’t seem like Seth had hurt himself that bad. He was torn up about it when he found out — and obviously coach Schroeder and (offensive line) coach Steve Davis weren’t thrilled about it — but Sam Thompson came in and did a great job in Seth’s absence. That was our mentality: next man up.

Rodgers: I think the coaches had the same reaction that we all did: Are you kidding me? This was not the way we envisioned our year starting because Seth was our best player, but it turned out to be a blessing in disguise. That was the first adversity that we came across, and I think it brought our team together at an early point in the season. It allowed for other players to not only come in and play, but it allowed us to develop other leaders on the offensive line. We knew what Seth was capable of, but what about the other guys?

Robin: I can remember Seth’s fall like it was yesterday. Everyone was laughing at Seth initially, but I’ll never forget the look on coach Schroeder’s face when they told him he’d miss half of the season: “I can’t believe something this stupid is going to cost us our all-state left tackle.”

Matza: Seth is just not a very good dancer, even to this day. I can attest from being at his wedding.

Buchanan: They just rolled anyway. When he got back in the lineup, they were at full strength and just really took off.

In the fourth week of the season, Brees set a school record with 355 yards passing and Ryan Read caught 11 balls. “I have never felt that good throwing the ball,” Brees told a reporter afterward. “There wasn’t a dropped ball, and I got great protection. I’m the happiest man in the world right now.”

De Leon: That was the Brees-to-Read coming out party, if you will.

Robin: Ryan and Drew obviously had one of those special quarterback-receiver connections from the beginning. They were constantly throwing and working on routes. I was surprised it took four weeks for them to have a big breakout game.

Rodgers: It was about this time that I felt our team had hits its groove. Not just on offense, but on defense as well. What I remember from that game was Matt Matza returning an interception for a touchdown. If the offense was scoring points, the defense wanted in the action, too.

Ryan Read set a single-season state record for receptions in 1996, grabbing 108 catches. He later played receiver for Navy and Boston College, graduating from there with a business degree in 2002. Read died in 2014 at the age of 34, and his death still pains his teammates and coaches.

Tyler: The day I met him was when he moved from Colorado, and his mom brought him out to join the Little Chaps (Pop Warner football team). This skinny kid came out on the field to run sprints with everyone, and nobody could keep up with him. Ryan was the most naturally talented athlete I’ve ever met, even in college. It never mattered how much he practiced, worked out, ran; he was always the fastest, most-elusive player on the field when he wanted to be. He could catch anything thrown to him, one hand or two.

Rodgers: When I first moved to Austin in 1992, the best athlete in our class was Ryan. Football, basketball, golf, you name it: Ryan was the man.

Buchanan: Read was really special. He had NFL hands, just not an NFL body, although he did well at Navy and Boston College.

Long: (Upon hearing of Read’s death), I thought of a picture taken on the field after the state game against Cooper. The team was all crowded around the trophy. They were all smiling. Ryan was in the middle of the picture with his smile. A young man who contributed so much to the team and who had so much left to offer this world was gone. So sad.

Matza: He was one of my best friends in high school, and although we fell out of touch over the years, it was never to a point where it wouldn’t all come back together when we saw each other. Tragically, he had some demons he couldn’t shake, but those weren’t evident in high school. (His death) is a brutal reminder that life should be savored. Oftentimes, folks are dealing with things far larger than what you realize. If you think you should reach out, you should.

Rodgers: He was the first friend of mine that had more interest in other things than just sports. He was a musician and would crack us up with rewriting the lyrics to songs and making them about our coaches and teammates. You never saw Ryan without a smile on his face, and I can still see it today.

By the time Westlake reached the playoffs, the Chaps had completed a sixth consecutive regular season without a loss. In the playoff opener, they faced a physical San Antonio MacArthur team hungry for an upset.

De Leon: We didn’t view our opponents as underdogs; we viewed every team we played against with respect. Our coaches told us to help an opposing player up, and not get in their face. Every win we had was earned.

Rodgers: Our coaches were pretty good at making us believe that each game we were playing the best team in the district. They instilled a very strong work ethic in us, and we just knew that we needed to get the job done. We were on a mission at that point to win a state championship, and everyone was on the same page.

Robin: For some reason the “underdog” mentality never left us that season. That’s probably what keep us so sharp. We played Johnston High School every year, and the scores were usually anywhere from 60 to 85 to nothing. I remember coach Schroeder had me convinced that week before playing Johnston that this was the best team they had ever had and were going to beat us that year.

MacArthur held Westlake to a season-low in points, but the Chaps escaped with a 20-10 victory.

Schroeder: San Antonio was producing some great teams, trying to keep up with Converse Judson. MacArthur was always a very physical team. I remember the bruises; it took a week to recover.

De Leon: Schroeder said the first playoff game is the toughest, and he was right. MacArthur had a great team, and we respected them just like all our other opponents. Our defense came up big that game; there was no panic whatsoever. If anything, we believed we could go all the way after that win.

Long: I always felt like the first-round game was the toughest. The level of play seemed to step up from the regular season, no matter the record of the opponent. Sometimes, it was hard to convince the players of the different level of play.

Robin: The MacArthur game was a hard-fought game. It was one of those tough games that took half the following week to recover physically. It was great timing, though, that we struggled a little in that game to give a new motivation for the rest of the playoffs.

Rodgers: I remember taking a big breath after that game and thanking God for pulling us through. It was probably our first big test of the season, but again our team stuck together and pulled out a W.

Matza: A win is a win in the playoffs. Style points don’t matter. Move on to the next game.

After a comfortable victory over San Antonio Churchill, the Chaparrals faced Victoria Memorial in the third round of the postseason. Before the game, Memorial cheerleaders unfurled a sign reading “You Can’t Buy This Win,” but the Chaparrals were determined to show that their affluent community had produced a tough football team. Westlake won 41-0.

De Leon: We noticed that sign, and that was not a good move by Victoria. We were dragging a bit pregame, and that was just what we needed to shut them out. I still remember a Victoria fan coming up to me after the game and yelling in my face, “Who cares! You’re not going to win state!” Well, that just convinced me we would. I do think teams underestimated our toughness, but we just let our play on the field speak for itself in that regard.

Rodgers: Did we see the sign? That was pretty evident by most our team standing halfway to the middle of the field in a fit of rage. I remember having to grab Matt Lathrop and pull him back because I thought he was going to go over and rip the sign down himself. If they were hoping to poke the bear, they succeeded to the tune of a 41-0 ass-whooping.

Schroeder: I didn’t have to give much of a pregame speech after that sign. The players were really irritated by the sign, but it was the best thing that ever happened. May have been the key to the rest of the season.

Tyler: It absolutely fired us up. It showed such a lack of respect, like we hadn’t worked all preseason, all summer, all season long to get to this point. We often joked after the season was over, whether we’d have played as hard had the sign not been there.

Robin: I can’t tell you how many times I’ve told the story about that sign. I met someone the other day from Victoria and told them the story. I will forever link Victoria to that sign. For people to think that being affluent somehow was responsible for our success on the field and not our hard work was infuriating. They paid for that sign in the end.

Long: As they (Victoria Memorial players) ran on the field, the entire team was out to the numbers on the field jumping up and down, shaking their fists, shouting who knows what. I am not sure there is any name you could have called them that would have upset them more. For years after that game, I would see (Memorial’s) head coach Mark Reeve, and he would tell me he still made the cheerleaders come to him to approve the run-through sign.

In the state semifinals at the Astrodome, facing an Aldine squad loaded with college recruits, the Chaps might have been an underdog for the first time all season. Westlake trailed 14-7 in the second quarter but rallied to win 42-21.

Robin: I think it took us a quarter or so to get over the intimidation factor. The Aldine players looked like a college team.

Rodgers: I’d say that our team was a little intimidated. Seriously, when you look at the size and speed of that team, it looked like we were playing the Dallas Cowboys. Our defensive coordinator, Derek Long, saw that little bit of fear in our eyes. I remember him stopping practice that week and lighting us up. He told us that it was the defense that was going to win that game for Westlake, not the offense and we needed to believe it. That’s what we needed to hear.

De Leon: That was the game we were supposed to lose; Aldine was loaded and was supposed to win state. That was the game in which our toughness was on display the most, and where Ryan just put on a show. I just recall needing to make stops so we could let our offense do its thing.

By beating Aldine, Westlake advanced to its third state-title game in six seasons. The Chaps’ opponent was the West Texas powerhouse Abilene Cooper, with its future NFL running back Dominic Rhodes. The game at Texas Stadium — home of the Dallas Cowboys — would mark the third professional sports facility that the Chaps played in during the ’96 season, joining the Astrodome in Houston and the Alamodome in San Antonio.

De Leon: I grew up rooting for the Houston Astros and the Dallas Cowboys so to play in the Astrodome and Texas Stadium was like a dream come true.

Rodgers: We were in the Cowboys’ locker room, and I remember everyone trying to find out whose locker they had. I had Darren Woodson’s locker, and it just made me feel like I was going to go out and play like him. It was motivational for us to be in that space, and we ate it up.

Long: The managers had put Drew Brees in Troy Aikman’s locker. One of the JV players who was traveling said he loved Troy Aikman, and Drew moved to another locker and let the JV player dress in Aikman’s locker.

Robin: I remember pulling up my nameplate at Texas Stadium as a 15-year-old kid and seeing “Primetime” (Deion Sanders’) permanent nameplate on (the) locker. That was a really cool feeling. The problem was this was my first season as a sophomore on varsity so I thought this was how it was always going to be.

Buchanan: West Texas media always think the best ball is played out there. Same with East Texas, Dallas and Houston media believing their region played superior ball, (but) Austin area football was pretty strong. If media in other parts of the state didn’t recognize that before the season, they did afterward if they were paying attention.

Westlake and Abilene Cooper entered halftime tied 7-7, which marked the only time all season that the Chaps didn’t enter the break with the lead. However, a few coaching adjustments and a wave of takeaways by the Westlake defense — including three interceptions by defensive back Tomi Keah — helped the Chaps roll to a 55-15 victory.

Tyler: Having been there for the title loss in ’94, seeing how heartbroken those seniors were on the bus ride back, I knew many of us didn’t view losing as an option.

De Leon: (Rhodes) was the toughest running back I ever faced. I remember breaking through the line and literally bouncing right off of him when I tried to tackle him the first time. And I remember running him down like my life depended on it right before the half ended. Tomi Keah had his first interception of the game the next play in the end zone, to keep the score at 7-7. Coach Schroeder told me and the rest of the team to relax, to remember how we got to the title game, and that we were going to win it. He brought us all together and said Jamie was going to get a steady dose of the ball, and did he ever.

Long: Though Tomi Keah’s second-half takeaways won the game, Ben probably had the game-turning play. Near the end of the first half, with the score tied 7-7, Abilene Cooper ran a draw up the middle (with Rhodes). Ben chased down Rhodes 60 yards later, saving a touchdown. Who knows how the momentum of the game might have changed if Ben had not kept playing and Cooper had scored? I felt like everyone on our defense had that same attitude.

Schroeder: Cooper had a great defensive secondary with a great pass rush. They were after Drew. I wrote down seven running plays at half and only ran three. Basically, we ran Jamie Tyler on traps and seam plays until we controlled the game and started passing again.

Buchanan: I think Brees might have thrown seven or eight passes the whole second half.

Tyler: One specific memory from the title game: The second touchdown I scored in the game was from about 20-25 yards out on a dive play up the middle. One of the last defenders I had to try and get by, really just shied away due to seeing Seth coming in for the kill. I was running right in between them, and luckily Seth saw me just in time and pulled up. Whenever I’ve watched the play since, I always notice that I really only scored on that play because Seth allowed me to. If he’d followed through and thrown that block, I’d have likely gone down with the defender. Seth was always a beast. He would destroy folks, and he never quit. He would go 100 percent from the snap of the ball until the whistle every single play.

Rodgers: I will always have a connection to Dominic Rhodes for the simple fact that he ended my playing career. The coaches were going to pull our starters so we had one more play. They ran a sweep to my left. As I got to about 2 feet away from him, he jukes me to the inside, and when I planted my foot, I heard a familiar pop; I had just torn my ACL for the second time. I knew it right away. For whatever reason, coach Schroeder didn’t go out on the field to check on hurt players; he was always trying to get the team ready for the next play and let his medical staff do their job. But there he was next to me, and it meant the world to me as a player.

Tyler: I remember the last play I played as a Westlake High School football player. It was an off-tackle dive that I fought hard to gain 15-20 yards on and then was pulled out of the game and told to take my helmet off. It suddenly dawned on me that it was over. There was still some time left in the game, but they couldn’t catch us. We had done it.

Schroeder: I remember watching the reaction of players at the end of the game. Some of the players were rolling on the turf at Texas Stadium.

Matza: I knew that was going to be my last competitive football game. Looking around the stadium at the fans going crazy, and (I was) thinking it was all worth it, going out on top. The permanence that we did something that we’d have the rest of our lives — a perfect undefeated season.

Rodgers: It was bittersweet for me because here we were realizing our dream of winning a state championship, but I had gone down on the last play of my career with an ACL injury. Coach Schroeder just put his arm around me (in the locker room) and told me he loved me. That’s it. When you’re a 17-year-old kid with a lot of emotions going through your head, sometimes it’s the simple things that put everything into perspective. The love we had among that team is something special.

Editor’s note: The original version of this story has been edited to correct the name of the football player pictured with Beth Downing.