DALLAS — It doesn’t take a genius to figure out why they call it Skyline High School.
Stare west down Forney Street alongside the south edge of the sprawling, 4,500-student campus full of aged white brick buildings. The signature ball atop Reunion Tower in downtown Dallas sprouts from the tree line to form a jagged horizon. Atop the ferris wheel at the State Fair of Texas, the entire skyline comes into view.
That ferris wheel is only five miles down from Skyline’s campus. Just take a five-mile drive down Forney Street and you’ll see the Cotton Bowl, where Texas and Oklahoma will play for the 108th time on Saturday.
Texas coach Mack Brown and Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops know each place well. On this brisk October morning, the Goodyear blimp floats above them both. The Texas high school football powerhouse was once home for three starters for Saturday’s Red River Rivalry: Oklahoma linebacker Frank Shannon, Texas receiver Mike Davis and Longhorns linebacker Peter Jinkens. Only one other school (Brenham, Texas’ LB Tim Cole, DT Malcom Brown, both Longhorns) has more than one.
Skyline would have had four starters, if not for a Oklahoma star linebacker Corey Nelson suffering a season-ending pectoral injury against TCU last week.
The east Dallas high school been home to athletes like Olympic sprinter Michael Johnson, NBA star Larry “Grandmama” Johnson and NFL talents like Allen Rossum, but the school never turned out football talent with the frequency it has since Reginald Samples’ arrival in 2005. Skyline had won just one playoff game in the decade before Samples’ arrival.
“I didn’t know that when I took the job. If somebody had told me, I would have listened,” Samples said with a laugh. “I felt like I could take anyone to the top, and I think kids see that in you. I told (my first team) it wouldn’t be long before we were one of the top programs in the state.”
Skyline has won 13 playoff games in the eight seasons since hiring Samples away from his first head coaching job at Dallas Lincoln, and more than 40 Skyline players have signed letters of intent with FBS schools in that span.
The Sooners and Longhorns have reaped the benefits, mining talent on what’s now become a near annual basis. Oklahoma and Texas have signed seven of Samples’ players since 2010.
“(Assistant coaches) wear you out,” Samples said.
Consider it a welcome job hazard that means he’s doing something right. Samples hired a recruiting coordinator to help coordinated time with players for visiting coaches, handling transcripts and various other recruiting duties.
Brown and Stoops usually only make a visit or two to Skyline a year in the middle of making an in-home visit to some of the nation’s top prospects in the metroplex. Samples has been around long enough to know, “when they come around, they’re not here to see me.”
You won’t find photos with presidents in Samples’ office like you will in Mack Brown’s. There’s no wooden box topped by crystal-clear glass to serve as homes for a collection of laughably large rings like in Bob Stoops’ office.
Samples sits at his dark brown wood, L-shaped desk with five helmets from various All-American games on a shelf below some cabinets behind him. Two helmets his Raiders wear on Friday nights join them. There’s a projection screen hanging in front of a small round table beside a well-stocked mini fridge he refers to as his icebox.
Long before he became a star in burnt orange, Davis would burst through Samples’ office door without a knock. Before even acknowledging Samples’ presence, Davis would often raid the icebox in search of a snack.
That’s what perpetually hungry teenage boys do when they’re in a place they consider home, playing for a man they see as a stern but kind and understanding father figure. He’s a second father for some. Sadly, Samples is well aware he’s a first for too many.
He’s the oldest of five children who spent enough time keeping watch over his younger siblings growing up to get a jumpstart on being an actual father to his three daughters and son.. He’s lived in Dallas since moving there from Gilmer, Texas in grade school. He’s not a stranger to life in the metroplex and the challenges it can sometimes present. Parents like that.
“My philosophy is this: I want to treat people’s kids the way you want your own kid treated,” Samples said. “Mike was like my son. … He felt like I was his dad, so if he was hungry, he’s coming in here to eat. That’s just the way it is.”
When players show up on his practice field for the first time, he identifies his best athletes and most often makes sure they’re playing defense. Low-scoring games mean few are ever out of reach, Samples says.
Jinkens had spent most of his young career at running back, but Samples knew his future was on defense. The coach moved the young runner to the defensive backfield and Jinkens signed with the Longhorns as the nation’s No. 12 outside linebacker and an All-American.
He followed in the footsteps of defensive talents like former Longhorn Christian Scott, another high school All-American who was the nation’s No. 15 safety in the 2007 class. Nelson’s season at Oklahoma is over, but he left Skyline as the nation’s No. 4 linebacker. Now, the Sooners have a budding star in Shannon, who moved from defensive end to safety to linebacker at Skyline and left for OU as the nation’s No. 17 safety. He’s now a first-year starter at linebacker for the Sooners with 34 tackles (2.5 tackles for loss) in Oklahoma’s first five games.
Quarterback Devante Kincade signed with Ole Miss a year ago as a four-star prospect, but his mother nearly didn’t allow him to attend Skyline with Samples’ son, Ra’Shaad. Ra’Shaad was an accomplished junior high quarterback who she assumed would play the same attention-grabbing position for his father. Samples promised her that Devante’s arm promised a future at quarterback, and his son’s speed and lack of size and arm strength meant he was destined to be a receiver. She believed him, and Ra’Shaad Samples emerged as one of Kincade’s top targets, signing with Oklahoma State last February as a four-star recruit himself.
That’s how business is done.
“Reggie is a great coach and he’s just done a tremendous job. He’s always had great players,” Texas coach Mack Brown said. When Brown thinks “Skyline,” he thinks “speed.”
Even Samples admits that’s an attribute you can’t coach. No matter what recruiting rankings say, a fast player’s going to have coaches calling him. A fast player with a big body like Jinkens, Nelson and Shannon will have even more suitors.
There’s no single reason why Samples’ program is a cradle of talent, but his ability to nurture that talent is why it ends up at powerhouses like Oklahoma and Texas.
“As kids, we grew up in a neighborhood where everybody was just playing football and went on to play middle school and high school ball,” Shannon said.
Skyline is a magnet school, which means students can apply for any of 23 “clusters” that allow for specialized education programs in trades like the culinary arts, interior design, cosmetology or graphic design. Acceptance into those academies means a student can attend Skyline even if district lines demand they attend a different high school. Establishing a winning football program strengthens the pull of that magnet, but Skyline also established itself as one of the most respected academic schools in the Dallas Independent School District .
The academic aspect attracted Samples from nearby Dallas Lincoln, knowing he could build a Raiders program that would have talent but hadn’t won consistently. Shannon would have attended James Madison High, but applied and was accepted into the architecture program at Skyline.
“Corey and Frank are excellent students. They do really well in the classroom. They get good grades. They’re serious about their schoolwork and never miss anything,” Stoops said, adding that he “usually” notices players from magnet schools doing well academically at the college level. “That’s what ‘s you want, because it is demanding in college at this level.”
With the school’s academic prowess and a resurgent program under Samples, more players than ever in the metroplex looking for other options of better academics and better football consider Skyline.
Pumping out talent doesn’t help a coach if that talent can’t get on the field. There are going to be stories that don’t result in immediate success with any group of high schoolers. Oklahoma defensive back Joe Powell was suspended and left the team after an October incident led to felony drug charges. Four-star defensive tackle Kerrick Huggins signed with the Sooners last year and didn’t qualify academically. He enrolled at Trinity Valley Community College in hopes of beginning his career at the FBS level.
Though unlikely, it’s conceivable that Huggins and Powell could have meant six starters in Saturday’s Red River Rivalry would hold diplomas from Skyline.
Samples won’t be at the Cotton Bowl on Saturday. He’s an admirer of Alabama coach Nick Saban, among others. Would Saban alter his schedule to go see Mark Ingram or Trent Richardson play on Sunday? Samples’ staff assembles every Saturday morning for an 8 a.m. meeting after Friday night games. It most often runs until 1 or 2 p.m. This week, after re-evaluating Friday’s game at Pearce High in nearby Richardson, he’ll run home and catch the second half of the game. Then, he’ll do what he does nearly every Saturday. Park in his chair and learn. Why battle traffic to get to the Cotton Bowl or AT&T Stadium and watch one game when he can flip between six games from his recliner? That would be a lost opportunity to learn.
“It’d be like going somewhere they only have one book when I can go to the library where they have a book on everything,” Samples said.
Samples can sympathize with Brown and Stoops. All three feel the weight of expectations they created with their own success.
Some parents send their kids to Skyline with the belief that Samples hands out college scholarships. He’s dealt with more than one angry parent wondering why in the world the scholarship offers hadn’t arrived for their son.
“It’s hard to make people understand the game is more sophisticated now,” Samples said. “Sometimes it bothers you, because you end up having to explain things to parents they just don’t understand. Those college coaches’ jobs are on the line based on who they select.”
Lose one game and a season can no longer be classified a success, even for a coach and program still chasing their first state title. Wins are important, but Samples is entrusted with the lives of boys in formative years en route to becoming men. Sometimes, that means changing the definition of “winning.”
“I got a bunch of guys who I was their father just like I was for my son,” Samples said.
That means an open door to his office and refrigerator without asking much in return.
“I win when I take a kid who really had no vision, and after four years, he’s going to college, he’s got his SAT score, his ACT score and he’s a successful young man,” Samples said. “Maybe we lost in the fourth round, but I had five guys who developed as men and turned their life around. That’s a win.”