By BRAD KEITH
CLEVELAND, Miss. (September 2, 2017) — One wrong turn changed everything for the Varnado clan on their exodus from Louisiana to Texas.
Afton Varnado went the wrong way, but her youngest son, the third of four children born to Howard and Afton, says it was an act of fate, one that is still blessing him today.
“I was in the sixth grade, it was 2006,” begins Chase, one of the most decorated defensive players in the history of Stephenville High School and a two-time all-conference defensive lineman at Tarleton State. “My parents wanted to leave Louisiana for Texas and we were looking around places like Weatherford and Abilene, but weren’t real sure where we were going.
“We were leaving from somewhere and Mom took a wrong turn, so we ended up in Stephenville.”
In the Cowboy Capital of the World, where it’s God, rodeo and football. For the Varnado family, it was perfect.
“My dad said he knew about Stephenville because of all the rodeo, so we stayed for a night to check it out, and then we heard the high school had a great football program. We went the next day to check out the schools and my dad talked to Coach (Chad) Morris, and that was it. We were staying.
“There was enough rodeo to satisfy my oldest brother, there was cheerleading and other competitive sports for my little sister (Sierra) and there was football for T.R. I just loved the community and the culture, so I was happy, too.”
T.R. was a four-year letter winner and an all-state defensive lineman at Stephenville, signed with Abilene Christian University and ended up back at Tarleton before serving a couple seasons as a student assistant coach for the Texans.
“Watching T.R. was really how I fell in love with Stephenville,” Chase said. “The community was so involved and there was so much passion, I just loved it.”
He was about to love it a whole lot more.
Chase was a sophomore and junior on two 4A (now 5A) state quarterfinal teams at Stephenville, then came the 2012 UIL realignment that sent a loaded Yellow Jacket team expected to compete for a state championship in 4A down to the 3A (now 4A) ranks. They were immediately the favorites to win the school’s fifth state title in the sport.
“We had the dream team, so to speak, or at least we thought we did until some team from Mexico came up here and gave us a wake up call we really needed,” he said. “Looking back now, I think that was probably better than if we had won that game and kept being so sure of ourselves.”
That Mexican team was Monterrey Prepa Tech, and seemingly every analyst in the state was scratching their heads when they learned the result.
But a frustrated Yellow Jacket team proved a dangerous one. And one week was all it took to straighten them out.
“We were focused, like laser focused, and we knew with Aledo coming up next, we had a chance to show everyone we were still the team they thought we could be.”
And they were. Stephenville torched Aledo so effectively that legendary Aledo head coach Tim Buchanan later told Stephenville head man Joseph Gillespie the Yellow Jackets “would kick their butt” if they had played 4A Division II champ Denton Guyer.
Stephenville has its own legendary coach in current athletic director Mike Copeland, the defensive coordinator of four state title teams and head coach of two district champions who in 2012 was back out of retirement and coaching cornerbacks for Gillespie.
“I knew that night. When we beat Aledo that way I knew we were too explosive for anybody in Class 3A,” Copeland said following that season.
The boys knew it, too. Five years later, Varnado is finally willing to share just how sure they were.
“I would never have told you this back then, but when we rode the bus back to the high school from (Memorial Stadium), we were singing ‘We are the champions.’
They weren’t yet, but they were on their way. There wasn’t so much as a speed bump left, in fact, as they steamrolled everyone else in their path, including setting a state title game record for scoring in a 70-35 rout of El Campo to finish off their dream season.
Varnado was named to the Associated Press Sports Editors’ 3A All-State Team, but everyone knew that was coming. Nobody expected an even bigger award.
Maxpreps names All-Americans at three levels of high school football. It’s big team is for schools the size of Texas 4A and 5As (now 5A-6A), mid-size for 3A-4A and small size for 1A-2A.
“One day Coach (Gillespie) told me I had mail, and it was from Maxpreps. I opened it and it said I was an All-American,” Varnado recalls. “I was shocked, I didn’t know what to say.”
Cary Fowler knew what to say: “Would you like to be a Tarleton Texan?”
Varnado had this and other college options.
“I went other places and visited, and they all showed me the best parts of their campuses and programs and told me what I wanted to hear and they were good,” he says of being recruited. “But I didn’t need to be shown anything at Tarleon or here in Stephenville. I already knew how passionate everyone was about their football here and I knew I would have a great time in school here. There was no doubt for me, this is where I wanted to be.
“I wanted to be a Tarleton State Texan.”
That decision made, he faced a more difficult one just a few months later.
“Coach (Cary) Fowler wanted to give me a number and get me going. He was planning on using me that year (1993), but I wasn’t sure if I was ready, so I met with him in his office and we talked about it,” he remembers. “I came out of that conversation thinking it would be the best thing for my career to redshirt and stretch it out a year later. He agreed with me, but I was under the impression he wasn’t real happy with me for a while after that.”
It meant missing out on being a part of the 2013 Lone Star Conference co-championship Tarleton won. But it also is the only reason he’s here today, as a bachelor degree-holding fifth year senior, in Cleveland, Mississippi, where the Texans and head coach Todd Whitten are about to kick off their 2017 season at 2 p.m.
“That was tough. At the end of the year, I was like, man, I could have been more involved, could have dressed, gotten on the field, really been a part of it,” Varnado says. “But I’m still here today, and right now we are on the cusp of doing great things, I just know we are. It was the right decision for me. And I’m so glad now that I made it, because most kids wouldn’t have. Most freshmen, given the option, would have definitely jumped at the chance to play right away.”
Varnado was one of the first Texans to take the field here at Cleveland Central High School, where the game is being played because McCoo Stadium is undergoing emergency field turf installation. He looks focused, perhaps laser focused, like following the Prepa Tech loss in 2012.
He can only hope the result of such focus is as great this time around.
“I saw these new guys coming in like David Fangupo, who I’ve watched on YouTube playing running back at almost 400 pounds in high school in Hawaii. Then I met Tyrell Thompson, who I’ve seen on Hudl and just assumed would be at a big time program but he’s playing right by me. I was a bit starstruck. It’s just crazy.”
Delta State has transfers, too, including Division I defects at quarterback, linebacker and cornerback.
But Varnado is confident, like 2012 confident.
“They put us fifth in the (LSC) preseason poll and I’m glad they did it. I like being the underdog. I’ve always been the underdog – too slow, too small, not good enough to play in college. Whatever, here I am,” he says. “I’m glad they don’t expect much of us, because I know what this team has and what we can do.
“There are no expectations too high for this team. Whatever anyone out there thinks about us, we are going to exceed it. Coach Whitten has a great staff that has done so much for me and for all of us, we have great talent and everyone gets along and has come together so well. It’s exciting.”
They aren’t singing any championship tunes on the bus yet. They have yet to win a game.
They get their first shot together in just a few moments.
“Let’s roll,” Chase said. “I got here because of a wrong turn, and everything is right now. That was fate. It was all meant to be. Now I just have to go out with my brothers and write the last chapter, the big finish.”
A wrong turn shaped the last 11 years of Chase Varnado’s life.
And he has one semester left to cement the legacy he will leave because of it.
“I love Stephenville and I love Tarleton. I’m just ready to put it all out there and end things the right way.”
The championship way.