Twelve Mighty Orphans: The Inspiring True Story of the Mighty Mites Who Ruled Texas Football

Twelve Mighty Orphans: The Inspiring True Story of the Mighty Mites Who Ruled Texas Football

by Jim Dent

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Jim Dent, author of the New York Times bestselling The Junction Boys, returns with his most powerful story of human courage and determination.

More than a century ago, a school was constructed in Fort Worth, Texas, for the purpose of housing and educating the orphans of Texas Freemasons. It was a humble project that for years existed quietly on a hillside east of town. Life at the Masonic Home was about to change, though, with the arrival of a lean, bespectacled coach by the name of Rusty Russell. Here was a man who could bring rain in the midst of a drought. Here was a man who, in virtually no time at all, brought the orphans' story into the homes of millions of Americans.
In the 1930s and 1940s, there was nothing bigger in Texas high school football than the Masonic Home Mighty Mites—a group of orphans bound together by hardship and death. These youngsters, in spite of being outweighed by at least thirty pounds per man, were the toughest football team around. They began with nothing—not even a football—yet in a few years were playing for the state championship on the highest level of Texas football. This is a winning tribute to a courageous band of underdogs from a time when America desperately needed fresh hope and big dreams.
The Mighty Mites remain a notable moment in the long history of American sports. Just as significant is the depth of the inspirational message. This is a profound lesson in fighting back and clinging to faith. The real winners in Texas high school football were not the kids from the biggest schools, or the ones wearing the most expensive uniforms. They were the scrawny kids from a tiny orphanage who wore scarred helmets and faded jerseys that did not match, kids coached by a devoted man who lived on peanuts and drove them around in a smoke-belching old truck.
In writing a story of unforgettable characters and great football, Jim Dent has come forward to reclaim his place as one of the top sports authors in America today.
A remarkable and inspirational story of an orphanage and the man who created one of the greatest football teams Texas has ever known . . . this is their story—the original Friday Night Lights.

"This just might be the best sports book ever written. Jim Dent has crafted a story that will go down as one of the most artistic, one of the most unforgettable, and one of the most inspirational ever. Twelve Mighty Orphans will challenge Hoosiers as the feel-good sports story of our lifetime. Naturally, being from Texas, I am biased. Hooray for the Mighty Mites.''
—Verne Lundquist, CBS Sports

"Coach Rusty Russell and the Mighty Mites will steal your heart as they overcome every obstacle imaginable to become a respected football team. Take an orphanage, the Depression, and mix it with Texas high school football, and Jim Dent has authored another winner, this one about the ultimate underdog.''
—Brent Musburger, ABC Sports/ESPN

"No state has a roll call of legendary high school football stories like we do in Texas, and, admittedly, some of those stories have been ‘expanded' over the years when it comes to the truth. But let Jim Dent tell you about the Mighty Mites of Masonic Home, the pride of Fort Worth in the dark days of the Depression. Read this book. You will think it's fiction. You will think it's a Hollywood script. But Twelve Mighty Orphans is the truth, and nothing but. It is powerful stuff. Some eighty years later, the Mighty Mites' story remains so sacred, not even a Texan would dare tamper with these facts. And Jim Dent tells it like it was."
— Randy Galloway, columnist, Fort-Worth Star Telegram

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780312384876
Publisher: St. Martin''s Publishing Group
Publication date: 08/19/2008
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 304
Sales rank: 39,083
Product dimensions: 9.04(w) x 6.02(h) x 0.87(d)

About the Author

Jim Dent, a longtime award-winning journalist who covered the Dallas Cowboys for eleven years in Fort Worth and Dallas, including a stint at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, has written six books, including The Junction Boys, the New York Times bestseller that was the basis for an ESPN movie and remains a fan favorite. Dent lives in Texas.

Read an Excerpt

Twelve Mighty Orphans

Chapter 1




From the front porch of the farmhouse near Kirkland, Maggie Ann Brown spotted the barefoot boy running from over a quarter mile away. His feet lifted small clouds of dust and his face showed the strain of his effort. Maggie Ann could not remember seeing her four-year-old run that fast.

Little Hardy Brown's arms and legs were like miniature pistons. As he moved closer, Maggie Ann could see that he was mouthing words she could not hear. There was no telling how far he had come, or what he had seen, for the boy was a rambler and might wander the farmland all day, or fish the local creek until the rust-colored sun melted into the horizon.

Out in far West Texas, just south of the Panhandle, the land is covered in cotton and wheat and the grain elevators rise up like Greek temples. So flat are the plains that a silo some ten miles away seems to be sitting on your neighbor's property. In the early summer, when the north wind gives up and the sun's furnace kicks on, the ground starts to fracture and turkey buzzards take a rest. That July afternoon of 1928 was a scorcher, and Maggie Ann knew it was not advisable for any child to be working that hard."Slow down, Hardy!" she yelled. "You're going to bust a gut."

The boy darted through the front yard and his right foot kicked aside a tricycle. There was an assortment of children's toys strewn across the bare ground, along with a tire iron and a rusted tractor engine.

It was a typical shotgun farmhouse with a long, narrow hallway down the middle. "Shotgun" because, if you fired a shotgun from thefront door, the shot would travel down the hall and straight out the backdoor. The place once belonged to a farmer, but a few years earlier he had gotten other ideas. The economy of Childress County was now booming, thanks to an abundance of cotton and wheat. Folks, in spite of Prohibition, were ready to party. So Hardy Brown Sr. decided to lay down his plow and crank up the whiskey still.

Stills, in fact.

So much potato whiskey was cooked up on the Brown's ten acres that a twenty-four-hour guard was hired to keep the thirsty neighbors at bay. The sheriff of Childress County looked the other way as he pocketed his share, and the operation ran as smoothly as the old cotton gin out on the main highway.

Hardy Brown Sr. was a tall, dark-skinned man with thick sideburns that made his face look menacing. They said he had a lot of Comanche in his blood. The warring Comanches had ruled West Texas until the U.S. Army crushed them in the Red River War of 1874. Brown was thick with muscle and could lift a truck off the ground by laying on his back and leg-pressing it, and he did not mind letting people know that he would kick their dog asses if they decided to cross him.

This bootlegger was actually two people. There was also the happy family man who played with his kids and took them fishing. He had grown especially fond of Hardy Jr., the baby in the family, who feared nothing and was always into something.

Besides being the good father, Brown was also a fornicator and a fighter and a wild bull rider. Saturday nights in Childress, hundreds of people gathered to watch the men fistfight for fun on the town square. The local dairy owner would challenge the hardware salesman and they would duke it out until one fighter determined the other had the advantage. In the end, the two men would shake hands and go back to being friends and neighbors.

Few people wanted to tangle with Hardy Brown. Unlike the others, he did not view the event as "sport." The man had killer blood in him. He could throw a pile-driving right hand that would send you to the hospital, or worse. The toughest hombres in the county had stoppedaccepting his challenges on Saturday night. So, he would simply wade into the crowd and start swinging.

It was little wonder that his rivals hated him. Whiskey money had transformed the laid-back cotton farmer into the biggest bootlegger between Fort Worth and Amarillo. He loved the fact that he ruled the world of outlaw whiskey. The once quiet county was now swarming with angry family clans. At the height of Prohibition, and just ahead of the Great Depression, the business of bootlegging had erupted like a West Texas gusher. The clans battled each other every day for money, turf, and moonshine. Highway 287 was a Texas version of Thunder Road. Whiskey stills around Kirkland were as prevalent as red dirt, the product as precious as a kiss from a Wichita Falls debutante.

Naturally, the hard-charging, stone-fisted Hardy Brown became the most despised man in the county. Driving Highway 287 between Childress and Kirkland one afternoon, he realized that a green Packard was trying to run him off the road. Never one to dodge a confrontation, he steered to the side as two men jumped out of their car. Brown did not reach for a gun or a knife or even a billy club from the backseat. He pulled out a singletree.

A singletree was like a long baseball bat with a hook on the end. The device was primarily used to hitch two plow mules together for the purpose of keeping them side-by-side. The first attacker did not see the blow coming. Brown swung the long club and watched the hook sink into the man's skull. The second man tried to flee, but Brown pursued him, hacking away skin and clothing until he pleaded for mercy. He was left to suffer in a pool of blood.

As he drove away that day, Brown knew that a bounty would soon be on his head; men would come calling with killing on their minds.

A few days later, while walking along a country road with his four-year-old son, Hardy Sr. did not see the Gossett brothers step off the front porch and sneak up behind him with sawed-off shotguns. The twin blasts catapulted the unarmed man more than ten feet as a chunk of ribs and most of his spine were blown away. Little Hardy took off running and did not stop until he reached the family's farmhousesome two miles away. Maggie Brown, now standing on the front porch, felt almost paralyzed when she saw the fear in her son's eyes.

"Mama, they killed Daddy!"


"Up the road?"

"Who killed Daddy?"

"Them Gossett men."

"How did they kill him?"

"Shot him in the back. Both of them."

Maggie Ann was now in a panic. She dashed into her bedroom and inexplicably started pulling on stockings. She quickly put on a cotton dress and a pair of leather shoes and stashed some belongings in a cloth sack. Upon reaching the front door, she turned to her four children.

"Mama will be back just as soon as she can," she said. "I promise."

Maggie Ann took off running down the dirt road the opposite direction that Hardy had come. Every few steps one of her dress shoes flew off, and she finally tucked it under her arm and kept going. Her stockings split and now her exposed right foot was plastered with dust.

"Where is Mama going?" little Hardy said.

"She's going to the train station," his older sister Katherine said. "She's getting out of this place."


"She's scared of them Gossett men."


IN THE DAYS ahead, the four Brown kids lived in constant fear of the Gossett brothers. Jeff, Rebe, Katherine, and Hardy slept together in the same bed every night with the covers pulled over their heads.

Mona, the oldest sibling in the family, who had married a few years earlier, tried to bring some comfort to the family. She returned to the house where she had grown up and was accompanied by her husband, Spurgeon Clark, who had been a business partner of Hardy Sr. Mona had some news.

"Fortunately, our daddy was a Master Mason in the local lodge andhis dues were paid up. That qualifies all four of you to go to the Masonic Home down in Fort Worth. It's an orphanage, you know. But I hear that it's a pretty good place. Most of all, you will be safe there."

Katherine began to cry. "I don't want to go," she said. "My friends are here. And we've got three cats and two dogs, and who's going to take care of them."

"I will," Mona said. "You've got more important things to worry about, like getting an education. You will get some learning at the Home."

Jeff cleared his throat. "When is Mama coming back?"

"From the way she ran out of here, never. I don't think we'll ever see her again in Childress County."

"Doesn't she love us anymore?" Katherine said.

"I haven't talked to her and I don't know where she is. But I'm sure she still loves you."

Hardy Brown Sr.'s body was deposited into a pine box three days later and he was buried in an unmarked grave.

Not long after the funeral, a picture on the front page of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram showed hundreds of trucks and cars parked about the town square of Kirkland. The caption read, "Cotton Money Comes to Town." A little farther down the page, a headline blared, FARMER SLAIN NEAR CHILDRESS.

The whole county was buzzing.

The Gossett brothers were arrested in a timely manner and then released on bond. George H. Gossett was the first to be tried in Childress County, and the result was a hung jury. Some said you could not find a single citizen in Childress County brave enough to convict a Gossett.

George H. Gossett's next trial was moved to Donley in Clarendon County, and a change of venue sent his brother, Howard Gossett, to nearby Memphis, Texas. Both trials were to set to begin the next month.

When George H. Gossett's trial ended in a hung jury, Spurgeon Clark decided to take matters into his own hands. More than just an in-law, he had also been a close friend and a loyal partner of HardyBrown's. The two had been inseparable at times, and some folks thought they were brothers.

One day, Clark drove to the Brown farmhouse and picked up little Hardy.

"Where are we going?" the boy said.

"To take care of some business."

Late that afternoon, a man wielding a double-barreled shotgun kicked down the front door of the Gossett farmhouse. A four-year-old boy was by his side. The Gossett brothers tried to escape and Spurgeon Clark blew them away. Moments later, Spurgeon and Hardy stood over the men to make sure they were dead. Spurgeon wanted the young child to know that justice had been served—Texas style.

"Those were your daddy's killers."

"I know."

It was a story that both Jeff and Hardy Brown would tell for years. Naturally, it was a chapter in their lives that would haunt them forever.

The next Wednesday, the Southern Pacific train pulled into the station in Childress. The four Brown children stepped off the platform into a new world. They knew they would never see their daddy again.

They were not sure about their mother.


AFTER A LONG and arduous train ride to Fort Worth, four kids with sad and dirty faces stood outside the fence of the orphanage and watched kids playing in the bright sunshine.

Footballs sailed high against a hard blue sky.

Hardy Brown looked at his brother, Jeff, and said, "I ain't never seen anything like it."

Eight-year-old Jeff Brown watched the chaos on the playground. "They played baseball at my elementary school. But I've never seen a ball shaped like that one."

As the gate swung open, Hardy Brown took off running and there was nothing the Brown kids could do to stop him. He ran straight toward a football and kicked it for more than twenty yards. Whereupon he was smacked in the mouth with a hard right uppercut. In no time,Jeff Brown had the assailant on the ground, rapping his head with hard knuckles as the boy yelled, "Get off of me, new kid. New kids aren't supposed to be fighting."

"How'd you know I was a new kid?" Jeff said.

"Because you got shoes on. We don't wear shoes around here till October."

Jeff shucked his scarred leather shoes to reveal dirty, sockless feet.

"Now let's fight," he said.

"I don't want to fight you."

"Why not?"

"Because you look mean."

"In that case, keep your dirty hands off my kid brother."

Little Hardy puttered down the field and retrieved the football. Tucking it under his arm, he took off in the other direction. No one said a word.

Jeff Brown thumbed his chest. "We'll do whatever we feel like doing around here for as long as we feel like doing it."

Like his brother, Hardy Brown wore scarred leather shoes and overalls. There was virtually no hair on his head and the sides of his head looked like a peeled onion. Jeff Brown had yet to grow into his big ears, and his hard, angular face would have given the appearance of a boy much older, if not for the splotch of red freckles. Katherine Brown's hair was dark and curly and her skin was darker than the others. She was a year younger than Rebe, who had just turned thirteen and did not seem to comprehend much of anything. One of his eyes had been badly damaged in a fight and made a sharp right turn. His mouth was slightly agape and every few seconds he gulped the air with a loud snort.

For the last thirty seconds, a tall man in his twenties had been half-trotting for more than a hundred yards to reach the Brown kids. He was barrel-chested, with thick hands.

"That kid," he said, pointing at Rebe. "That kid looks retarded. What the hell happened to that boy's eye?"

"Went through a meat grinder," Jeff said. "Now, mister, you leave my brother alone."

"Son, you apparently don't know who I am. I am the dean of the little boys. You'll be answering to me for many years. You refer to me as Mr. Wynn."

"Well, Mr. Wynn, it's nice to meet you," Jeff said. "But you leave ol' Rebe here be."

With one hand, Big Frank Wynn grabbed Jeff Brown's hair, and with the other pulled a rubber hose from his back pocket. He spun the boy around and whacked him on the butt.

"One, two, three, four, five," he counted. "How many more do you want, boy?"

Orphans crowded around to watch. They waited for the tears to bubble up in the new kid's eyes. But nothing changed in his expression and, instead of crying, Jeff Brown burst into laughter. Wynn spun the boy around again and whipped him five more times.

Nothing seemed to faze him. The boy was still laughing and soaking up the attention from his fellow orphans when the dean kicked him in the backside and yelled, "Get your butt up that hill to the dormitory. And you can forget about your supper tonight."

TWELVE MIGHTY ORPHANS. Copyright © 2007 by Jim Dent. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.

Table of Contents

Prologue     1
Bootlegger's Son     3
The Long Way Home     11
A Dickens Place     26
From the Darkness to the Light     31
Hope     36
The Dark Horse     55
Little Rascals     65
Till the Death     71
Duck Luck     79
Milk Slimes     85
Marble Eye     98
Ziggy     103
Day of the Pauper     107
Let it Fly     117
Love Thy Neighbor     122
Booted     135
Forbidden Kiss     143
Lonesome Cowboy     155
Fighting Back     166
Caught in the Act     169
I Want My Mama     175
Hardy Rules     190
The House the Orphans Built     196
Man of Steel     204
Oh, Lord     213
Dreaming of "State"     222
Escape     229
Amarillo     236
Last Dance     242
Life After the Home     253
Author's Notes     275
Index     281

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Twelve Mighty Orphans 3.9 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 26 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Best football book EVER!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
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SlapShot62 More than 1 year ago
Better than what my title suggests - it is just a great book aboout people overcoming through grit, determination and basic values. As usual, Dent offers a superb story about the boys at the Home, a Texas orphanage during the Great Depression. Working with no equipment, being vastly undersized, dealing with tremendous emotional traumas and initially knowing very little about the game of football, these boys mature through the guidance of Rusty Russell who could have coached elsewhere for greater glory and money. Instead, he took the boys under his wing and they collectively rode to well deserved glory. Fabulous book!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I am a family member of the Dickensons,and while this is a well written book, and very entertaining, it is not true in the least way. It portrays Ray as stupid, and Tex as a momma's boy and an altogether baby. Furthermore, it mistakes events, and calls many people by the wrong names! Mr. Dent, next time you want to make a story and sell it as true, get your facts right.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
DaydreamerLM More than 1 year ago
First let me say that I'm not a big sports fan. I married one of the biggest sports fans in Texas and it's been interesting for both of us as I try to learn more about sports and my husband tries to teach me. Reading Twelve Mighty Orphans was a great history lesson for me not just in Fort Worth's history but also in the history of football. Jim Dent did an excellent job of describing the players' personal history and wrapping you in the story of their lives before the orphanage and growing up in the orphanage. I got a little lost in all the football talk, with the plays and passes and just general football language I didn't understand, but that's nothing against Mr. Dent and has everything to do with me and my lack of detailed knowledge of the sport. What I really enjoyed most was learning more about Fort Worth's history. It was very enjoyable to learn about Amon G Carter and see him as a real person. After reading the book, I also enjoyed driving around Fort Worth and looking at some of the places mentioned in the book. I've never given a second thought to them before as I drove past but now it's great to know so much history is wrapped up in this town. The book definitely gives more life to Fort Worth and the game of football. For someone who is not that knowledgeable in sports or the history of Fort Worth, Mr. Dent did an excellent job of keeping me captivated and interested in the story. I also loved reading about how Mr. Dent came to learn about the orphans and his journey through the research. I recommend this book to anyone looking for a touching story of determination as well as anyone just looking for a little glimpse into football history or Texas history.
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jason24 More than 1 year ago
Jim Dent's "Twelve Mighty Orphans" tells the story of a man who brought life to Texas and the nation during the Great Depression in a uniquely powerful way. Coach Rusty Russell dedicated absolutely every second to guiding destitute orphans to glory. The biggest underdogs in history (although the smallest in stature) worked their way into the hearts of virtual everyone and became the light that guided them through the depression. Dent discusses the heartbreaking and inspiring tales that surrounded the scrappiest runts in Texas and how they triumphed over legends the likes of Davey O'Brien. I was completely captivated by this book and I wholeheartedly agree with Verne Lundquist who said it might be "the best sports book ever written." Yet I hardly feel as if I am doing the book any justice by calling it a sports book. Football serves only as the tool Coach Russell uses to enlighten the orphans and and anyone who was touched by them. The true subject of the story is the indefatigable spirit of the downtrodden and the open hearts Americans. I could hardly believe that such sad and funny stories could be true. Jim Dent produced a brilliantly written piece of literature. His storytelling ability and voice establish his excellence as an author. He introduces the characters with their often heartbreaking and always riveting histories. Although dedicating most of the pages to touching drama, Dent manages to effectively bring justice to the historical significance of Russell's genius to the sport of football. Coach Russell was the innovator of the now extremely popular spread offense. It shows his true greatness by stating that he dominated rich football powerhouse schools of 1000+ students with a group of 12 orphans who were typically outweighed by around 50 pounds per man. The unbeleivable facts of the book are what captivated me the most. Readers are drawn to the book by the promise of exciting action (which is delivered) and are surprised by one of the most inspirational stories in written word.
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WKWS1404 More than 1 year ago
This story just grips my heart not only for the Coach and the children. But due to the fact that my family members were/ are a "Mighty Mite"... Dewitt Coulter. I am so proud to be related to him. My mother gave every one in our family these for Christmas.....All 168 of us...Praytors and Coulters in Lindale, TX.
This is truley a story that will grip your heart.
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Guest More than 1 year ago
Heartwarming story of perseverance, strive to be the best and a 'never give up' lesson! Loved it. A wonderful book for a MOVIE....
Guest More than 1 year ago
My father was at the 'Home' during the days Jim Dent wrote about. Reading about that era brought back all the names and stories my Dad told me. The 'Mighty Mites' were a very special group of boys and girls. Thanks for making them live again for me.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Every 'Home Kid' should read this book. I graduated from Masonic Home in 1976. Brought back great memories!!!!
Guest More than 1 year ago
Could not put this book down. After success in our small school in football, this book brought back all those emotions I felt then. This story if not equal to, is a close second to 'Remember The Titans'.
Guest More than 1 year ago
It's about the 1920's to the mid 1940's. About children who had been sent to an orphanage, a difficult place to be at a difficult time in our country's history. A man, who was an educator, but had used football as his ticket off the farm and into college, who thought football might do the same for the Masonic Home. Jim Dent's extensive research with the people in the book as well as the many archival articles, gives real life and meaning to the pages. The story itself was the central figure of the book, and Dent brought it out with superb writing. It's about people overcoming obstacles, nurturing each other, making a difference, and having very little but making the most of it. There was a reason that this little football team of 12 players had the newspapers all over the country covering their games, and although they had few 'home' fans because of the small size of the orphanage- school, seemingly the entire state of Texas adopted these kids as their own, their hope during the depression. Its not a football book, it's a 'life' book, and everyone 'including children, especially athletes' would gain real perspective from it.