Out in West Texas, football is less of a pastime than it is an obsession. In Odessa, Texas, it is probably even more than that. This was the environment that U.S. Representative Mike Conaway grew up in. He picked up the game of football in grade school and eventually played for the soon-to-be legendary Odessa Permian High School Panthers.
“I was one of the bigger kids in my class and our school had tackle football as part of the school program, so I first began playing I believe in third or fourth grade,” he said. “I was an offensive and defensive lineman and at that age, getting the chance to have this shared experience with your buddies, there’s just nothing else like it.”
While a member of the Permian Panthers, the future Congressman was part of the school’s first ever state championship winning team in 1965. Conaway was part of the turnaround at the school as they went from a program with no history of winning into one of the most heralded ones in the state, if not the entire country.
“We were a relatively new school when I got there, as it was probably just about six years old,” he said. “My junior year, we were 4-6 and we really stunk up the place. After the season, the district fired our Head Coach and brought in Gene Mayfield. There are three men in my life who I count as having had the greatest impact on who I am today. One is my Dad, of course, a fellow I worked for at Price Waterhouse, and Coach Mayfield.”
Under the leadership of the legendary Gene Mayfield, the culture at Odessa Permian shifted seismically. During that time, Conaway was taught the life lessons about the game of football that would stick with him for the rest of his life. Teamwork, discipline, self-sacrifice – these were the tenants of what became Permian Panther football and would go on to become the philosophy that Conaway would carry with him all the way to Washington, D.C.
“He taught us to never quit. He taught us that everyone is going to get hit, everyone is going to get beat at some point, but that is not what matters,” he said. “We learned what’s important is getting back up, getting back in the huddle, and going out there and going headhunting the very next time out. Nobody but you can make you quit.”
Another of the lessons that Conaway learned while with Permian was the value of preparation. Going forward, in every aspect of his life, Conaway was bound and determined that no matter what, no one was going to outwork him. On the football field, in the business world, or in Congress, no one would ever be more prepared than Mike Conaway.
“You come to the fight as prepared as you possibly can be,” he said. “You subjugate yourself and whatever personal ambitions you might have for the betterment of the team and you never quit. I think that all applies not just in athletics, which obviously end for everyone at a certain point, and in your every day life.”
After a brief stint at Ranger College in Ranger, Texas, Conaway transferred to East Texas State, now Texas A&M – Commerce. He walked on to the football team and earned playing time as a starter for the next two seasons. He ultimately got cut his senior year during two-a-days. Despite it not ending how he would have wanted, he earned a scholarship and his undergraduate degree thanks to being a part of the Lions.
“We had some really good football players while I was at East Texas State,” he said. “A guy by the name of Dwight White came through there and Harvey Martin came my senior year. I think the most talented guy I played with was Sam Walton who went on to play with the New York Jets. I had never played against anybody as big as him. I like to say my college career was really Monday through Friday, because my game uniform rarely got dirty on Saturdays. We won the Lone Star Conference while I was there and I did have fun, but nothing compared to being back at Permian.”
While pursuing a pre-law degree, Conaway was convinced to try his hand at accounting. He proved to have an aptitude for this vocation. After being drafted into the Army (“I like to say that was the only lottery I ever won.”), he became a Certified Public Accountant in 1974. He worked his way into the professional world until a good friend tapped him for a role in something bigger.
“George W. Bush and I were business partners in the early 1980s in the oil and gas industry,” he said. “When he became governor of Texas in 1995, he appointed me to the State Board of Accountancy. I did that for over seven years. I got to thinking while I was doing this that I could be on the other side of that table. I felt I could do the job. I won the U.S. House seat in 2004. I like to say that God blessed me with a little bit of talent and an awful lot of life experience. I felt that qualified me to do the job.”
Becoming a public servant has proven to fit the Congressman like a glove. He has dutifully served his constituents for over a decade and now. Despite being removed from the game for decades, he still draws upon the lessons he learned on the gridiron. The main lesson that has helped him serve his constituents so well is self-sacrifice.
“Being part of the greater good, doing what’s best for the good of the team, I think those lessons I learned on the football field definitely apply to my life now as a public servant and elected official,” he said. “It’s my job to represent the over 700,000 people in my district now. It’s my duty to have their best interest in Washington. It’s important to know when to be able to listen to them and not be so hard-headed as to think I have all the right answers and all the best ideas. To be able to put yourself, your ego aside, that’s the best way to serve.”