CHINA SPRING, Texas — The China Spring Cougars are three wins away from capturing a state title.
A big reason for that is a trio of brothers and a dad that serve as part of the heart of this Cougars team.
“It’s something that we’ve talked about since we were little," Dawson Exline, the oldest brother and a senior, said. "Being able to play, us three together, when we were kids and now we’re fulfilling that dream of all three play on varsity.”
John Exline, father of Dawson, Tristan, and Caden, has been coaching high school football for over 21 seasons. He currently coaches the running backs.
“Still putting in those long hours but we’re doing it together and that’s what makes it so special," he said.
These four are leading the Cougars on a dream season, most recently knocking off Carthage, a Texas high school powerhouse. But there is one voice in the crowd that is missing.
Arianne Exline, the mother of the three, and wife to John, died in 2019.
“You would have heard her, cheering everyone on," Tristan, the middle Exline and a junior, said.
She was a beloved middle school teacher in China Spring, a loud voice, and her sons' biggest fan.
“She was loud, she was all out, in the stands you knew she was your number one fan cheering for you. You knew who she was cheering for," Dawson said.
Her loss was sudden and surprising and rocked the community.
"It was an emotional time," Brian Bell, head coach of the Cougars, said. "I was next door neighbors with them. I really think our community did a wonderful job of not only taking care of the Exline's but at the same time, she was a big part of this community, and this middle school.”
John called her a "moms' mom."
“She was loving, she was always more concerned about everyone else and how they were doing and making sure they were okay than she was herself," he said.
She left an impact on her sons that can't quite be stated.
“She was the best you could ever ask for, anything you needed, she’d be there for you," Caden, the youngest son and a sophomore, said. "If you were hungry, she’d get you food, if you were sad, she’d be by your side, anything.”
In their darkest moment, this family chose football to overcome their grief.
"That’s a big part of what’s brought us to the point where we are today, football, regime, routine, goals, and work ethic, we wouldn’t have it any other way," John said.
In that effort, they bring their mother everywhere. She is in there in spirit, and being worn through an armband that says, "For Mom."
“Her love will never go away, you know," Tristan said. "Always feel her presence around us."
She has been watching this whole time and she's had quite the view.
“She’d just be so proud, Dawson said. "She’d be so encouraging of everything we’re doing and accomplishing, she’d just be so proud."
The pride she'd have can't be one felt just for sport, but also for the bond that her boys, now men, have created.
It's a bond that can’t naturally be developed, and we’ll always have that, we’ll always carry that with us," John said.
The Cougars will face off against West Orange Stark in the quarterfinal round of the UIL State Playoffs on Friday.