For Jason Spangler, 50, dreams do come true. At the half-century mark, Spangler is a member of the Texas Wesleyan Rams football team.
“I truly believe the mind and the heart can drive a human beyond what they thought they could do in a positive way,” said the Rams defensive lineman. “Yeah, some people have asked if I’m crazy. They think I’m too old or I’ll get hurt. I tell them you can get hurt walking across the street, but if I need to get to the other side, I’m going.
“Some of my coaches even call me ‘sir,’ and that’s a little different, but I realize they have probably not seen this before.”
Spangler had not played football since the seventh grade at Bedford Junior High. He tried out for the Hurst L.D. Bell High School football team in the mid-1980s, but was told he was too small.
Instead, he became an All-American gymnast, but he never forgot that he wanted to play football.
“I was 5-5 and 121 pounds when I graduated, so I was told I was too small, even though I was out every weekend playing without pads against guys on the team,” Spangler said.
Figuring his football days were behind him, Spangler entered adult life. He walked onto the Univesity of Oklahoma gymnastics team in 1988, but suffered a career-ending injury shortly after. He bounced around to some other schools, such as Texas Tech, Tarrant County College, University of Texas – Arlington, and Excelsior in New York.
He coached gymnastics and tended bar. Then, he joined the military and flew helicopters for eight years before a back injury ended that.
Though he had done a lot in his life, and making a good living was never a problem, in 2016, something happened that made Spangler stop and think about what he had NOT done.
Two friends died of cancer, one in particular was very close to Spangler and he was only in his mid-40s.
“He was a former youth minister, a lab owner in the medical business I was actually working under,” Spangler said. “He touched so many lives. I watched him die. He wasn’t able to live out his potential.”
That was followed by a phone call from Spangler’s son, encouraging his dad to watch an event that moved him.
“I always taught him to watch something every day that brings something positive into your thoughts,” Spangler said.
His son had been watching motivational speaker Tony Robbins. Spangler did as his son requested, and it encouraged him to do something he admits even he thought was a little bit crazy at the time.
“A couple days after watching that I emailed coach Joe (Prud’homme, Rams head coach),” Spangler recalled. “I met him right after Thanksgiving break. I was wearing a ballcap – I still get carded with a hat on.”
Spangler, who also wants to use his experience to give motivational speeches, does look much younger than his five decades of life. He’s extremely fit and has the energy of someone a third of his age.
“We talked to coach (Paul) Duckworth (defensive coordinator) and I told him I understood I was like a unicorn, being one a kind,” Spangler said.
Duckworth responded that when he coached semi-pro football his 50-year-olds worked harder than the 20-year-olds and welcomed Spanger onto the team, as did Prud’homme.
“Anybody who would do what he’s doing at that age, you have to admire him,” Prud’homme said. “The kids look up to him, and that’s a great thing. They realize if he can do it, they can too.
“He asked for an opportunity. Anybody willing to do that, you have to give him a chance.”
Fate also helped out. Texas Wesleyan was reviving its football program after it sat dormant for 76 years. If ever a program had an opportunity for him, this was it.
“This was a chance for me to come into a program and prove I belong,” Spangler said. “I’ve done that, and it’s cool to be a part of history.”
Spangler took the chance and made the most of it. He realized saying he wanted to be on the team and earning his way on were completely different.
Spangler proved he belonged physically. For example, in a workout called “Move the Mountain,” players move weights ranging in weight from 10 pounds to 40 pounds from one place to another.
“When I finished, they looked at me and said, ‘You’re not normal,'” Spangler said with a laugh.
Then there was the time he bench-pressed 315 pounds.
“I had eclipsed at 285, but saw those kids and said to myself, I’m not going to let them beat me,” he said, smiling. “I came off that bench like I’d just won the Super Bowl.”
Prud’homme agrees Spangler’s not normal – and said that’s a good thing.
“I admire him. I know I wouldn’t do what he’s doing,” the coach said. “And the main thing is he’s enjoying himself. It’s a fun game, and you’ve got to have fun to get the most out of it.”
That’s not to say Spangler doesn’t use a little more Advil than the average player, or that he doesn’t need a little extra icing down after practice. He’s fighting through a knee injury, there’s the back that still nags him, and he is nursing a broken rib.
“I shredded my meniscus in the spring. He (the doctor) said we could either remove it or I could put a brace on and go play football. I put a brace on,” Spangler said. “I actually practiced with the broken rib all last week. I didn’t know it was broken until I got it x-rayed.
Those injuries have kept him off the field so far, “but I am showing these kids you can work through the pain,” he says.
Spangler is showing his teammates a lot.
“Oh man, he’s so cool,” said freshman defensive end Dylan Briscoe. “We all look up to him so much.”
Spangler recalled the first meeting with his younger teammates.
“I walked in and they wondered who’s this old guy? All the kids were staring,” he said. “Mark James came in and sat and reached his hand out. He introduced himself and asked what I was doing here. I said it’s an experiment.
“I said I have three kids who are your age. I own my own roofing company, and I’m a former military pilot. The whole room stood up and applauded.”
Spangler knew then he was accepted.
“Every one of those kids has opened up to me,” he said. “I push them and they push me.
“They see how hard I work. They see I moved back home from Dallas to take care of my parents (his dad has Type II Diabetes and his mother has Parkinson’s Disease). They know I’m a dedicated person.”
Spangler’s three children are son Skylar, 24; 21-year-old daughter Ali; and 18-year-old daughter Maddie. Skylar attends Collin County Community College in Frisco and recently spoke to the United Nations on behalf of a charity of which he is now president. Ali, a former competitive cheerleader, has undergone three heart surgeries and now wants to go into the nursing profession. Maddie recently finished at Keller Central High School and was a former cheerleader and baseball player when she was younger.
“Yeah, she played baseball, not softball, and she was good too,” Spangler said proudly. “Skylar is extremely intelligent with a 161 IQ, Ali is such a fighter. All three are smart and are fighting for what they want in life. I’m so proud of them, and I know they are proud of me.”
Unlike his younger teammates, Spangler has a business to run along with playing football and being a full-time college student. He does virtually everything for his company, Cowboy Roofing.
“It’s a hundred hours a week, and that doesn’t include games,” he said. “I have one project manager in my company; other than that, it’s all me.
“But then, I can’t complain. It has worked out nicely. I just signed a contract to roof 11 buildings on campus.”
Spangler is still trying to decide if his experiment, deemed a success, will continue into a second season.
“I want people to look at me and see a message that you can succeed well beyond your perceived limitations,” he said. “And I believe I’ve delivered that message. I’ve always wanted to be somebody who can use compassion to bridge gaps, and I think I’ve done that.
“But I’ve also always wanted to live in the mountains of Colorado, move up there and write a book. Now I think I’ve certainly got the subject matter.”