A HERO'S HOMECOMING

Story by Larry Holden -Photos by Morrison/Wulffraat

Before his country music star rose, Chris Cagle was an A student, a high school football star - and a super big brother.

It's 1986. Six-year-old Libby Cagle is riding her Strawberry Shortcake bike near her family's home in Baytown, Texas. A couple of "older" guys - about 8 years old - are on bikes just ahead of her. When Libby passes them, they hurl a stick at her bike.

Crying, she reaches home just as her big brother, Chris, 18, pulls into the driveway. She tells him what happened, and he starts walking down the street, whipping off his belt as he goes. The boys see him and peddle away - fast!

"Don't run away or I'll go get your moms!" Chris yells. The boys stop. "You don't treat little girls that way," Chris sternly tells them. "And she's my sister!"

Today, a grown-up Libby nods and smiles at the memory. "I don't think I ever saw those boys again!" she says.

Chris, Libby and his stepmom, Molly, are sitting in the Baytown house they've lived in since 1984. His dad, Steve, a process technician, is in Singapore helping set up a new Exxon plant. Molly and Steve were divorced in 1995 after 21 years of marriage.

"Chris and his brother Steven are both years older than Libby, so they've always been over-protective with her," confesses Molly. Libby, now 20, is an award-winning ice skater turned college student. Steven manages a restaurant in San Diego.

"Well, she is my little sister," counters Chris.

With two smash hits from his Play It Loud CD under his belt, Chris can return home these days a hero. He's capping off his visit with a surprise call on his high school English teacher and a performance at the Houston Rodeo And Livestock Show - his first concert in his hometown area. The gig is perfect timing, with Chris' latest single, "Laredo," zooming up the charts.

"Most of my great memories in life are centered in this house," says Chris, glancing around the living room. "We have a great family - the kind that always sat down at the dinner table to be with each other. When I have my own family, I already know how a solid family works."

Chris sits behind the piano and fingers a gentle melody. It's the same piano he learned to play as a kid. The only way he could get rock songs past his religious father was to disguise them as gospel songs.

"I'd learn an Elton John or Billy Joel song on the piano and then make up lyrics about God to fit the melody," explains Chris. "That kept me from getting a spanking and it helped me to become a songwriter. That's a gift I can't take credit for, but I'm grateful I have it."

Chris credits his 11th grade English teacher, Nora Clark, for that nurturing gift. At Ross S. Sterling High School, Chris strolls into Room 123 with a plaque under his arm. Miss Clark's eyes widen.

"Come on in here, boy," she declares with a big grin. Then Chris presents her with the honor. It proclaims:

Do you ever wonder if you touched the life of one of your students?
Yes, you did.
Sincerely,
Chris Cagle

Presented to Nora Clark to commemorate the seed that has been sewn and the fruit that has grown.

"You do wonder if you are making a difference in students' lives," says Miss Clark, who's retiring next year after 38 years. "This is proof I helped Chris achieve some goals. It's a dream come true for me. It validates what I've been doing all these years."

Chris tells the class, "If y'all will listen to this lady, she will challenge you. She changed my life."

In the hall, Miss Clark reminisces. "Chris was a bright boy," she says fondly. "He made As - and, more importantly, he had a good heart and had a great sense of humor."

Heading to the stadium where Chris played football, he's beaming with pride.

"It was awesome seeing Miss Clark again," he says. "I wanted her to know she had an impact on my life."

He walks onto the football field. "It's cool being here after 14 years," he says. "Playing football figured big in getting me where I am. My goal was to be able to start when I was a senior. That was the first goal I ever set that I reached. From then on, I knew if I was disciplined I could achieve whatever I wanted to."

Later, at the huge rodeo, Chris admits he's a little nervous. "This is the first time I've played in the Houston area. And it's the first time my grandmother will see me play, so I don't want to do anything that doesn't represent the family well."

His grandmother dispels his fears when she gives him some downhome advice: "Don't you worry, 'cause grandma's here," she tells him. "You just go out and kick some tail!"

Chris grins. "Okay, that settled me down," he says, moments before going onstage to, indeed, kick some tail - musically speaking.

Last year, Chris almost kicked some tail in a physical sense when Libby visited him in Nashville. As they were leaving a blues bar, an overly attentive guy flirted with her and kissed her on the cheek. The encounter took mere seconds, but over-protective big brother Chris was livid.

After the club's bouncers urged Chris to calm down, he did. But once back inside, Chris looked up the guy anyway - sitting with a girl who introduced herself as his fiancee.

"I just want you to know," Chris told the young woman, "your fiance was just kissing my sister. Have a nice life." Then he walked away.

Libby chuckles. "I'm going to have a T-shirt made that I can wear when I'm out with Chris," she says. "It's gonna warn: don't talk to me - i'm with my brother."

Oh, yeah, Lib - like that'll do any good!

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