The story begins in the middle of August 1988, just before the football season begins. Inside the field house is a picture of each player who had made All-State during the last 29 years. They hang immortalized in a picture frame, a reminder of what glory looks like. The field house is also draped in Permian white and black with various nostalgic items carefully placed. To the people of Odessa, this field house holds more significance than any museum or cultural landmark. Odessa Texas was settled in the 1880’s by a group of men from Zanesville, Ohio. They had lofty dreams of turning Odessa into a destination town complete with electric trolley cars. Unfortunately the land was useless to farm and risky to even raise livestock. Odessa’s future would not be realized until oil and gas deposits were found beneath its desert-like fields. Consequently Odessa became an oil town subject to the boom and bust periods of the international energy economy. Odessa is colloquially described as the “arm pit of Texas,” with the atmosphere of “a place rooted in the sweet nostalgia of the fifties” (64). Whatever Odessa lacks in wealth or amenities, it always has high school football. Expectations were always high that the team would make the state championship. Coach Gaines realizes what the town expects of him and his team, but he also knows that nothing is a sure thing in the crazy world of American high school football.
Chapter two begins with the annual school “Watermelon Feed." The event is designed to showcase the team for that year. People come to this event like their civic duty of the utmost importance. Bissinger describes the atmosphere as part pep rally and part hero-worship of young gladiators. Bissinger is quick to add that there is a tradeoff for these young athletes. In exchange for broken bones and pulled tendons, they are treated like royalty in the school. The cheerleading squad, the Pepettes, hover over the players like their personal geisha girls. Boobie Miles is introduced as the player who will take this team all the way to the state finals while his uncle L.V looks over the spectacle gushing with pride.
Boobie is a black player from the poor side of Odessa. Being a football player who seemingly has it all, he has transcended many of the racial roadblocks that plague less gifted young Negro mortals. American colleges and universities had been courting Boobie since his junior year, despite the fact that the boy reads at a grade five level. Permian is involved in a scrimmage game against the Palo Duro High School Dons. As always Boobie is having a spectacular game except this time something happens.
Boobie’s invincibility is shattered during a pre-season scrimmage against the Palo Duro High School Dons. As usual Boobie is flying across the field, seemingly unstoppable. This time one of Boobie’s coveted black Nike cleats gets stuck in the turf and another player falls on Boobie’s left knee. Trapper, the team trainer feels Boobie’s knee and is worried that Boobie will never play the same way again. Boobie’s Uncle L.V. watches in the stands, his greatest fears are coming true. LV. Knew that Boobie was one significant injury away from becoming damaged merchandise and cast aside like a used up battery. L.V. was knew how the only respect a black boy could get in Odessa was through football. L.V. grew up in a separate part of town known as “Niggertown." Everything was segregated back then, even high school sports. L.V dreamed of playing football but the closest he would ever get to the Friday Night Lights would be to live vicariously through his nephew some twenty-five years later. LV. Had taken Boobie in from being bounced around foster homes. When desegregation became law, Boobie attended high school and his football majesty seemed almost foreordained. Boobie was classified as learning disabled. This allowed Boobie to escape the regular classes and College Board exams. It, however, meant that he would have to wait a year after high school to improve his academics before going to college. This didn’t stop some major institutions of higher learning from courting Boobie, even though he could barely read their letters to him. One coach’s sentiments, echoed by the general white community, suggested that if Boobie’s injury took him out of football, he would just be another, “big ol’ dumb nigger” (67). Boobie’s injury also spelled tragedy for coach Gains who had built his offence around Boobie’s athletic abilities.
Mike Winchell’s father is dying. Mike is in his thirteenth year and football is difficult to concentrate on while his father’s life slips away. Mike’s father had been the cornerstone of his sporting mindset, a mindset built on respect and perseverance. Mike’s father had started coaching him in little league instilling these qualities in his son. Although Mike was going to play Permian football instead of baseball, the virtues he possessed would remain the same. After his father died, Mike’s brother Joe Bill refused to let Mike leave Odessa to come and live him. Joe Bill argued that their father would have wanted him to stay and play Permian football, his father would have wanted him to go to college.
Mike would stay on in Odessa, living with his sick mother in an old dilapidated house. We are next introduced to Don Billingsley, the starting tailback for Permian. On this day Don scores a touchdown and his father, Charlie Billingsley, looks on in admiration. Charlie had been a legend in Permian football twenty years prior to watching his son skirting across the field in black and white. Charlie had worn the black and white of Permian 20 years before this point: he was as a star, a legend. He was a tough kid who used to fight a lot but his football skill kept him out of any major trouble. Charlie had high hopes even after high school football. He signed on with Texas A & M University only to discover he was no longer special on the field. At university Charlie was not worshiped, he was easily expendable if he did not perform. Despondent at his lack of status, he transferred to a small College in Oklahoma. A few drunken bar-fights later, Charlie dropped out of college and went into the tavern business. Don would come to live with him in order to play for Permian. Every day Don would get an overstated pep talk about his father’s football glory days and what could have been. After a series of mistakes on the field, Chris Comer replaces Don. Chris happens to be black and Don reverts to racist rants that seem to come so easy to many whites in Odessa.
It is difficult to understand how the derogatory word “nigger” remains firmly entrenched in Odessa vocabulary in 1988. Still it remains because people don’t believe that saying the word means they are racist or that they even dislike blacks. Many whites believe that there are two versions of black people: hard-working blacks who are thought of as white, and dependent, needy, thieving blacks. Blacks are treated as inferior to whites, with Hispanics inhabiting that dubious space in between. Lanita Akins is one of the few whites that find racism offensive regardless of how it is justified. She points to the railroad tracks that run through the center of town. These tracks are Odessa’s version of the Berlin Wall. Although segregation in America officially ended in 1964, apparently Odessa never got that memo.
Anyone visiting Odessa from more populated centers might think that they were caught in a time warp. The town refused to acknowledge or validate desegregation until they were forced to in the early 1980’s. Of the three high schools in Odessa, one was 90 % minority based and the other two were 90% plus white based. As it turns out the lack of desegregation was based more on what would happen to the Permian football team rather than just “good old Southern racism.” There was some irony in this situation as well. Black parents from the non-white school of Ector were against desegregation if it meant the closing of their school. Permian parents were worried that desegregation would destroy their football team, their last bastion of white glory. It wasn’t until the obvious finally dawned on the white population of Odessa. Desegregation would transfer some fabulous black athletes to Permian. The racial rhetoric waned and finally, in 1982, Odessa adhered to a federal law that was instituted eighteen years earlier.
Bissinger turns his attention to Ivory Christian. Ivory is ambivalent about football. For Ivory, the game is a curious paradox of loathing the game with being obsessed with it. Ivory had grown up in the Southside where Permian Mojo was waved in front of the black population like some exclusive white fraternity. Ivory doesn’t see a future in college football so he doesn’t take ACT or the SAT entrance exams. He is also furious when he is temporarily relieved of his position because of lack of enthusiasm. Still football is in his blood and no pre-game preparation is complete without the sound of Ivory vomiting somewhere in the locker room. The game against Marshall is a good example of the pressure that coach Gaines is under. After a silly mistake by the player Johnny Celey, Gaines uncharacteristically screams at Johnny. This is an example of the unrelenting pressure placed on coach Gaines to win at any cost. Marshall eventually wins the game; it is Permian’s first non-conference loss in nine years. The loss provides enough fodder for the town sling at coach Gaines.
The character of Don Billingsley is explored further. Despite the pep rally Don’s mind is on the evening game. Don breezes through his classes, paying little attention to the lessons. His lack of motivation is tacitly accepted by most of the school’s staff. Don Billingsley’s lack of motivation represents the wider failure of the school as an academic institution. The SAT scores have dropped since the seventies and the school had only one National Merit Scholar that year. Some blame the influx of Hispanics to the community and others blame desegregation for the school’s lack of academic success. Apparently nobody blames the community’s rabid obsession with football as a contributing factor.
The girls at Permian follow gender roles reminiscent of 1950’s America. Virtually every girl at Permian dreams of being a Pepette. These are girls who exclusively devote themselves to the football players. Each Pepette is assigned to a specific player. They act as domestic servants for their appointed player by cooking them football themed deserts or making signs for them. If a girl is blessed with a keen intellect, they simply “dumb down” themselves to fit into Permian school culture. Players like Don Billingsley enjoy a bizarre hero status among many girls at Permian; it is a status that affords them everything from getting their books carried to getting paid for sex.
Like Don Billingsley, Brian Chavez is a jock. This is where the similarities between the two end. Unlike Don, Brian is academically at the top of his classes. He is fearless on the field and in his studies. Unlike most players who don the Permian colors. Brian holds the distinction of potential success regardless whether football works out or not. Brian’s favorite teacher is LaRue Moore. She is a dynamic English teacher who laments the priorities of the school and the community. Although a fan of Permian football, she regrets that academics have been largely been sacrificed for football glory. The narrative shifts back to Boobie Miles as a perfect example of what is wrong with Odessa’s education system. A typical day for Boobie at school involves joking around in his classes or playing with an object for his amusement. Boobie is at least two years behind than his peers in all his subjects. This doesn’t seem a concern for Boobie or the school as he breezes through his classes without having to write a sentence or subtract a number.
The night before the fourth game of the season, Coach Gaines makes an impassioned speech to his staff and team. Gaines gives one of his parables to inspire his kids: this one being about a Confederate scout during the Civil War. The theme of his story has to with friendship and loyalty. The boys seem to understand but they also feel the vulnerability of having been defeated during the season. This game has added significance; the match pits the predominantly Hispanic West side, represented by Odessa High, against the predominantly white working class East side, represented by Permian. The author then goes into a short socio-political history of these cross- town rivals. Ethnic divisions certainly play a part in this rivalry. Permian will eventually win this game by a score of 35-7.
Permian’s next game is against the Midland High Bulldogs. Many Permian fans camp outside of Ratliff Stadium on Sunday night to get a jump on buying tickets. There is the usual tension in the air before the game. Coach Gaines gives his usual pep talk and parable followed by the requisite group chant, “Let’s go! Let’s go!” By half time Permian has a commanding 35-0 lead over Midland. Tony Chavez watches over his son from the stands. Brian Chavez has been unrelenting in this game, he barely allows his opponent to breath before hitting him with a bone crushing tackle. Tony Chavez is unlike much of this Odessa crowd. He is a successful lawyer with his own busy practice. Although he supports Mojo football financially, his political views are a lot more liberal than the largely staunchly conservative community of Odessa. The game ends with a decisive Permian victory. The boys line the field like Spartan war heroes basking in the endless adulation of the people. It is difficult to forget that these are merely boys going to high school.
The next day George Bush visits Odessa. Unlike the realities of Odessa, the town looks happy, united and white. The social and economic tragedies that pervade blacks, Hispanics and low income whites have been tucked away long enough for Bush to make his speech and fly out a few minutes later. Everyone is happy with Bush’s speech that was filled with “white” Southern values. To most white Odessans, George Bush represents Republican conservative decency where as Michael Dukakis represents hoards of Democratic race mixing liberals wanting a free handout.
It has been five weeks since Boobie Miles has left the field, five weeks in which he would agonize over the prospect of personal oblivion. When Booby steps onto the field again, he is an afterthought. Booby wears the shame of the white jersey that is meant for second-string players. The coaches have little faith that Boobie’s knee will hold up in a game. Boobie suits up for a match against the Abilene High Eagles. Boobie shows glimpses of his former greatness but they are short lived. Boobie is tentative on the field. He has lost the reckless abandon that allowed him to score 232 yards in a single game. His knee is vulnerable, visible to any player that wants to take a shot at it. L.V watches his nephew uneasily from the stands. He fears his nephew is one accident away from a career ending injury; he also fears that Boobie will loose himself if he doesn’t play. While Boobie’s football career seems to be coming to an end, Mike Winchell’s play is beginning to soar. Through the first eight games of the season, he has scored seventeen touchdowns. Still Mike second-guesses himself. Mike knows there is still a long road ahead and that he is always one game from disaster.
The narrative turns to the folklore of different towns. Towns in West Texas are given reputations based largely on their cultural and socio-economic makeup. The author also explores some of the more colorful characters from Odessa that had made and lost fortunes during the endless cycles of boom-and-bust economics. We are introduced to people like Aaron Giebel of Midland. He is one example of the many powerful men in West Texas that felt they were captains of their own capitalist fortunes. They one and lost millions of dollars. Despite their belief as masters of their own destinies, they were really always at the mercy of OPEC oil and the global market. By 1988 the oil economy is a bust. While oil machines lie in the wasteland like rotting carcasses, people like Aaron Giebel know that he is just one Middle East conflict away from reclaiming his destiny. When it is time to play Midland again, Coach Gaines comes up with another parable for his players. This time it is about a swimmer who competed in the 1972 with a collapsed lung. The boys understand the metaphor of pain equaling glory: they have heard it before.
The narrative forwards to the beginning of the book and Permian’s loss to Midland Lee. The atmosphere in the field house is the opposite of the usual victory hoots and hollers; the agony of defeat is setting in. Boobie leaves the field house almost immediately, incensed that he had to sit on the bench in front of thousands of fans who used to adore him. Sharon Gaines meets her husband in the field house to give him his medicine. She realizes his time spent away from the family and the constant stress of his job has taken a toll on the whole family. Sharon Gaines laments the fact that these players are still children is lost on most of Odessa. Now there is a three-way tie for first place in the district and the two finalists will be decided by a three-way coin toss at an undisclosed location.
By the end of the season Permian, Midland Lee, and Cooper High School have identical records. The tiebreaker rule involves a simple coin toss: heads or tails. The first odd man out forfeits his team from the playoffs. Coach Gaines hates the fact that everything comes down to a situation where he has no control. When Gary arrives at the truck stop, he sees the KMID–TV van parked outside; the outcome of this meeting may be known to the public before he even knows what it is. Both coaches are inside waiting for the coin toss. The first toss is a tie, all three coaches tosses heads. At first it looks like all three coaches have heads again but upon closer inspection, it turns out that Miller has tossed a tails. Permian and Midland Lee are in the playoffs.
While Permian fans and players are ecstatic, Booby sits at home in despair. He wonders how God, the controller of all fates, could let this happen to him. The irony is that after surgery Boobie needs intense physical rehabilitation and he could possibly play top-level football again. Unfortunately Boobie’s time is done with high school football and there is nobody left who cares enough to put him through the expensive rehabilitation needed. Boobie’s uncle L.V. has little money so Boobie is left behind to rot in his reflections about what could have been. The stress of it all causes Boobie and L.V to have another argument. They really are not angry at each other; they just can’t live together with the same shattered dream. Boobie moves out.
The very meaning of life in Odessa turns to football. Permian breezes through the first round of playoffs. A jet is chartered to carry the team to their next game against the Andress Eagles. The irony of a cash strapped town chartering a jet for their high school football team seems lost to most football crazy Odessans. The boys handily win their game against the Andress Eagles 41-13. Despite coach Gaines’s lecture on discipline on and off the field, the boys go out and get drunk.
When the boys return to practice after Thanksgiving break, they see an anonymous letter in their lockers. It berates them for their lack of proper moral conduct off the field and accuses them of being unable to win when the stakes are high. The letter goes on to call them “losers” who are unworthy to wear Permian colors. By the time the boys face off against Irving Nimitz, coach Gaines, the probable author of the letter, has the boys riled up and wanting blood. Permian humiliates Irving Nimitz 48-7.
The narrative shifts to yet another pep rally where previous players of distinction, now lost in the haze of past glories, give several motivational speeches. We are introduced to Daniel Justis, a former All-Stater who doesn’t share the same enthusiasm as other Permian football alumnus. He is quick to remind his son that nothing can match the high of being a Permian football player at the top of his game; life’s climax is making it to the state finals and everything else that comes after is a let down. Trapper understands this sentiment. Every year he sees these heroes of Permian football turn into teenage boys again after their final season is over. One or two lucky ones get a shot at college football but the majority of them are cast aside as fond memories. In the end these boys become a product of decent football training and a mediocre education. We next see Permian play the Lamar Vikings. Ivory Christian staggers off the field, complaining of cramps and muscle fatigue. Instead of being relieved from playing, he is given an IV full of a lactose concoction and is essentially told to “man up” and finish the game. Christian again feels his old ambivalence for football return but he goes out and performs as he is expected to.
The narrative shifts to the players of Carter High School in Dallas, Permian’s final opponent for the state semi-final championship. This is a middle class school that is primarily black. There are few if any rules for football players at Carter. Teachers or administration regularly doctor the players’ marks to make them eligible for the state’s new 70 percent grade average to play rule. When one teacher refuses to fall into line and manipulate Carter’s star player’s marks, there is a tornado of controversy. After much racially charged debate between the all the stakeholders, a final verdict comes down from the Texas State Court: Carter will be allowed to play Permian in the state semi-final.
After arguing about where to hold the final game, both Permian and Carter decide on a neutral site. Memorial Stadium at Texas A & M will be the place where the two teams battle for football dominance. Mike Winchell always dreamed of playing at Texas A & M. Unfortunately, he knew this would be his only chance to play at such a place. Despite his tenacious work ethic, he lacked the size and speed to be a college football prospect. Because of the antagonism between both schools, the teams and crowd were kept in separate parts of the stadium. As predicted, the game turns out to be one of Permian’s toughest. The Carter High School boys are bigger and stronger than Permian’s boys. There is much verbal baiting towards the Permian players from Carter. The game is close and is decided by a final Permian throw from Mike Winchell to Robert Brown. The pass fails and Permian looses the game 14-9. The boys of Permian are heartbroken. Coach Gaines tells the boys how proud he is of them and the players slowly filter out of the football locker room, many for the last time.