After the Permian Panthers soundly thrashed the San Angelo Bobcats, the season ends in a three-way tie. Only two schools can go on. Permian, Midland Lee, and Cooper High School will have their fate decided by a coin toss. The three coaches will drive to a truck stop undisclosed to the general public. A coin will be tossed as many times as it takes to eliminate one team. As he drives to the truck stop, Coach Gaines feels foolish that all his team’s blood, sweat, and tears comes down to an arbitrary coin toss that is out of his control. As he turns a corner, the radio plays the tune, “Something Tells Me I’m Into Something Good”: Coach Gaines hopes that this might be a good sign.
When he arrives at the truck stop, he sees the van of KMID–TV. Apparently they have been given permission to broadcast the coin toss live. Inside the two other coaches wait with a reserved sense of trepidation. Doug McCutcheon from Midland Lee has a 1922 silver dollar; apparently it has been successful in eleven prior coin tosses. Miller from Cooper uses a coin that he had been given from one of his players, and Gaines uses a 1969 nickel but claims there is no emotional value in it. The first toss comes out a dead heat: all coins are heads. On the second toss it appears to be a dead heat again but upon closer inspection, it appears that Miller ends up with a tails. Permian and Midland Lee get to go on to the district finals.
At Permian, there is much fist pumping and celebration at this bit of good fortune. Boobie Miles sits at home depressed and dejected. He had quit the team a week earlier and now the word football just stabs at his heart. Boobie undergoes his knee surgery and by the time he is out, the town is awash with plans to form a convoy to Amarillo where Permian will face the Tascosa Rebels in round one of the playoffs. Boobie just feels left behind. For the first time in his life, he wonders if there is more to life than football. He questions God for answers but hears none. Boobie and L.V. no longer have that sacred covenant of football that bound them together in common dream. The result is a terrible falling out between Boobie and his uncle. Harsh words are exchanged culminating with Boobie moving out.
Permian gives Amarillo Tascosa a thorough thrashing in the first round of the playoffs by a score of 31-7. Despite a depleted school budget and computers five years behind the times, Odessa finds enough money to charter a jet for Permian’s next game in El Paso. Permian is playing the Andress Eagles. By half time, despite a 21-7 lead, Coach Gaines is livid at his team. He rants about their footwork and accuses Ivory of playing like a “girl” (255). In the end, Permian easily wins by a score of 41-13. Most of the boys get home well ahead of their parents who are making the monotonous 286-mile trip back from the game. The boys take this opportunity to consume copious amounts of alcohol and vomit on people’s lawns.
The team is expected to come into practice during Thanksgiving holidays. When the boys show up to their lockers, there is a mysterious letter in each of them entitled, “An Open Letter to the 1988 Permian Panther Football Team” (257). In it, the team is chastised about their sloppy play on the field and their bad behavior off the field. The note goes on to call them “losers” who are merely living off of Permian’s past glory. The note is anonymous but many people suspect that it was from coach Gaines.
Their next game is against Irving Nimitz. Coach games tells his boys to play with their “balls out” and to make sure they “light up” Roderick Walker, the star running back of Irving Nimitz. (259) During the game, the quick Irving Walker isn’t prepared for the wall of black jerseys that come crashing down on him. The final score is 48-7 for Permian. The boys seem to have been motivated by the anonymous letter but it doesn’t stop them from partaking in the usual alcohol induced wildness after the game.
The next section consists of the lives of various Permian football alumni. Some feed off of their glory days, standing up for the crowd at various pep rallies. Others, like Joe Bob, drop out of the football scene altogether. The rallies remind Joe Bob of how things went steadily downhill after high school; he also cannot afford the babysitting money to attend the rallies in the first place.
Ivory Christian stagers off the field; he is complaining of cramps and muscle fatigue. Trapper thinks Ivory is just being a ‘wimp’. Instead of being relieved from playing, Trapper administers 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. Permian wins the game by a score of 21-7. They are now on their way to the ‘promised-land’ of football. The only team that stands in their way to the state finals is the Carter Cowboys out of Dallas. Beating these boys will take a small miracle. Actually, the players at Carter resemble men more than boys. They are a largely black team who outweigh and can outplay Permian.
Coach Gaines finds it difficult to decide his team’s future over a coin toss. He fashions his life and coaching around the idea that, if he just works hard enough, he can control his fate. Coach Gaines has worked hard just as his team has worked hard. Gaines feels foolish that all his team’s blood, sweat, and tears come down to an arbitrary coin toss that is out of his control. There is no control over a coin toss and the stakes of loosing it would be disastrous for both his players and his own family. Once again Bissinger brings home the absurdity of high school football culture in West Texas. He is mentoring a group of adolescent boys yet all their futures depend on football success.
Permian does win the toss but this changes nothing for Boobie Miles. He had quit the team a week earlier and now the word football just stabs at his heart. Boobie is coming out of the illusion of football grandeur programmed in his mind since he was a small boy; he is walking out of the fog that promised so much just within his reach. So many times Boobie would grab at these dreams that seamed almost palpable. Now these same dreams seem a mirage; when Boobie grabs for them, all he feels is vapor. Really vapor was always what these promised scholarships and path to riches ever really were. These fantasies of fast cars, fast women, and adoration depended on him not sustaining any major injuries that could slow him down on the field. In a punishing game like football, this scenario would be highly unlikely regardless of his injury so many months ago. Boobie and L.V. no longer have that sacred covenant of football that bound them together in common dream. The result is a terrible falling out between Boobie and his uncle. Harsh words are exchanged culminating with Boobie moving out.
Despite a depleted school budget and computers five years behind the times, Odessa finds enough money to charter a jet for Permian’s next game in El Paso. This expenditure is almost universally accepted but the irony is not lost on the beleaguered teachers at the school. The priorities of Permian were decided long before Permian had ever been established. Football was the reason for the school’s existence: football and perhaps a little education on the side.
Despite winning or losing a game, the culture for these boys demanded drinking and partying. Many people in Odessa considered this behavior the boys’ right; alcohol and girls were part of the spoils of football. Coach Gaines, however, knew what it took to reach state finals; he also knew what it took to play football at the college level. Their lack of discipline off the field would ruin the few boys who actually made it to a big college team.
In many ways, the pressures of high school football were greater than that of college or even the professional league. On a high school team, there were no second or third string players who could do the job of a star player. When Ivory Christian stagers off the field, Trapper is there to make sure he goes back on. Part of the pressure used on these boys is misogynistic language hurled at them from the sidelines. Words like ‘pussy’ and ‘wimp’ are directed at injured players like Ivory as motivational slogans. Even Coach Gaines tells his team to play with their ‘balls out’ as if they somehow drew courage and honor from their metaphorically exposed genitalia.