Boobie Miles seemingly has it made, lauded as the ultimate athlete throughout Odessa. Despite being almost illiterate, he walks the halls of Permian High with his hands full of letters from college recruiters promising him a straight line to the N.F.L.
Feelings of invincibility run through his veins. He saunters into remedial English class, flashing a smile at his teacher who knows better than to ask Boobie to open a book. Instead, Booby looks over the glossy pictures from his numerous collegiate suitors.
Bissinger briefly provides a history of Boobie and his uncle. L.V. Miles was raised in Crane, Texas, a small town, which was segregated like most Texas towns. Having grown up in Crane's ‘Niggertown’, which was actually separated by a concrete wall, L.V. remains both physically and emotionally scarred by racism. He grew up watching white boys play football on nice fields with nice equipment, while the physically superior black boys were reduced to punting worn-out balls on a dusty road. So L.V. saw a chance to help his nephew after the boy spent a childhood at the whim of the state's Department of Human Resources. After adopting Boobie, he swore to give the boy a chance at life through football.
Flash forward to the present, where the Panthers play a scrimmage against the Palo Duro High School Dons. Though only a practice game, Boobie dances across the field, dodging and sliding past opponents as if they were there merely stationary objects. When Boobie attempt so stiff-arm a tackler with his left leg, though, one his cleats sticks in the turf and another players falls squarely onto Boobie's knee.
His life is changed forever. He feels a sharp pain shooting through his body when he puts pressure on the knee, and the team doctor Weldon Butler rushes out to help. After checking for broken bones, Butler discovers how badly the boy's knee is injured. When Boobie asks how long he will be out, Butler speculates it will be at least six to eight weeks. It is a disastrous possibility, since Boobie needs this season to attract colleges. Even Boobie's closest ally on the coaching staff - Trapper the trainer - cannot provide better news.
Meanwhile, L.V. sits frozen in the stands. His dreams for Boobie had always been as large as Boobie’s, though he always dreaded the possibility that the boy was just one injury away from tragedy.
This chapter begins with the story of Mike Winchell. When Mike was thirteen years old, his father Billy Winchell died from injuries sustained as an oil field worker. When Mike tried to joke with his father in the hospital one day, Billy refused to play along. Instead, the man urgently encouraged the boy to lead a good life. He had always supported Mike's athletics, and had taught the boy the importance of work ethic. On that day, Billy gave Mike some final advice - it's okay to drink occasionally, but stay away from drugs - and then said he loved Mike before he gave in and died.
Mike ran from the hospital, needing to be alone. Once he returned, he begged his brother Joe Bill to take him from Odessa, but Joe Bill refused, believing Mike should stay to make his father proud. Mike was the only one with enough talent to play for Permian. Mike ended up staying in Odessa, living in a decrepit house with his mother.
The narrative shifts to Charlie Billingsley, father of Permian tailback Don Billingsley. Charlie had been a Permian star 20 years before, and was a tough kid. Though his coach always threatened to suspend him because of his drinking and fighting, Charlie was too valuable to suffer punishment. He eventually went to Texas A & M University, where he discovered how different college ball was. Realizing he was expendable in the larger pond, Charlie transferred to Durant, a small school in Oklahoma. After a year of mediocre football and too many bar fights, Charlie Billingsley dropped out of school all together.
Now, Charlie sits in the stands, reliving his glory days as he watches Don play. On this day, as the Panthers play El Paso Austin, Don's game falters. Coach Gaines replaces Don with Chris Comer at fullback, and Chris plays a flawless game. Don, humiliated and angry, laments how a ‘nigger’ like Comer is favored at Permian.
In these chapters, Bissinger begins to suggest the ways in which West Texas football is the stuff of dreams. For one, it offers a small but poignant way to transcend the racial divide. While Odessa maintains a firm sense of segregation, both blacks and whites generally agree that the only chance someone like Boobie Miles has is through football. College recruiters have courted Boobie since his junior year. Ironically, they are entirely uninterested in his near-illiteracy and learning difficulties; all that matters is his talent.
And yet there is a significantly dark side to this prospect. Boobie is seemingly unaware that his potential does not actually transcend any racial divide. Instead, he is only a commodity, which these colleges will use until he is not of use to them. Though it does not bother him, it is clear to the reader that nobody truly cares of educating Boobie or improving his mind. For. L.V., this tragic truth is always clear, however. Having grown up in a time when the wall of segregation was almost impenetrable, L.V. knows that Boobie thrives only at the pleasure of powerful white men who control his future through these enticements to college.
Further, all of this enticement suggests a disturbing comment on race. In effect, these schools are highlighting what they expect a poor black youth might fantasize about. For instance, many of the brochures imbed high price items into their photographs, subtly displaying a type of culture that would attract a black youth with mainstream commercial interests. And the subliminal ploy works; Boobie sees these opportunities as the path not towards improving himself, but simply towards the ‘good life’.
And of course, the colleges do not admit the tenuousness of their promises. Boobie learns the truth quickly enough, though, when his knee injury brings his fantasies to a scratching halt. While this tragedy catches Boobie by surprise, the reader, like L.V., knows that the boy's dream were always no more secure than the tendons of his knee. Ultimately, Bissinger uses the story of Boobie Miles to examine the reality behind the 'dreams' that football allow.
This same theme - the dark side of otherwise positive dreams - resonates in different situations throughout the book. For instance, life working in the oil fields offers a good wage and a future for uneducated men, but it also takes a toll on the body. Billy Winchell is a good example of a man whose body gives way after a life of stress and toil in the oil fields.
Similarly, Charlie Billingsley is both enlightened and tortured by his love of football. His legacy as a star player provides his identity, and yet is matched by a legacy of hard living. Even when he made it to college, his expectations were dashed by reality. At Texas A & M, his talent was more expendable, while at Durant, there was none of the fanfare that had inflated his ego like Permian football had. Now, a mere mortal, old and arthritic, he is haunted by his success, as he lives vicariously through Don's successes. Yet again, Bissinger paints a character that is initially blessed by dreams, but then tortured by them.
Such is the circle of life in West Texas - what comes from the oil soaked desert ground eventually returns to it. Even the greatest, most celebrated Permian players eventually find themselves back in Odessa, their glory days faded. Through a more in-depth picture of the competition these high school students face, even from their peers (this is the second time Chris Comer's talent threatens to derail a teammate's ambition), Bissinger shows us that inflated expectations and egos almost necessarily lead to eventual disappointments.