The prologue gives a snapshot of the book's major characters, all football players for Permian High School in Odessa, TX. It is set near the end of the team's devastating loss to Permian’s archrivals, Midland Lee.
First, we meet fullback Boobie Miles, a black athlete from the poor side of Odessa. Boobie can barely read, but has been courted by major colleges and universities since he was a junior at Permian. Though he spent much of his childhood in and out of foster homes, he now lives with his uncle, L.V. Miles. L.V. has been a great influence on Boobie, who early on showed the makings of a champion player. Though the Miles men dream of Boobie winning a Heisman Trophy one day, his prospects have been threatened by a severe knee injury. Despite impending arthroscopic surgery, Boobie is intent on playing Midland Lee.
We next meet offensive lineman Jerrod McDougal as he listens to Bon Jovi in his truck before entering the stadium for the game. He likens the impending Midland game to the gladiatorial displays of ancient Greece. Jerrod knows that he is too small to compete at the college level, so wants to enjoy this time in which he is considered a hero by the community.
Next is Mike Winchell, the quarterback. Although his position affords him a certain status on the team, it also brings agonizing pressures. Winchell lives in a decrepit house with his sick mother, and is self-conscious about those economic circumstances. Football offers his one chance to break away from poverty, and he knows that his performance in the Midland game could be a deciding factor in landing a good college scholarship.
Next is middle linebacker Ivory Christian, who is vomiting. It is a regular occurrence for him, a physical reaction to the emotional and physical stress soon to come. Ivory has a love/hate relationship with football. He has often thought of leaving the team, but something always drives him back, something like an addiction. This paradox seems to intensify his play on field.
Finally, we meet Brian Chavez, a safety and the team's lone Hispanic player. Brian is a gifted football player, but an even more gifted student, at the top of his class in all subjects. He is envied by many of the boys because his grades ensure him an escape from Odessa even if the football season goes poorly. Though Brian has already been accepted to Harvard, he is at this moment firmly devoted to the game.
Coach Gary Gaines calls the boys together with a sincere pep talk, after which the Permian Panthers take the field. The atmosphere has all the energy of the Super Bowl as the competing bands blast their rehearsed anthems and the cheerleaders spin around in anticipation.
The two teams clash. Bissinger paints a picture of blood, sweat, and pain that oddly looks no different than the professional gridiron. The offensive strategy overlooks Boobie and instead gives the ball to Chris Comer, his replacement. Although less athletically gifted than Boobie, Cormer is not injured, has heart, and does not flaunt his talent like Boobie does. Eventually, Boobie realizes that the coaches have no intention of playing him.
Midland Lee wins the game that night, leaving Permian in a three-way tie for the playoffs. In humiliation, Boobie quits the team.
Chapter 1 jumps back in time, to the beginning of the 1988 Permian season. Practice begins on a hot, dry August morning.
Bissinger describes the field house, which is draped in Permian's colors of black and white. Inside the field house are pictures of all the players who were named All-State during the previous 29 years, ensuring their glory is always remembered. For the people of Odessa, this field house holds more significance than any museum or cultural landmark.
He then introduces us to Odessa. The town was settled in the 1880’s by a group of men from Zanesville, Ohio. These men had hoped to develop Odessa as a destination town complete with electric trolley cars. Unfortunately, the dry land was useless for either farming or raising livestock. It remained fairly destitute until oil and gas deposits were discovered many years later. As it turned out, Odessa was located in the middle of the Permian Basin, a geologic formation that promised to provide 20 percent of the nation's oil and gas reserves.
Consequently, Odessa became an oil town, subject to the boom and bust periods of the international energy economy. In 1982, Odessa resembled something like a booming frontier town of the gold rush days. Money and alcohol flowed freely, and men often solved disputes with their guns. It had one of the highest crime rates in the country, and was once voted as one of the worst cities in America.
Odessa is colloquially described as the “arm pit of Texas,” having the atmosphere of “a place rooted in the sweet nostalgia of the fifties” (48). However, whatever Odessa lacks in wealth or positivity, it compensates for with a firm affection for high school football. Its legacy is well documented throughout the book. Permian in particular is entwined with the Church, a sacred trust in which the town has a religious faith. Not only did most of the town show up for all the home games (provided they could get tickets), they also traveled amazing distances for away games.
Thus, Coach Gaines knows the pressure is high. In particular, the town has high hopes that this 1988 team will at least make it to the State championship, if not win that honor. While his job is by nature in jeopardy, he is well compensated for the high expectations, making up to 30 percent more than the average teacher. When the team plays well, he is treated like a five-star general; when the team falters, he invariably finds 'For Sale' signs in his front lawn.
This chapter details the "Watermelon Feed," the season's first pep rally.
For this event, the boys run into the high school cafeteria with all their glory on display. It is difficult to pack the bulk of white Odessa into a school cafeteria, so the school positions screens outside for latecomers. People arrive with their children, as though the event is an important civic duty, all clutching Permian yearbooks and autographs from players now graduated.
The town makes no apologies for its behavior, even though grown men act like crazed fans at a rock concert. When Ross Perot, while running for office, once called these men ‘football crazy’, the men reacted by sending letters insulting the politician.
Bissinger details the sacrifices that both players and fans make for Permian. While fans are willing to subsume their lives for these high school students, the players often struggle through broken or sprained limbs to compete. The pain is worth the glory they experience from such devoted townspeople.
At the Watermelon Feed, films are shown of former heroes, with special focus on Shawn Crow, who once led the team to a State victory. Crow sits in the crowd during the video, looking embarrassed. While he originally planned to play for Texas Christian University, he suffered a herniated disc in the final game of his high school career. The university delayed his acceptance until his back healed, so he now settles for the glory of remembered victories.
While every player is highlighted at this year's Watermelon Feed, Boobie Miles receives particular attention; the town views him as a savior who will lead the team to the state finals. Despite its innate racism, the town does not care that Boobie is black, as they cheer along with the Pepettes, the booster girls who double as cheerleaders.
American football culture is a strange phenomenon for many people to comprehend - and West Texas high school football is even stranger. In many ways, Friday Night Lights serves as more than just a sociological study; it also examines the way that certain traditions can reach the level of myth for some communities.
The prologue is designed to acclimatize the reader with this quasi-sacred world. In addition to introducing the main characters, it also reveals the culture in which these boys live, a world of ravenous fan obsession that sees football as akin to religion. Bissinger's quick introduction does a great job of reminding us of something else too: these are just boys, attempting to navigate not only their youth, but also a world that inflates them with bizarre expectations of heroism. Each of the boys struggles less with the pressure of the game and more with the idea that their gameplay defines the hopes and dreams of their neighbors, friends, and even people they have potentially never met. It is, in some ways, an impossible situation -- one that he will later reveal haunts these young men for the rest of their lives.
While the book is non-fiction, Bissinger does great work of using real objects as symbols that reflect the world he is detailing. One of the first is the Permian field house, which he paints as shrouded in mystique and tradition. Pictures of former heroes adorn the wall of fame, as though they are historic gladiators. The almost ceremonial design of the field house hides the fact that this is merely a building meant to facilitate football practice for adolescents. The symbol implicitly asks the question: how does a culture like this come to life?
Another symbol of the football mania is of course the Watermelon Feed. The mania there presents a ritualistic practice, one that celebrates the institution of football as something much larger. The Watermelon Feed is a pep rally that looks more like coliseum worship of Spartan Warriors heading out for conquest. The reader quickly gets a sense that this display of adulation has more to do with celebrating a lifestyle than it does with simply making some boys feel well. There is great social value placed on these boys decked out in Permian black and white. They represent all that is true and sacred in West Texas.
The mania is ironic for two reasons. First, the reader feels distant from such mania, and cannot help but compare it to his or her world. Secondly, the reader knows that Permian will lose to Midland Lee. This dramatic irony adds a rather tragic air to the ceremony, since not only will the team lose, but also the town will see its inflated hopes dashed.
Finally, the Pepettes provide a symbol of how football culture infects more than just the players. These girls serve both collective and individual roles in facilitating the ritualistic celebration of football. As a group, they lead the crowd into frenzy, while they act as individuals through their relationships with specific players. As a symbol, these girls also comment on how football keeps the town immersed in conservatism. An outside observer might find the Pepette/player relationship an affront to gender equality, but the town implicitly justifies it as something inherent, a part of their small-town fantasy. That these aura of feminine servitude leaves Permian females as amongst the lowest-performing in the country is ignored; that it makes them part of the overwhelming football culture is celebrated.
Of course, Bissinger also turns his eye to more grounded, less symbolic objects as well. One of the book's virtues is its sociological study of Odessa in terms of a greater history and context. There is something archetypically American about Odessa, which was built around a frontier mentality and then flourished through a boom and bust cycle. This idea - of men who settle unclaimed land in hopes of one day discovering wealth - is immersed in the American mythology.
But Odessa also reflects the reality behind that mythology. The frontier Odessa was populated with hard, desperate men who lived lives of violence and want. And the people who live in the town in 1988 still espouse many of those virtues. They are fiercely independent, conservative, and weary of change. While these values could be commended, they also engender small-mindedness and prejudice, particularly in terms of race. As Bissinger will continue to explore, Odessa is split along rather rigid race lines.
Bissinger takes great pains to explain the Permian obsession in terms of religion. Outside of football, the people of Odessa find solace only in their church. Every Wednesday evening and Sunday morning, citizens attend one of sixty-two denominations of Christian churches in the Odessa area. These churches serve many purposes but, according to Bissinger, are more about racial and political conformity than about spiritual matters. That Odessa can help them validate their already rigid notions of the world only strengthens their 'faith.' Ultimately, Bissinger suggests that West Texas weathers a hard life through its obsession with football. In other words, football takes the place that religion does for many other suffering civilizations. As he writes, “Mojo football, it helps you survive all this sand, the wind, the heat” (22).
West Texas society was often sensational, if not outright strange, to mainstream America. ABC’s Nightline once detailed how the town could barely afford a few computers and antiquated books for their schools, but nevertheless found $5.6 million to build a state of the art football stadium. And yet Odessa residents have no interest in self-analysis. Nightline's arguments only stiffened their resolve to be left alone by the liberal media, who knew nothing about Southern small town honor, values, and of course football.
And yet for all these easy attacks on Odessa, Bissinger also attempts to understand the mentality, to recognize it as something special. While one might see the world's difficulties - Odessa's 12 percent unemployment rate while OPEC dictates the world’s energy market - as cause to look past football, it also explains why they turn so fiercely towards it. Somewhere along the way, football became their escape. It gave them an identity that they still cherish.
Of course, that collective identity causes problems for individuals who try to construct separate identities within it. Coach Gaines is the most obvious example, since he is so defined by his success rate on the field and little else. Jessie Klein, in her book The Bully Society, notes that, “High school coaches have to win or they will lose their jobs” (138). Bissinger goes a step further, suggesting that Gaines means little outside of his numbers.
Likewise, Boobie Miles reveals how a student loses even his racial identity in the midst of Permian. Despite the town's ingrained racism, they have accepted that minority players are essential to victory, and so look past his skin color, at least as long as he performs well. They ignore the fact that he is a learning-impaired black boy from ‘Niggertown’. What's perhaps most damning, though, is that Boobie too looks past those attitudes. Though he knows how they feel, he is willing to be embraced by people who would otherwise hate him. In Odessa, it seems, there are few other opportunities for self-worth.