IN THE FALL OF 1990 THE PANTHERS OF Odessa’s Permian High School found themselves at the mercy of an unexpectedly strong opponent. It wasn’t the Bronchos of crosstown rival Odessa High; it wasn’t even their bitter enemy twenty miles to the northeast, the Rebels of Midland Lee. It was H. G. “Buzz” Bissinger, a Pulitzer prize—winning reporter from Philadelphia who had just published a book that unflinchingly described life at Texas’ most successful football program. As ferocious and as disciplined as the Panthers were on the field, they could not defend against Friday Night Lights.
A sweeping chronicle of Permian’s 1988 season under head coach Gary Gaines, Friday Night Lights became a New York Times best-seller and the worst thing to hit Odessa since $5-a-barrel oil. It did not shy away from revealing the rough edges of a community that was football crazy. As one booster said in the book, “Life really wouldn’t be worth livin’ if you didn’t have a high school football team to support.” Bissinger wrote about the school’s academic problems in general and the ease with which players sailed through their classes in particular, the tremendous pressure placed on the coaching staff to win, and the grueling workouts the players endured. But what caused the greatest fury were Bissinger’s allegations of racism. He cited Permian’s failure to integrate its student body until 1983 and quoted a coach who referred to a black player as “a big ol’ dumb nigger.” Residents had hoped that Bissinger would write something similar to Hoosiers, an uplifting movie about high school basketball in rural Indiana . Instead he made the entire town, as one longtime resident says, look like “a bunch of obsessed, racist rednecks.”
Bissinger, who lived in Odessa for a year while he worked on the book, continues to see its virtues. “To not write those things would have been a dereliction of duty,” he told me. “The book was hard when it had to be, but clearly at the root of it was a love for those kids playing football and a real affection for the town.” Others don’t. “It was a novel,” says Randy Mayes, who has been the Panthers’ head coach since 1994 and was an assistant under Gary Gaines in 1988. “Buzz will do anything to sensationalize, and he needed to make a dollar.” Mayes believes that Bissinger saw some terrible traits in the community—things that no one would deny existed—but made the mistake of ascribing them to the team: “There were certain aspects of Odessa that appalled Buzz. He attributed them to racism, but that never existed in this field house.” Mayes read only a few pages when it came out, and he didn’t come back to it until a year or so ago. Gaines never read it at all. “My wife did, and she called me on the phone crying,” he says. “She told me the nuts and bolts of it.”
Almost a decade later, the charges still sting. When I visited Odessa in August, with two-a-days in full swing, people were eager to talk to me when I told them I was working on a story about high school football. But when I mentioned those three words— Friday Night Lights —in almost every instance their faces stiffened, and I was met with more than one extended pause, as though I had asked about an uncle who was serving time in the state pen. Younger Odessans seemed aware of the book but most hadn’t read it, though one relatively recent Permian graduate who works at a local bookstore said, in a somewhat hushed tone, “I don’t care what everyone else around here thinks. It’s a great book.”
What about the players who lived it? Many appear on the following pages, and they tell stories similar to those of any high school graduates. Some have finished college and done well. Others have struggled. A few have found the American dream: a wife and family, a nice house, a steady job. And what of Permian High itself? As the class of 2000 begins its senior year, little has changed. Football remains sacred, young boys dream of wearing the black and white, and on the turf of Ratliff Stadium heroes are still crowned beneath the Friday night lights.
In the now iconic photo on the cover of Friday Night Lights, Chavez, number 85, is the man in the middle. But everything else he did at Permian put him on top: He was team captain and started as both a tight end and defensive end, and he was the salutatorian of his class.
Since then: He dreamed of being accepted to Harvard—and he was. After graduating with honors in 1993 with a B.A. in government, Chavez returned to Texas and earned a law degree at Texas Tech.
Now: He is a criminal defense attorney at the Odessa law firm started by his father, Tony.
What he remembers about that season: “On the final drive in our loss against Dallas Carter in the semifinals, I ran a 236A Dunk. The ball was thrown perfectly, and if I had caught it, I would have scored the winning touchdown. But at the last second, Jesse Armstead came out of nowhere and touched the ball just enough to knock it away.”
His opinion of the book: “It was a pretty true assessment of race in Odessa. As for how it described playing at Permian, Buzz hit it right on the nose. When I think about my senior year, I couldn’t describe it any better.”
Chad and Tracy Payne
They were high school sweethearts who started dating the summer before their senior year. He was a starting linebacker; she never missed a game.
Since then: They married in June 1990 and chose to remain in Odessa, where she studied accounting at Odessa College and he supported them by working for his dad at Seacoast Machine.
Now: He’s a foreman at Westech Seal. She’s an accountant at Cumulus Broadcasting. They