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 have two daughters: Britni, who is eight, and Micailie, who is six. And they still have season tickets to Panther games.
What he remembers about that season: “The big one we lost against Carter. You know how those bad memories stick in your mind. But I don’t think they were the best team we played. Marshall was, and that was another close game we lost.”
Their opinion of the book: Tracy: “We were most upset about the negative impression it gave the football team and the whole town.” Chad: “Having Buzz down here made you feel more important than you were. People put too much trust in him.”
In Gaines’ first season as head coach, Permian won seven games but failed to make the playoffs. Fans responded by planting For Sale signs in his yard. Three years later, though, all was forgiven: In 1989 the Panthers went undefeated, bringing home the school’s fifth state championship trophy and earning the title of national champs.
Since then: In 1990 Gaines became an assistant at Texas Tech. He returned to the high school game in 1994, when he took over at Abilene High.
Now: In his twenty-ninth year of coaching, he’s the head coach at Central High School in San Angelo.
What he remembers about that season: “We finished the regular season tied with Midland High and Midland Lee, but only two teams could go to the playoffs. I drove to a truck stop in the middle of the night, met the other coaches, and we each flipped a coin to see who was out. As I recall, my coin ended up on the other side of the room. Man, was I glad that it came up our way.”
His opinion of the book: “Buzz said he wanted to write about how football brought a community together, and I’m disappointed that he failed to focus on the positive aspects of the program. I don’t have any apologies to make for that team, and I enjoyed coaching in Odessa.”
James “Boobie” Miles
Miles was going to be the Panthers’ star running back his senior year, and he was recruited by such schools as UCLA, Notre Dame, and Oklahoma. But a career-ending injury in a meaningless preseason game wrecked those dreams. In frustration, he would quit the team with just one game left in the regular season.
Since then: He tried to play ball at Ranger Junior College, but he wasn’t the same athlete. He has looked for work in Dallas and Atlanta, but “something always leads me back to Odessa,” he says.
Now: He’s a maintenance worker at a friend’s barbershop. He and his wife, Shalay, have two children: Jatashia, who is three, and Joe Angel, who is two. They are expecting twins in December.
What he remembers about that season: “The play during that scrimmage against Palo Duro, the one that busted my knee. You know, it’s still killing me. I just wanted to play football, go to Nebraska, and make the NFL. Now I regret the whole thing.”
His opinion of the book: “I think Buzz put it down just like people said it, and I think a lot of people were surprised they got quoted.”
After growing up in Oklahoma with his mother, Billingsley moved to Odessa to live with his father after his freshman year in high school. He did it, he says, so he could play football for Permian. He wanted to be a Panther tailback, just as his dad had been in the sixties. “My whole family went to Permian,” he says.
Since then: He attended East Central Oklahoma State University in Ada, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in public relations and a master’s in counseling.
Now: In April he married his girlfriend, Melanie Fannin, and they moved to Dallas, where he works as a mental health counselor.
What he remembers about that season: “After we beat San Angelo in the final regular season game, some of the guys on the bus ride back had radios, so we listened to the coin toss. All the work that went into that season, all of those hours spent at the field house, and going to the playoffs came down to that. We were tense, nervous, and quiet: You could hear a pin drop. And when we found out, everybody just went nuts.”
His opinion of the book: “I’m glad that Buzz wrote it. For him to just focus on five or six guys, and for him to choose me, I feel really fortunate. It’s like a living annual. Of course, he didn’t get everything right: I fumbled only twice that season.”
A bruising, undersized offensive tackle, McDougal played with more heart than anyone. And, as a famous picture from the book shows, no one took the loss to Midland Lee more personally.
Since then: “For a few years afterward,” he says, “I just isolated myself and buried my head in the sand.” In fact, he did what a lot of people thought he’d do: He went to work at his father’s company, M&P Construction, which is based in Crane.
Now: This spring he moved to Bandera to work at Roger Stevens, a soil conservation company his father recently acquired. He takes night classes when he can, and one day he hopes to become a coach.
What he remembers about that season: “At the Carter game, the officials in Austin asked if we wanted ball dryers. Ball dryers! We never had to have ball dryers; it never rains in Odessa. So hardheaded Gaines told them, ‘No, we don’t need them.’ Carter got all our dryers, and the ball weighed, like, fifty pounds. Our quarterback couldn’t throw it.”
His opinion of the book: “I didn’t want Buzz there. As flattering as it was, he was a distraction. I’d heard that it was gonna be controversial, so the first time I read it, all I looked for were lies. But I couldn’t find one. I cried the whole way through it.”