In 1988, investigative journalist and Pulitzer Prize winner H.G. Bissinger decided to spend a year chronicling a season of high school football. The school he chose was Permian High in Odessa, Texas. Odessa, a West Texan town of about 90,000 people, exhibited a lot of the characteristics of the boom-and-bust mentality of a place whose reason for existence depended on oil and Middle Eastern politics. During Bissinger’s season, Odessa was in the midst of an economic downturn, a town with an alarmingly rising crime rate and such bleak prospects that Money magazine rated it the fifth worst place to live in the United States. Football, Permian High football, was what held the town together. And hold it did, with crowds of 20,000 flocking to see games on Friday nights, and thousands watching every practice and internalizing every success and failure of the team.
The Permian Panthers was no ordinary high school football team. Its win-loss record was unrivalled in the state, and the team had won five state championships. The ultimate honor for every boy in town was to play football for the Panthers. For every girl it was to become a Pepette, a cheerleader who baked cookies for the players during off days and dazzled the crowd to the tune of the school fight song on game days. In Odessa, everybody defined themselves in terms of the school football team and lived vicariously through it. So obsessed were the townspeople that they hardly raised an eyebrow when the football team chartered planes for away games at $20,000 a ride while the teachers scrounged around for money to buy textbooks and teaching materials.
Bissinger’s riveting narrative of Permian High’s quest for the state championship is interspersed with vivid portrayals of the players, some who shine in the spotlight and others who find that they don’t quite measure up when it counts. Booby Miles, an African American running back, figures that the 1988 season will be his coming-out party, a season where he will lead his school to the championship and attain his dream of playing football for a major college. Booby has so much faith in his ability that he burns a number of bridges – academic and social – in his journey. In a poignantly told chapter, we find Booby’s dreams shattered as his foot is caught in the artificial turf during a game. Unable to come to terms with the loss of his athletic ability, Booby becomes a cautionary tale of football obsession gone awry.
The erudite Brian Chavez is a study in contrast. The top student in his class, Chavez exhibits a passion for brutality on the field but realizes that there is a world beyond football and one beyond the insular confines of Odessa. It is little wonder that Chavez ends up graduating from Harvard after high school. Then there is the troubled Don Billingsley, who tries to live up in vain to the glory and expectations of his father, spirals into an abyss of drugs and alcohol, and somehow comes up unscathed in moments that count.
The book’s merit lies in the fact that, while it details the excesses that happen in Odessa because of the town’s obsession with the Permian Panthers, its reader realizes the genuine passion the town, the players, and the coaches have for the game. While it is appalling to read about the town’s hatred of African Americans and Hispanics and its almost complete disdain for anything that gets in the way of football, Bissinger succeeds in getting us to root for the team and read with bated breath the account of the team’s fortunes on the field. The description of the pivotal game against Carter High is told with such a sense of immediacy that we feel that we can almost will the result to be different.
The current edition of the book is a look back after ten-plus years of the book’s publication. In the afterword, the author looks at its impact on the town. Apparently the book evoked such bitterness and antipathy because of what residents saw as its negative tone that Bissinger’s life was threatened. However, well-meaning citizens saw the book for what it was – a brutally honest portrait of what high school football means to a town and how this passion can alter priorities, often to the detriment of the town. Recent news reports seem to indicate that Odessa has toned down, albeit only slightly, its passion for football and has begun to reassess its priorities.