In Texas, prep football is last natural resource Sports bookshelf

December 20, 1990|By Milton Kent | Milton Kent,Evening Sun Staff

THINGS HAVEN'T been great in Odessa, Texas, for a while, thanks in no small part to the collapse of the oil industry.

It hasn't always been that way. During the early 1980s, there were jobs aplenty and money to burn in west Texas, as oil flowed as freely as water.

But the boom went bust, and the region rallied around the only thing that seemingly was everlasting: high school football.

In Odessa -- an average-sized American city of just over 100,000 with a frightening murder rate of almost 30 deaths for every 100,000 people -- there are two high schools, but only one that matters.

"Friday Night Lights," (358 pages, $19.95, Addison-Wesley) is the moving, thought-provoking chronicle of the 1988 Permian High School football season, and by extension, a glance into a society's values.

It was written by H.G. Bissinger, a Pulitzer Prize winner and editor at the Philadelphia Inquirer. He spent a year with the Permian Panthers and his observations say much about what athletics mean to a community.

The Panthers are huge in Odessa, so big that after a loss to a rival, the coach finds "For Sale" signs on his front lawn. So big that a coin toss to decide whether Permian will make the playoffs is held in a secret location, so as not to draw an unruly throng.

The toss, by the way, was televised to local viewers at 1:15 a.m., marking only the second time in recent memory that a local station has interrupted programming at that hour. The first was when little Jessica McClure fell into an abandoned oil well.

An English teacher at Permian, with 20 years experience and a master's degree, earns $32,000. The football coach, who doubles as athletic director, but does not teach, earns $48,000 and the use of a car.

Bissinger, who canceled a book-promotion tour to Odessa because of death threats, does not write of the Panthers as football gods, although they are perennial participants in the Texas state playoffs. (This year, however, they were banned from the postseason because of illegal early practices.)

Rather, we are shown these players and their coaches as human, with all their faults and frailties in plain view.

There are players who drink too much, encouraged by parents who drink too much; a player who is wound so tight before a game that he must throw up violently to relieve the stress.

There's offensive tackle Jerrod McDougal, who uses a series of racial slurs against the Japanese to bemoan America's inability to assert itself internationally.

If that is disturbing, it is no more so than the story of Boobie Miles, an enormously talented black fullback who ran for more than 1,300 yards as a junior, but suffered a knee injury in the preseason, and wasn't quite the same.

As the season progresses and it becomes clearer that Boobie will not return to his past form, Permian fans consider him a nuisance.

The suggestions made by whites about what Boobie's life would be like without football are insulting, but illuminating. One man muses that he should learn to sweep storerooms, while another says that he is as useful as a broken-down horse and should be treated similarly.

And so the season progresses, with its peaks and valleys and Mojo magic, in front of big and bigger crowds, toward the playoffs and the seemingly inevitable state championship.

But, win or lose, as Jerrod McDougal points out, life will go on at Permian and Odessa.

"We got two things in Odessa," McDougal says. "Oil and football. And oil's gone. But we still got football, so ---- the rest of you."

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