September 16, 2011


Friday Night Lights: The oil-patch town of Odessa, Texas, lives for one thing: the start of the high school football season (H.G. Bissinger, 9/17/1990, Sports Illustrated)

The faithful sat on little stools of orange and blue under the merciless lights of the high school cafeteria, but the spartan setting didn't bother them a bit. Had the booster club's Watermelon Feed been held inside the county jail, or on a sinking ship, or on the side of a craggy mountain, these fans still would have flocked there.

Outside, the August night was cool and serene, with just a wisp of West Texas wind. Inside, there was a sense of excitement and also relief, for the waiting was basically over--no more sighs of longing, no more awkward groping to fill up the empty spaces of time with golf games and thoroughly unsatisfying talk about baseball. Tonight the boys of Permian High School in Odessa would come before the crowd, one by one, to be introduced. And in less than two weeks, on the first Friday night in September, the march to state--to the Texas high school championship finals--would begin with the first game of the season.

By the time the Watermelon Feed began, there were about 800 people crammed into the cafeteria. They had come dressed up for the event, not in black tie or anything outlandish like that, but in Permian Panther black--black caps, black shirts, black pants, black jackets. They cheered for Ivory Christian, the hulking middle linebacker who preached on Sundays. They cheered for Brian Chavez, the tight end who was as good in the classroom as he was on the field. They cheered for Mike Winchell, the painfully shy quarterback who hated crowds.

And they cheered for Boobie.

Of all the players on the 1988 team, he was the one most destined to be a star. Fullback James (Boobie) Miles ran with flair, and at six feet and 200 pounds, he looked imposing in a football uniform. But it was something extra that made him a blue-chip college prospect, a kind of inextinguishable fire that burned within him, a feeling that no one on the field, no one, was as good as he was.

A person like me can't be stopped. If I put it in my mind, they can't stop me...ain't gonna stop me.

See if I can get a first down. Keep pumping my legs up, spin out of it, go for a touchdown, go as far as I can.

That was how it was when Boobie got the ball and tucked it under his arm. It was a magical feeling. And it was made all the more magical by the setting in which Permian played, that gorgeous stadium that had cost $5.6 million, with its artificial-surface field and its two-story press box, and its stands full of people who didn't just love high school football but had become irrevocably tied to it.

As local real estate agent and loyal Permian booster Bob Rutherford put it, echoing the sentiments of thousands: "Life really wouldn't be worth livin' if you didn't have a high school football team to support."

For 65 years, since the discovery of oil in West Texas, Odessa had been caught up in the unstable cycle of boom and bust. It had become a town of transients, a place to go to make money when the boom was on and then to leave as quickly as possible when the bust inevitably set in. There wasn't much else to entice a person to stay.

Situated 350 miles west of Dallas, Odessa was--even to those who lived in it--unusually ugly: surrounded by stubby patches of mesquite, with a constant wind and choking dust storms that, at their worst, could turn the place dark in the middle of the day.

Larry McMurtry, in his novel Texasville, called Odessa the "worst town on earth." Molly Ivins, a columnist for the Dallas Times Herald, called the place an armpit, which, as the Odessa American cheerfully noted, was a step above the usual comparison to a rectum. The magazine Psychology Today, in a 1988 ranking of 286 U.S. cities according to stress levels, rated Odessa the seventh-worst in the country.

But from the 1920s through the '80s, whatever Odessa had lacked, it had always had high school football. "I think it's Odessa's ticket to success," said H. Warren Gardner, vice-president of the University of Texas of the Permian Basin, in Odessa. "[Residents] can go anywhere in the state and brag about it. They get kicked around on the social fabric. They get kicked around on the terrain--it is flat and has no trees. But they sure play great football."

In 1927, as story after story in the Odessa News heralded new strikes in the oil fields, the only non-oil-related activity that regularly made the front page was the exploits of the Odessa High Yellowjackets. In 1946, when the population of Ector County was about 30,000, Fly Field in Odessa was routinely crammed with 13,500 fans, many of whom saw nothing odd about waiting in line all night to get tickets to a football game.

In the '60s and '70s and '80s, after the tradition of great high school football was transferred from Odessa High to Permian, people didn't just wait all night for tickets; sometimes they waited two days. Among the devoted was Ken Scates, who in 1983 refused painkillers after heart surgery in Houston so he could stay awake to receive regular phone updates on the score of Permian's game with archrival Midland Lee. Then there was Carl Garlington, who spent hours poring over microfilm of old newspapers at the Odessa public library to prepare a book that contained individual and team statistics for each game that Permian had played since it opened in 1959. And there was Beverli Everett, who in her 1983 divorce settlement with her ex-husband, Eddie Echols, had it spelled out that she would get two Permian season tickets and he would get two. And there was retired grocery store executive Jim Lewallen, who said that Permian football "is just something that keeps me goin'. It helps you survive all this sand, the wind, the heat. I wouldn't live any other place."

Such devotion helped create one of the most successful sports dynasties in America. From 1965 to 1987, the Permian Panthers won four state championships, went to the state finals a record eight times and made the Texas high school playoffs 15 times. Over that time span their worst season record was 7-2.

Expectations were high every year, and in 1988 they were, if possible, even higher.

Posted by at September 16, 2011 11:32 PM

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