Return once again to the timeless account of the Permian Panthers of Odessa the winningest high-school football team in Texas history. Socially and racially divided, Odessa isn't known to be a place big on dreams, but every Friday night from September to December, when the Panthers play football, dreams can come true.
With frankness and compassion, Pulitzer Prize winner H. G. Bissinger unforgettably captures a season in the life of Odessa and shows how single-minded devotion to the team shapes the community and inspires and sometimes shatters the teenagers who wear the Panthers' uniforms.
The inspiration for the hit television program and film of the same name, this anniversary edition features a new afterword by the author.
About the Author
Date of Birth:November 1, 1954
Place of Birth:New York, New York
Education:B.A., University of Pennsylvania, 1976; Nieman Fellow, Harvard University, 1985-1986
Read an Excerpt
Friday Night Lights
By H. G. Bissinger
Da Capo PressCopyright © 2003 H. G. Bissinger
All right reserved.
In the beginning, on a dog-day Monday in the middle of August when the West Texas heat congealed in the sky, there were only the stirrings of dreams. It was the very first official day of practice and it marked the start of a new team, a new year, a new season, with a new rallying cry scribbled madly in the backs of yearbooks and on the rear windows of cars: Goin' to State in Eighty-Eight!
It was a little after six in the morning when the coaches started trickling into the Permian High School field house. The streets of Odessa were empty, with no signs of life except the perpetual glare of the convenience store lights on one corner after another. The K mart was closed, of course, and so was the Wal-Mart. But inside the field house, a squat structure behind the main school building, there was only the delicious anticipation of starting anew. On each of the coaches' desks lay caps with bills that were still stiff and sweat bands that didn't contain the hot stain of sweat, with the word PERMIAN emblazoned across the front in pearly thread. From one of the coaches came the shrill blow of a whistle, followed by the gleeful cry of "Let's go, men!" There was the smell of furniture polish; the dust and dirt of the past season were forever wiped away.
About an hour later the players arrived. It was time to get under way.
"Welcome, guys" were the words Coach Gary Gaines used to begin the 1988 season, and fifty-five boys dressed in identical gray shirts and gray shorts, sitting on identical wooden benches, stared into his eyes. They listened, or at least tried to. Winning a state championship. Making All-State and gaining a place on the Permian Wall of Fame. Going off after the season to Nebraska, or Arkansas, or Texas. Whatever they fantasized about, it all seemed possible that day.
Gaines's quiet words washed over the room, and in hundreds of other Texas towns celebrating the start of football practice that August day there were similar sounds of intimacy and welcome, to the eastern edge of the state in Marshall, to the northern edge in Wichita Falls, to the southern edge in McAllen, to the western edge in El Paso. They were Gaines's words, but they could have come from any high school coach renewing the ritual of sport, the ritual of high school football.
"There's twelve hundred boys in Permian High School. You divide that by three and there's four hundred in every class. You guys are a very special breed. There are guys back there that are every bit as good as you are. But they were not able to stick it out for whatever reason. Football's not for everybody. But you guys are special. "We want you all to carry the torch in the eighty-eight season. It's got to mean somethin' really special to you. You guys have dreamt about this for many years, to be a part of this team, some of you since you were knee-high. Work hard, guys, and pay the price. Be proud you're a part of this program. Keep up the tradition that was started many years ago."
That tradition was enshrined on a wall of the field house, where virtually every player who had made All-State during the past twenty-nine years was carefully immortalized within the dimensions of a four-by-six-inch picture frame. It was enshrined in the proclamation from the city council that hung on a bulletin board, honoring one of Permian's state championship teams. It was enshrined in the black carpet, and the black-and-white cabinets, and the black rug in the shape of a panther. It was enshrined in the county library, where the 235-page history that had been written about Permian football was more detailed than any of the histories about the town itself.
Of all the legends of Odessa, that of high school football was the most enduring. It had a deep and abiding sense of place and history, so unlike the town, where not even the origin of the name itself could be vouched for with any confidence.
There had been no reason for its original existence. It owed its beginnings to a fine blend of Yankee ingenuity and hucksterism, its selling the first primordial example of the Home Shopping Network.
It was invented in the 1880s by a group of men from Zanesville, Ohio, who saw a great opportunity to make money if only they could figure out some way to get people there, to somehow induce them into thinking that the land bore bountiful secrets, this gaping land that filled the heart with far more sorrow than it ever did encouragement, stretching without a curve except for the undulating trough off the caprock where the once-great herds of buffalo had grazed for water. What Odessa lacked, and one look informed the most charitable eye that it lacked a fantastic amount, the speculators from Ohio would make up for on the strength of their own imagination. With fourteen thousand arid acres to sell, truth in advertising was not something to dwell over.
The Zanesville syndicate looked at all the best natural qualities of the country and decided to attribute them to Odessa whether they were there or not. Through brochures and pamphlets it conjured up a place with weather as wonderful as Southern California's and soil as fertile as that of the finest acre of farmland in Kansas or Iowa.
"Splendid cities will spring up all along the railroads that traverse the plains, and immense fortunes will be made there in a few years, in land business ventures, you will see the most remarkable emigration to that section that has occurred since the days when the discovery of gold sent wealth-seekers by thousands into Colorado," Henry Thatcher boldly forecast in the Chillicothe Leader in 1886.
If that wasn't enough to make someone leave southern Ohio, Odessa was also promoted as a Utopian health spa with a $12,000 college and a public library, and a ban on alcohol. Those suffering from consumption, bronchitis, malaria, kidney, bladder, or prostate problems, asthma, or rheumatism would be welcomed with open arms, according to a promotional pamphlet.
Those who were failures, near death, didn't like working, bad with money, or cheap politicians were specifically not welcome, the same pamphlet said. The statement appeared to exclude many of the people who might have been interested in such a place.
The great Odessa land auction took place on May 19, 1886. The Zanesville boys, careful to the last drop, actually held it 350 miles to the east, in Dallas. Historical accounts of Odessa do not accurately indicate how many settlers bought lots. But about ten families, German Methodists from western Pennsylvania around Pittsburgh, hoping to realize the Utopian community so grandly talked about, did arrive.
They tried to fit in with the ranchers and cowboys who were already there, but it was not a good match. The Methodists found the ranchers and the cowboys beyond saving. The ranchers and the cowboys found that the Methodists did nothing but yell at them all the time.
As part of its commitment, the syndicate went ahead and built a college for the Methodists. It was constructed around 1889 but burned mysteriously three years later. Some said the college was set afire by cowboys who disliked being told by the Methodists that they could not drink, particularly in a place that cried out daily for alcohol. Others said it was burned by a contingent of jealous citizens from Midland because the Odessa college was competing with a similar institution that the sister city had built. Finally, there were those who said the college was burned down simply because it was something the damn Yankees had built the natives of the city when no one had asked for it. Given the later attitudes of Odessa, all these theories are probably true. A hospital was also built, but most settlers ignored it and instead relied on such tried-and-true home remedies as cactus juice and a wrap of cabbage leaves for the chills, a plaster made out of fresh cow manure for sprains, and buzzard grease for measles.
Contrary to all the boasts of the land's fertility, it was virtually impossible to farm anything because of the difficulty of getting water. Instead, Odessa eked out a living from the livestock trade, all dreams of Utopia gone forever when the town's first sheriff, Elias Dawson, decided that the ban on alcohol constituted cruel and unusual punishment and became the proprietor, along with his brother, of the town's first saloon.
The first murder in Odessa occurred late in the nineteenth century when a cowboy rode into a water-drilling camp one afternoon and demanded something to eat from the cook. The cook, described as a "chinaman," refused, so the cowboy promptly shot him. He was taken to San Angelo and put on trial, but the judge freed him on the grounds that there were no laws on the books making it illegal to kill a Chinaman.
For more casual entertainment, a couple of cowboys gathered up all the cats they could find one day, tied sacks of dried beans to their tails, and then set them loose downtown to scare the daylights out of the horses and the citizens milling about. In later times it was hard not to get caught up in the frivolity of those great practical jokers, the Wilson brothers, whose professional standing as doctors didn't mean they were above grabbing unsuspecting townsfolk into the barbershop and shaving their heads.
By 1900, Odessa had only 381 residents. By 1910 the population had increased to 1,178. Most of those inhabitants depended on ranching, but various droughts made survival almost impossible because of the lack of grazing land for cattle. The ranchers became so poor they could not afford to buy feed, and many cattle were just rounded up and shot to death so the stronger ones could have what little grass was left.
Nothing about living in Odessa was easy. Finding a scrubby tree that could barely serve as a Christmas tree took two days. Even dealings with cattle rustlers and horse thieves had to be compromised; they were shot instead of hanged because there weren't any trees tall enough from which to let them swing.
A flu epidemic hit in 1919, filling up the only funeral home in town, which was part of the hardware store. It so severely overran the town that there weren't enough men well enough to dig the graves of those who had died. Medical care was at best a kind of potluck affair. The one doctor who settled in Odessa during this period, Emmet V. Headlee, used the dining room of his home as an operating room. He performed the operations while his wife administered the anesthetic.
By 1920 the population had dropped back down to 760, and it was hard to believe that Odessa would survive. But ironically, the Zanesville elite was right in its fanciful prediction that Odessa was bubbling with a bounty of riches.
Unknown to anyone when it was founded, the town was sitting in the midst of the Permian Basin, a geologic formation so lush it would ultimately produce roughly 20 percent of the nation's oil and gas. With major oil discoveries in West Texas in the early and mid-twenties, the boom was on, and Odessa was only too eager to embrace the characteristics that distinguished other Texas boom towns of the period: wild overcrowding, lawlessness, prostitution, chronic diarrhea, bad water, streets that were so deep in mud that teams of oxen had to be called in to pull the oil field machinery, and a rat problem so severe that the local theater put out a rat bounty and would let you in free if you produced twelve rat tails.
Odessa established itself as a distribution point for oil field equipment and experienced more growth in a month than it had in ten years, inundated by men who were called simply boomers. They came into town once a week, their skin scummy and stinking and blackened from oil and caked-on dirt, to get a bath and a shave at the barbershop. Young children ogled at them when they appeared because it was unimaginable, even by the standards of children, to find anyone as dirty as these men were.
From 1926 on, Odessa became forever enmeshed in the cycles of the boom-and-bust oil town. It made for a unique kind of schizophrenia, the highs of the boom years like a drug-induced euphoria followed by the lows of the bust and the realization that everything you had made during the boom had just been lost, followed again by the euphoria of boom years, followed again by the depression of another bust, followed by another boom and yet another bust, followed by a special prayer to the Lord, which eventually showed up on bumper stickers of pickups in the eighties, for one more boom with a vow "not to piss this one away."
There was a small nucleus of people who settled here and worked here and cared about the future of the town, who thought about convention centers and pleasant downtown shopping and all the other traditional American mainstays. But basically it became a transient town, a place to come to and make money when the boom was on and then get as far away from as possible with the inevitable setting in of the bust. If a man or woman wasn't making money, there wasn't much reason to stay.
Hub Heap, who came out here in 1939 and later started a successful oil field supply company, remembered well the single event that embodied his early days in Odessa. It was a torrent of sand, looking like a rain cloud, that came in from the northwest and turned the place so dark in the afternoon light that the street lamps suddenly started glowing. Nothing escaped the hideousness of that sand. It crept in everywhere, underneath the rafters, inside the walls, like an endless army of tiny ants, covering him, suffocating him, pushing down into his lungs, blinding his eyes, and that night he had no choice but to sleep with a wet towel over his face just so he could breathe.
Odessa also became tough and quick-fisted, filled with men who hardly needed a high school diploma, much less a college one, to become roughnecks and tool pushers on an oil rig. They spent a lot of time in trucks traveling to remote corners of the earth to put in a string of drill pipe, and when they went home to Odessa to unwind they did not believe in leisurely drinking or witty repartee. More often than not, they did not believe in conversation, their dispositions reflecting the rough, atonal quality of the land, which after the droughts consisted mostly of the gnarled limbs of low-lying mesquite bushes. Outside of the oil business, the weather (which almost never changed), and high school football, there wasn't a hell of a lot to talk about.
J. D. Cone, when he came here from Oklahoma in 1948 to become a family practitioner, went on house calls with a thirty-eight pistol stuck into his belt after the sheriff told him it was always a good idea to be armed in case someone got a little ornery or disagreed with the diagnosis. Right after he arrived, he went with a friend to the notorious Ace of Clubs.
Excerpted from Friday Night Lights by H. G. Bissinger Copyright © 2003 by H. G. Bissinger. Excerpted by permission.
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