The Big Mac Blog

Unlike Hollywood, ESPN documentary gives fair portrayal of Dallas Carter

Gary Edwards served four years in prison for his role in a string of armed robberies after Dallas Carter won the 1988 5A state championship.
Gary Edwards served four years in prison for his role in a string of armed robberies after Dallas Carter won the 1988 5A state championship. File

The release of the new ESPN 30 for 30 documentary on the 1988 Dallas Carter football team will kick the memories of so many who recall that team, that time, and, for me, one specific interview.

Having moved to Texas in 1996, I was only familiar with the Carter Cowboys through legend and having read “Friday Night Lights.”

In October 2000, I was doing a phone interview with New York Giants linebacker Jessie Armstead to preview the Giants’ upcoming game against the Dallas Cowboys. I knew Armstead was a member of that 1988 Carter team and I casually asked him a question about what happened.

What I received was a passionate response that I was not prepared to hear. To Armstead, he could have been teammates Derric Evans or Gary Edwards — two lifelong friends who were arrested for their role in a series of armed robberies shortly after Carter won the state title.

“I went a year earlier shoplifting and I got caught,” Armstead told me that day. “I had done it once and got away with it. I was at a mall just doing it. They took me to juvenile, and when I saw the hurt in my mom’s face, I said I would never do anything to hurt her again.”

When the handful of members of the Carter Cowboys went on their crime spree, Armstead elected to stay home.

“They were headed to college like I was,” said Armstead, who went to Miami. “We ate at the same house; we slept over together since elementary school. I know the type of people they were, and they were just like me.

“When you have time on your hands, it can be your worst enemy. An idle mind is the devil’s workshop. They were 17, and it was wrong. They admit that. But you don't take away a young man’s life. Nobody had prior records and, in my mind when it happened, I thought [their punishment] was going to be just like mine. ... It made me bitter at the time. I was 17 then. Now that I am older, I can see better.”

The difference was Armstead’s crime was shoplifting whereas Edwards, Evans and their teammates were armed. They pointed loaded weapons at people.

Edwards served four years in prison. Evans did seven.

On Thursday, ESPN will air its latest “30 for 30” documentary, “What Carter Lost.” It’s an honest, accurate portrayal of events, and should serve as the finale to a story that has endured and been exaggerated by Hollywood.

“My hope is that this project helps everybody make peace with it,” the film’s director, Adam Hootnick told me. “I think when the movie ‘Friday Night Lights’ came out a lot of people around Carter felt burned.”

How ironic.

In 2004, the film version of the best-selling book painted Dallas Carter as a collection of dirty thugs who cheated. The movie played up the racial element of the nearly all-white Odessa Permian Panthers versus the nearly all-black Dallas Carter Cowboys in the state title game (in reality, the teams met in the semifinals).

The film could not have portrayed Carter in a more unflattering light.

At that same time, the people of Odessa felt relieved when the movie portrayed their team, town and school in a much more positive way than the book did. Many of the people who cooperated with author Buzz Bissinger for that book, which was released in 1990, felt betrayed.

The movie healed Permian’s cuts.

The ESPN documentary Dallas Carter should do the same for the people who felt sliced by the movie “Friday Night Lights.”

“Every film needs a villain and I get that, but there were some very intentional things done in that movie that, quite frankly, I am shocked it flew in 2004,” Hootnick said. “There were some really hard feelings about that from the Dallas Carter people. There was this sense that the all of the pieces had never been put together and how they all tied together. I think a lot of people said a lot of things to me (for the movie) was their way to say their piece in their own words.”

The film was shown to an invitation-only crowd last week in Dallas, and the response Hootnick received was warm and grateful.

“There were some people who were understandably reluctant because the story had been told a bunch of times,” Hootnick said. “I wanted to capture all of the important perspectives on this. As you know, this was not an open-and-shut thing. The reality of life is that it’s in the gray area. I wanted to be clear why so many parts of this were not open and shut. The brunt of the negatives assumptions about this story went against Carter in a way I think was unfair.”

It’s a hard, sad, subject, and it took Hootnick three years to land all of the interviews he wanted. To his credit, he got them all.

The finished product is the most complete portrayal of this story yet, even if it’s a reminder of a sad time for so many whose lives were affected by a handful of dumb decisions made by teenagers.

Mac Engel: @macengelprof

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