The kids sipping their grande Starbucks whatever whatevers down the street from Permian High School were born long after author Buzz Bissinger aired Odessa’s dirty laundry, exposed every piece of mail and changed this community in a way few authors ever do.
The kids who attend the most famous high school in America have no idea what their high school or this town was like in 1988. Their parents do. What does a group of 16-year-olds care about 1988 other than to mock bad music, bad hair and bad TV?
This year is the 25th anniversary of Bissinger’s bestselling book, Friday Night Lights, which changed these kids’ town, their school and their town forever. The Odessa and the Permian that Buzz reported on in the fall of 1988 are still here, but mostly in name only. Odessa is different. Permian is different. Mojo is different. High school football in Texas is different.
In 2000, I went to Permian to do this story on the state of Permian Panthers football. The people were wonderful and charmingly open. They were understandably naive, and likely had no idea how some of their flaws sounded to an outsider, like Bissinger, when he came here in ’88. They were ignorant that a reporter was not going to write what he saw and heard.
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In 2008, I was asked to lead a book discussion at the Mansfield Public Library with Bissinger and one of the most famous players chronicled in the book, running back Boobie Miles.
I have long enjoyed and admired Bissinger’s work and fearless approach. He is opinionated, candid, bright and well-spoken. Miles I knew only through the book — that this is the kid who was treated liked Zeus in Odessa because he was good at football, and was immediately trashed the moment he blew out his knees and no longer was good at football.
Boobie has had a hard life; he’s been in and out of jail, and money has been a struggle. He was a nice, pleasant man who had been kicked by life, and himself.
My impressions are not that Buzz deceived Permian or Odessa but rather he did his job. What he saw and heard troubled him, beginning with the liberal use of the “n-word” from some adults. How the coaches and the town canonized and quickly discarded the players clearly troubled Buzz, but it is just sports; he indicted Odessa when the issue is much bigger than a West Texas oil town.
Bissinger was there to tell a story, and the story he saw was undeniably riveting. Other people’s dirty laundry can be fascinating whereas our own just stinks. The people were upset because they felt he focused on the negatives of their team and their town. Buzz is a man who has no problem discussing his own warts, so talking about another person’s flaws is no big deal.
Odessa felt singled out, yet bad behavior displayed in that book deserved to be called out and changed. Some of the bad behavior — namely overzealous sports parents and blindly promoting poor students through school —goes on in other places. It was not long after the book came out school district administrators changed a few things in an effort to quell the perception that this place was out of control and run by a pack of boosters drunk on winning high school football games.
On Oct. 9, 2015, I returned to Odessa to again see for myself the original Friday Night Lights. I returned for one day as part of a book I am working on about Texas football where I jammed in as much football in four days across the state. It is nearly impossible to do a thing about Texas football without mentioning Mojo.
The Panthers played rival Midland Lee at Ratliff Stadium, and blew out the Rebels, 45-0. On Saturday, the Panthers will play Amarillo Tascosa in the Texas 6A high school playoffs. This season is the first since 2008 the Panthers have reached double-digit wins.
That Permian-Lee game drew more than 10,000 but it felt different, perhaps because the game was a blowout. The younger generation was there because it was a social event more than to watch the game.
Odessa is not the same anymore, and neither is Permian. The Panthers still have their Mojo, but no one fears that famous slogan any more.
You can see the generational impact that book had on this team, as well as the rapidly changing world and demographics of this region. Permian has not won a state title since 1991. No West Texas team has won a state title since Midland Lee finished its run of three straight championships with running back Cedric Benson in 2000.
The big powers these days in Texas football are the wealthy metropolitan suburbs, and not places like Permian and Lee.
High school students today are more distracted with their phones, their social calendars and activities other than football. Football is still big here, but the vibe at Ratliff Stadium felt different.
Whatever damage caused by the book was more than made up for by the 2004 film version, which was shot mostly in Odessa. Billy Bob Thornton became a bit of a regular around here during the filming, and a lot of the townspeople were included in the production.
Then came the TV show by the same name, even though the high school was not “Permian” by title.
In ’88, the people of Odessa had no idea what type of trade they made when they welcomed a reporter from Philadelphia to come to their town to write a book about their team. They had no idea he would put them on the international map, but at a tremendous and embarrassing price.
With the trade came a popularity, residual money and a branding unlike no other high school in this country has ever experienced. Whether it was worth it is up to the individual.
The Permian students who leave their school every day and drive two minutes down East 42nd Street to grab Starbucks have no idea what this place was like in ’88, and they probably don’t care. They only know the life they know, which was unknowingly changed in 1990 when Friday Night Lights became a fixture of the American sports lexicon forever.