Return to Odessa

A new movie based on his controversial 1990 best seller about high school football in West Texas took the author on a long-dreaded journey to revisit his main characters
October 03, 2004

It's a trip I had thought about making for a decade, but I had always found an excuse to put it off. Too busy. No point in returning to the past. They were reasonable justifications, but I also felt a swirling apprehension, a queasiness--oh, what the hell, just come out with it: fear.

News of my possible return to the West Texas town of Odessa had once been greeted with threats of bodily harm. Since the publication of my book Friday Night Lights in 1990, dozens of people in town had accused me in the press of deception and betrayal, of wooing and then verbally raping them, of blaspheming the god of high school football and desecrating Odessa itself by depicting incidents of racism and misplaced educational priorities. The recriminations had died down over the years, but with a movie based on the book scheduled for release on Oct. 8, they had appeared again in newspapers. I saw them, just as I saw a poll on an Odessa website in which 56% of respondents, asked if they would like me to come back, said, Hell, no!

But I am back, driving into town on a Monday in June. I have no impulse to turn around and go home, as I essentially did in 1990 when a visit to promote the book was canceled by my publisher because of threats phoned in to local bookstores. I am alone, unlike on the two trips I made to Odessa in the early '90s, when, fearing reprisals, I crept in like a church mouse for a day or two and then crept out. I feel a twinge in my stomach, but mostly I feel curiosity. I have time on my side: 14 years of it. Still, I know that grudges in West Texas, like the nubby mesquite bushes rising out of the pancake landscape, tend to last forever.

When I first arrived in Odessa in 1988 to write about the influence of high school football in an American town, I had no idea, of course, that the book would cause a national sensation. It became a best seller, and it still sells nearly 40,000 copies a year. Now it has been made into a movie starring Billy Bob Thornton and Tim McGraw. "Andy Warhol talked about 15 minutes of fame," says Brian Chavez, the starting tight end for Odessa's Permian High School in 1988, who went on to Harvard and is now a lawyer in Odessa. "Ours has lasted 15 years."

Driving down U.S. Highway 80 on the edge of town, past a jumble of warehouses selling anything that might squeeze a little more crude from the unyielding ground, I'm transported back to 1988. I'm inside the surreal rocket ship of Ratliff Stadium on a Friday night as 15,000 fans drenched in Permian black bellow, "Mojo! Mojo! Mojo!" the rallying cry of their beloved Panthers. I see, in the locker room, the faces of kids too young to be going off to war like this, the hopes and dreams of an entire town heaved onto their shoulders.

Back in the present again, my stomach tightens a little more. I've returned because I want to see someone I haven't spoken to in those 14 years: former Permian football coach Gary Gaines. We were friends at one time. He trusted me. Given his feelings of betrayal, feelings that have kept me up at night, I have no idea if he'll see me. I'm also back to see what changes have occurred in Odessa, a flawed place whose strong spirit will forever move me.

But I'm back for another reason, an unintended consequence of the book and its most powerful by-product, the one that will most endure for me.

It's Tuesday now. I'm on Interstate 20, driving through the numbing flatness toward Monahans, about 30 miles southwest of Odessa, on my way to see James (Boobie) Miles. We have kept in close contact since the book was published. We speak on the phone at least once a month, but I haven't seen him in 10 years.

It's 1988 again. I'm at the Watermelon Feed, the annual event that the Permian Booster Club holds to kick off the football season. I watch Boobie as he walks down the aisle of the school cafeteria to the wild applause of nearly a thousand Mojo faithful. I see his face, resplendent, brimming, and his body, a perfect running back's body, six feet and 200 pounds, with which he had gained 1,385 yards the season before. Then I'm in a classroom, watching Boobie as he sits in the back and, rather than pay attention, because the teacher doesn't really care if he pays attention, opens recruiting letters from Nebraska. Then I'm in a football stadium in Lubbock in the fading afternoon light, seeing the stupid, meaningless play in the stupid, meaningless preseason scrimmage that changed everything. I hear an assistant coach refer to Boobie as a "big ole dumb nigger." I hear the cackle of a booster as he says that without football, Boobie might as well kill himself.

I ease into a gas station on the north side of Monahans, a small oil town as gritty as the sand that kicks up in the wind. Boobie pulls in about a minute later in a red truck. He greets me with "What's up!"--the phrase he sometimes uses when he phones me--and a beautiful smile. We hug. He still has powerful shoulders, but he looks older at 34, as I look older on the cusp of 50. He is appreciably bigger around the midsection, and I am appreciably balder.

Soon we're on our way to Lubbock, a place neither of us has been since 1988. It's about a two-hour drive north through little towns that pop up on the empty plains like discarded bottle caps. The ride gives me a chance to take Boobie's temperature, to see how he's really doing, because I worry about him and always will.

He's been working steadily. For about eight months he's tended lawns and helped clean up homes that have been foreclosed by the federal government. That's a great relief to me because so many of the times Boobie has called me since he graduated from high school with a wrecked knee and a worthless diploma, he has been unemployed. He and his boss like each other, refer to each other as brothers. The boss says Boobie is reliable, and Boobie says the boss is fair. But I know Boobie. I know about all the jobs that didn't work out in the past.

I am no longer an impartial observer of his life. I was when I wrote the book, stepping back to watch his hideous fate unfold, no doubt smacking my lips a little because it was the tragic stuff that we journalists can't seem to get enough of. But during the past six years, since the death of Boobie's uncle L.V. Miles, I have taken on a different role. L.V. was Boobie's rescuer, friend and confidant. When Boobie was eight and living in a foster home near Houston--where social workers had taken him after he was mistreated by his father--it was L.V. who came to get him out. It was L.V. who first taught him how to play football, who worked tirelessly, and not always successfully, to tame Boobie's impulsiveness and anger. It was L.V. who tried to offer him wisdom as Boobie made a difficult transition into adulthood, grappling with the fact that nobody much cared that he had once been a star high school football player in Texas.

I spent many hours with L.V. in his little house on Lincoln, a cruel name for a street on the side of town where black Odessans were cordoned off by the railroad tracks. L.V. was the most decent man I have ever met, and when I learned that he had died of heart failure in 1998, at 54, I could only imagine the impact it would have on Boobie.

"I wasn't ready for him to go," Boobie says softly as the car cuts through the dust toward Lubbock. "I think about him all the time." Boobie fell apart after L.V. died. He smoked weed and drank heavily. "I had nobody to help me with my problems," he says. "I didn't have a friend no more."

"Do you have anybody now?" I ask him.

He seems surprised by the question.

"I got you."

I am a poor substitute for L.V. Still, I have fielded phone calls from Boobie at all hours at my home in Philadelphia, and I have often called him. His loneliness without L.V. has been so palpable that I worried he might kill himself. I have heard him struggle with the rigors of being a single parent to his four-year-old twins, James and Jasmine, after his wife was convicted on drug charges, for which she's serving 18 months in prison. For much of his adult life Boobie has been an itinerant, working blue-collar jobs at warehouses, a machine shop, a prison and a Foot Locker, and living in a dozen apartments as he moved from Odessa to Dallas to Atlanta to Virginia, back to Odessa and now to Monahans. I have tried to guide him, to the extent that I could from 1,800 miles away. It hasn't been all sweetness and light, and neither of us has been a saint.

I have listened to him when the last thing I wanted to do was listen to him, particularly when he came up with excuses for not working or not having a car. I have helped him financially, though there have been times when I was tapped out and felt used--times when I told him I had three sons of my own, and he wasn't one of them. I have hung up on him after saying, "That's it! Don't call me anymore!" But we've always come back to each other. He has apologized, and I have apologized.

The beauty of Boobie is that he sees what happened to him but refuses to spread the blame for it, though he should. When he talks to teenagers about his experiences at Permian, he holds himself out as an example of what not to be. "If you were 16 and you were the star of your team, if all you had to do was play football, if all you had to do was show up to class and get a passing grade, would you do that?" he asks the kids.

"The first thing that comes out of their mouths is yes," he tells me. "And I tell them that was the mistake I made. I'm living with this. It's damaging. I should have known better than to sit back, take free grades, take grades I didn't deserve. I knew better."

Then he says something he has never told me before. It bolsters my conviction that Boobie could never have realized he needed anything in life but the ability to play ball.

He says he received money for his exploits on the field.

It began when he became a starting running back as a junior. One day he found an envelope in his helmet in his locker. It was unmarked, but Boobie was sure it was from one of the boosters who often roamed the locker room. Inside the envelope was the equivalent of a performance bonus: as many dollars as the number of yards Boobie had gained the previous Friday night.

The first time it happened, Boobie says, he left the envelope in his locker. Somebody had been stealing watches and money in the field house, and he was afraid he was being set up. But the next week a second envelope appeared, and Boobie took the money in both. He got used to the envelopes' regular arrival. He bought nice clothes. "It was crazy, man," he says, still hardly believing it. "It was crazy."

But from what I can tell, Odessa is different now. It's more enlightened about race relations and the right of all kids to get a good education. If not entirely free of its Friday night habit, it's no longer addicted.

When I was thinking about writing the book, it was Odessa's $5.6 million stadium that convinced me there was no better place to go. Rising out of the desert like a pyramid, with artificial grass and a two-story press box, Ratliff wasn't simply a high school stadium. It was a temple to something more powerful. It looks different today, no longer a shrine to football. Now it's part of an athletic complex with fields for soccer and softball--two sports that in 1988, as far as Odessa was concerned, didn't exist.

"If you read the book and step back and ask, 'Are we like that today?' no, we're not," says Ector County school superintendent Roy Benavides. Problems of race are faced and resolved, he says. So are issues of academic proficiency, and the proof of that was in a stunning front-page story in the June 9 Odessa American announcing that Permian's principal was being removed because of low test scores. Priorities have changed in Odessa, and the superintendent gives the book some of the credit.

"I think overall it had an impact," says Benavides, but he also makes it clear that I shouldn't plan a parade through town. People still feel betrayed, he says. Yet he notes that a school board member acknowledged to him privately that the book "showed us another side that we had to deal with."

I'm also aware of the dwindling grip of Mojo madness. "The football players are not so glorified anymore," says Ken Brodnax, who writes a column for the American. "The idol worship has gone away."

In the 1970s and '80s Permian won four state championships and never had a record worse than 7-2 in the ultracompetitive sphere of Texas 5A football. The principal reason for this success was a fanaticism run amok. "It's kind of a necessary evil," acknowledged Chavez, the onetime Panthers tight end. "You're not going to have a great team year after year unless you have all that craziness." But in the late 1990s the fortunes of the Permian program changed. Two losing seasons were followed by three seasons of .500, and no trip to the playoffs after 1998. The fanaticism is gone, in part because losing chases it away.

People in Odessa have turned their attention elsewhere, but the spirit of Mojo isn't dead. Permian has had three football coaches in the past six years. Mediocrity burns like hot grease. "If they ever started winning," says Benavides, "it would be like, We're back."

Boobie and I are in Lubbock now, in Jones SBC Stadium, home of the Texas Tech Raiders, where on an August afternoon 16 years ago Permian had a preseason scrimmage against Amarillo's Palo Duro Dons. The stadium is empty, but not for Boobie. He hears his quarterback, Mike Winchell, call the play in the huddle, Right 18 pitch on go! Boobie is running now, cutting left to the outside as wide receiver Lloyd Hill blocks in. He's up the sideline now, at about the 40, planting his left foot so he can cut back toward the middle and maybe break it all the way. And then his cleat gets caught in the turf, and he feels his left knee snap back. The Palo Duro defenders fall over him but don't hit him. The knee hurts a little. Boobie doesn't think it's serious--until he tries to get up and falls back down. When he pulls up his pants leg, he sees the knee is already swelling.

"That's all it took," Boobie says in a low voice. "Half a second, the blink of an eye. It was over with." He had torn his anterior cruciate ligament. His season was finished. So was the life he had envisioned. "I went from Heisman hopeful to hope-to-do-something," he says as he gazes at the field.

He tried to come back in the middle of the season, after arthroscopic surgery, but he wasn't ready--and he wasn't needed, anyway, since he had been replaced in a heartbeat by another black running back. Boobie was a bench player now, a disposable commodity. He quit the team, his physical and psychological pain too much to bear. Having been so resplendent at that Watermelon Feed, he became an object of scorn at 18: a quitter, a bighead, a dumb ole nigger.

After Permian he played at Ranger (Texas) Junior College. He even played a year of semipro football for a team in Culpeper, Va., after the owner read Friday Night Lights and invited him to try out. But his knee had given up on him long before.

I know that Boobie has spent much of the past 16 years angry over that half second, and more than once he has asked God for an explanation without getting an answer. But I don't see self-pity in Boobie now. His immediate concerns are to be a good father to his twins and to prevent what happened to him in high school from happening to little James. "If anybody gives him anything, it will be me," says Boobie. "I'm not gonna let him get all blown up."

During the filming of Friday Night Lights in Odessa last spring, Boobie received something else: the recognition that had eluded him for 16 years. In the film Boobie is played by a young actor named Derek Luke. Boobie received a standing ovation when word trickled through Ratliff Stadium that he had arrived on the set. The actors delighted in his presence, and he delighted in the attention, although he broke down and cried when he watched the terrible scene in which his knee is destroyed.

"I feel this movie is my victory, my draft pick, my comeback," says Boobie as we gaze out on the empty field at Jones Stadium. "Now I can be at ease. People will get to see the talent, that this kid could have been one of the NFL's greatest."

It's Thursday, and I'm on the road to Abilene at 5:30 a.m. The 175-mile trip I'm making is a total crapshoot. I haven't called ahead to let him know I'm coming, because he would likely tell me not to waste my time. But it's worth the risk.

Nothing has stabbed at me more since the book came out than the reaction of Gary Gaines. In those 14 years we have never spoken, although I know from newspaper articles what he thinks of me: I'm a man who lied about his true intentions, a man without integrity. Gaines was a good man in the insane storm that was Permian football in those days, and I tried to portray him as a good man, but obviously he felt tarred by the problems I wrote about. Still, what bothered him most was the supposed come-on in my pitch to gain access to the team: I wanted to write a book similar in inspiration to the film Hoosiers.

I did invoke Hoosiers, and the book, I think, contains moments of sustained inspiration, depicting the willingness of kids to sacrifice themselves to a cause much larger than they were. But I knew the second Boobie was injured that this would be a book with more than a passing share of darkness. I heard the word nigger used all too often. I saw linebacker Ivory Christian being given IV fluids at halftime even though he was terrified of needles. I learned that more money was spent getting rush film prints of football games than buying books for the Permian English department. I did what journalists do: played it close to the vest and let events unfold. When Gaines asked me what I planned to write, I was vague. Hoosiers became my cover.

Just before the book was published, I spoke to Gaines for the last time. I said I thought he would like the book, and while I was hoping he would appreciate my sympathetic portrayal of him, I knew I wasn't being honest. After the book came out I tried to speak to him, but he never returned my call.

I pull into the campus of Abilene Christian University around 7:45 a.m. Gaines is the football coach there, and I know that he arrives for work early. My butterflies have gathered speed now. The football offices are in a low building overlooking the practice field. As I walk toward the entrance, I see Gaines through a window, sitting at his desk. I wave. He gets up and does a double take, as if he has just seen a ghost.

In his office I am carried back again to the days in which this man showed grace under intolerable pressure. I see his face after the one-point loss to hated rival Midland Lee that jeopardized Permian's playoff chances. He's spent, as exhausted as any man I've ever seen. I see him give a bemused shrug--Hey, this is the price of being a high school football coach in Texas--when, several days later, he mentions that when he went home after the game, he found for sale signs planted in his yard.

He smiles. We shake hands, and he offers me a seat. Although I've rehearsed what I am going to say, I stammer. I tell him that while I don't regret what I wrote, I do regret the pain it caused him. He listens thoughtfully, but he shows no inclination to dredge it all up again. So we just talk--about our lives, our kids. For this hour at least, we are what we once were. Friends.

It's Friday, my last night in Odessa. I pull into a strip mall, about to make my first public appearance in town since the publication of Friday Night Lights. The bookstore manager said apologetically that he couldn't supply me with a bodyguard, but I won't need one. Many of the Friday Night Lights haters have died or moved away. There are also a few who, like Gary McMillan, aren't afraid to say they've been converted.

In 1990 McMillan was president of what then passed for Odessa's politburo, the Permian Booster Club. He told USA Today that the book "took out all the positive parts" of high school football. Since then he and I have become friends, and while he still questions parts of the book, he acknowledges that "overall it was pretty damn accurate."

Wherever I've gone in Odessa people have been friendly and cordial. There's a giddiness over the movie. A film crew of several hundred spent three weeks in town, pumping an estimated $3.5 million into the local economy. Even residents who disliked the book were among the thousands who lined up to see if they could become extras.

I walk into the store and am besieged. The local television stations are there, and so are newspaper reporters. Behind them is a line of people, well over a hundred, stretching the length of the store. I am overwhelmed. I take a seat at the table and begin to autograph books, but it doesn't feel like a signing. It feels like a surprise party at which I see people who were once a big part of my life.

In the middle of it all Boobie arrives, because I have asked him to join me. We sit together at the little table, a Jew from New York City who grew up knowing nothing but privilege next to a black man from West Texas who knew little besides heartache. We laugh. People want Boobie's autograph as much as mine, so our names go together into Friday Night Lights.

I look over at him as he signs with a flourish, not aware that I'm watching him. I have done that a thousand times with my three sons. The smile on Boobie's face is so broad, the sparkle in his eyes so bright, that I think maybe, just maybe....

Several weeks later I speak with Boobie on the phone. "Are you still working?" I ask. It's always the first thing I ask.

"No," he says sheepishly.

He had a falling out with his boss over money and other issues. I ask him what he's going to do now. He says, "I got to get a real job."

"You have to work, Boobie."

"I know I have to work."

We talk for 10 or 15 minutes. I wonder if he and his boss can patch it up. I urge Boobie to think about it. I call the boss, who's feeling hurt and puzzled. I urge him, too, to think about settling their differences, but there's not much hope. What's done is done, I know better than ever.

There is no way for Boobie, or me, or anyone, to erase what has happened.

I am no longer an impartial observer of Boobie's life. I was when I wrote the book, stepping back to watch his HIDEOUS FATE UNFOLD, no doubt smacking my lips a little.

I see Gaines's face after the one-point loss to hated rival Midland Lee that jeopardized Permian's playoff chances. HE'S SPENT, as exhausted as any man I've ever seen.

In 14 years Gaines and I have not spoken, but I know from newspaper articles what he thinks of me: I'm a man who lied about his TRUE INTENTIONS, a man without integrity.

"If you read the book and ask, 'Are we like that today?' no, we're not," Benavides says. PROBLEMS OF RACE are faced and resolved. So are issues of academic proficiency.

TWO COLOR PHOTOSPhotographs by Robert Clark COLOR PHOTOPhotographs by Robert Clark ALONE IN A CROWD During filming at Ratliff Stadium, Boobie, the book's protagonist and victim, sat amid virtual fans. B/W PHOTO SIGNING DAY Almost 16 years after an injury ruined his career, Boobie autographed books with Bissinger. COLOR PHOTOPAUL ZOELLER/ODESSA AMERICAN (SIGNING) SIGNING DAY Almost 16 years after an injury ruined his career, Boobie autographed books with Bissinger. B/W PHOTO LIFE AFTER MOJO Gaines endured the pressures of Permian football (below) and is now a college coach. B/W PHOTOPhotographs by Robert Clark LIFE AFTER MOJO Gaines endured the pressures of Permian football (below) and is now a college coach. B/W PHOTO FOOTBALL FIRSTIn '88 Bissinger became close to the team but was disillusioned by Permian's priorities. B/W PHOTO LIGHTS, ACTION Mojo has lost steam since '88 (top), but Thornton and the cast re-create its heyday. COLOR PHOTORALPH NELSON/UNIVERSAL STUDIOS (BOTTOM) LIGHTS, ACTION Mojo has lost steam since '88 (top), but Thornton and the cast re-create its heyday.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)