THE AUTHOR OF FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS RETURNED TO THE LONE STAR STATE TO SEE THE SIX BOYS, NOW MEN, WHO WERE THE HEART OF THE MOST CELEBRATED SPORTS BOOK OF OUR ERA. TWENTY-FIVE YEARS HAVE PASSED—OR HAVE THEY? WHAT HAPPENS WHEN WE REVISIT THE PEOPLE AND PLACES THAT CHANGED US FOREVER?
I TOOK THIS route once before, at a different time in my life. I was much younger then, in my 30s, when you can still act impulsively and not suffer permanently for it. I didn't know what to expect then, and I don't know what to expect now. There is a familiar comfort in the landscape: the sprawl of the Dallas Metroplex, like oozing oil; the metallic spires of the refineries in Beaumont and Houston; the Hill Country, dressed in lace and wildflowers; the flatlands of West Texas, where you step off into eternity and wonder if you will ever make it back. A thousand miles through Texas with a thousand memories.
I want to resurrect those memories, since I am now 60, when you forget far more than you remember. I hate going back in my life, and I am not a believer in nostalgia. But on the eve of the 25th anniversary of the publication of Friday Night Lights, I feel compelled to return. It was a linchpin moment of my life. The moment, to be honest.
Return—and not just to famous and infamous Odessa. The controversy that exploded after the publication of the book, in September 1990, made me a marked man. I had to cancel the Odessa stop on my book tour. The anger there was palpable. I had revealed the good of Odessa, because there are many good, honest people there, but I had also exposed thick veins of racism and misplaced academic and social priorities. (It wasn't as if you had to go digging around for them.) I have been back to Odessa many times since then, often because of the book or its film version but at other times to see people who had become friends for life. There is no longer the tension of my first return visit, because Odessans are more forgiving than they think, or maybe they just learned to ignore me—an old shoe, dusty and cobwebbed, forgotten in a corner of the closet.
August 3, 2015
No, the real reason for this return trip is to see the six kids who formed the spine of the book. They were teenagers when I wrote about them. But now they are in their 40s, just as I am no longer the 34-year-old from New York City landing in Odessa in 1988 wearing loafers and an old tweed jacket with elbow patches, researching a book that I knew I had to write even if it meant quitting my newspaper job.
I want to update the lives of these players, learn what paths they have taken and where those paths have led them. I could have done it all by phone and email and Internet. Easier and cheaper. Yet I have to see them face-to-face. I have to see if there is still any emotional connection between us, if any of the power of what we went through together remains. I loved them then. But love is the most empty and overused word in the English language after brilliant. Twenty-five years ago I went in search of the Friday night lights. Now, during a week in April in Texas, I go searching for those who played under them.
"If you invented a time machine, you'd be the richest man on the planet."
I START WITH Mike Winchell. We arrange to meet at the Fort Worth Stockyards. Mike was the quarterback of the 1988 Permian Panthers, and no one bore the weight of responsibility and pressure more than he did. You could see it in his eyes when the offense wasn't performing: darting and downcast, searching for an answer that would not come. His hands shook in the huddle. But that isn't the Mike who comes back to me as I drive to Fort Worth on Highway 26.
Of all the players I wrote about, Mike was the most mysterious. His intellectual curiosity was singular in a town in which there was virtually no curiosity about anything that lay beyond the Ector County line. Mike reminded me of a tortoise, sticking his head out to say something funny and insightful and surprising, then ducking his head back in again. He was an elusive interview. After five minutes he inevitably said, "I gotta go," as if he found sustained human interaction unbearably uncomfortable.
I am the first to arrive. I sit on a bench under a rusty pavilion. I'm nervous, so I smoke a cigarette. I saw Mike about 10 years ago, during initial showings of the film Friday Night Lights. We spoke only briefly. In the past he was reluctant to talk about the book or himself. "People always want to talk about the book, but I don't care," he told the Odessa American in 1998. "That was a long time ago." Now it's an even longer time ago.
Mike ambles up in shorts, a white T-shirt and a green hat with the logo of the Dallas Stars. His legs are spindly, a reminder of his athleticism in football and baseball and golf. There are layers of padding in his face and stomach, as there are on the rest of us.
When he wasn't heaping abuse on himself, there was something whimsical about Mike, a gift for making mischief. In what I thought was a seminal moment during the 1988 season, he asked me if I wanted to go snipe hunting. As a damn Yankee, I had no idea that snipes did not exist; the point was to drop off a naive idiot in the middle of nowhere and make him walk the long road home after he realized there were no such creatures. When Mike invited me, I considered it a crucial breakthrough—I had finally breached the cultural barrier. It was only through the grace of an assistant coach that the hunt was called off.
"The farther the better," Mike confesses now. "Show up with stitches and cactus sticking out of your butt. Well, you might be Ivy League, but I've never seen a redneck fall that hard for the old snipe-hunting trick."
If time has made Mike a little more corpulent, it has also made him more chatty. I have trouble getting him to shut up. He lives in the small town of Decatur, about 40 miles north of Fort Worth. Much of his family is there, including his mother and two sisters. He works as a lease operator for Devon Energy, overseeing roughly 50 wells. He says he was hired because of his natural anal tendencies.
Mike's mom, Pat, is the center of his sphere, much as she was in Odessa. She is 81 now, living on her own in a government-assisted apartment in Decatur. She can be ornery, but Mike is used to it. She also has a Texas-sized strain of independence. About five years ago she was in a car accident as a passenger, and she insisted to medics at the scene that she was fine and would just walk home across two busy lanes of traffic. They took her to the local emergency room and then had to airlift her to a hospital; she had a broken leg, broken ribs and internal bleeding. As Mike retells the story, it is clear that if she had not been taken to the emergency room, she would still be walking home.
In the film version of Friday Night Lights, which came out in 2004, Pat Winchell was played by the actress Connie Cooper as being heavily dependent on medication, although Mike, in reality, goads her to take any prescription. I was there when Mike saw the film for the first time, and his discomfort was obvious. I also wondered what his mother thought. "I wish they had let that lady wear some makeup," she told Mike after they saw the film together. That was her only comment, despite an astonishing and beautiful performance by Lucas Black as her son. "It's just not our way," Mike says.
He still plays golf, although not nearly as much as he did before knee surgery a half-dozen years ago. (At one point he was on the Iron Man Tour, in which you play 27 holes in a single stretch.) He likes to go trout fishing in northern Arkansas, on the White River. He has couch-potato tendencies and is hooked on Duck Dynasty and the History channel. He fancies the mystery novels of Daniel Silva, with their historical and religious references and international intrigue. He is a wonderful uncle to his nieces and nephews. But he never married. "I respect women too much to have them put up with my crap," he says.
After Permian, Mike went to Baylor and played quarterback on the scout team as a freshman. He might have made the traveling squad had he stayed, but the part of Permian football he liked best—undersized underachievers becoming overachievers—was absent at Baylor. "You're around great athletes," he says. "Big kids who can run. At Permian you were around kids who just didn't look the part. But they got it done."
An exceptional academic opportunity came Mike's way because of Friday Night Lights. An English professor at Austin College was so taken with him after reading the book that he said the school would give Mike a full scholarship. The college, in Sherman, Texas, is private, small and highly regarded. I didn't understand why Mike didn't take up the offer. It bothered me. I was younger then and easily disappointed. I now realize the judgments we make about others are usually wrong and based on what we want.
"I was 18, 19 years old," Mike says. "I was comfortable in my own element." When he visited Austin College, his overwhelming feeling was, he recalls, "I don't even know why I'm here." It didn't make sense to me then, but it does now. Mike was withdrawn and shy. He was too uncomfortable in his own skin to seamlessly share a college environment with others from a different socioeconomic realm. Instead he transferred to Tarleton State University, in Stephenville, Texas, and graduated with a bachelor's degree in marketing and a minor in accounting.
Decatur, population circa 6,000, is the perfect place for him. It offers proximity to his family; a sweet and easy nine-hole golf course in nearby Bridgeport; a good job with a good income; and the ability to play with his nieces and nephews and, as he puts it, "get 'em all riled up and then see you later." He still feels most comfortable in his own cocoon; he got a cellphone only because his sisters made him. He has regrets, like the rest of us. There was a significant other in his past.
I wonder if he wishes he had given Austin College more of a chance. When I ask him what he might have done differently, his response is vintage Winchellian: "If you invented a time machine, you'd be the richest man on the planet."
"I don't want my son to go through what I went through. It was horrible."
FROM FORT WORTH I drive about 300 miles down to Beaumont. The next morning I head for a low-slung cream-colored building on the outskirts of town. It is part of a complex of virtually identical cream-colored buildings. Together they look like an office park—until you get closer and notice the spools of razor wire. Texas likes its places of incarceration tightly knit—prison theme parks.
I've arranged to meet Boobie Miles in the waiting room of the Mark W. Stiles Unit. There are 48 booths, each with a barrier of thick Plexiglas, visitor on one side, inmate on the other. They look like makeshift confessionals.
Forgive me, for I have sinned.
Say three Hail Marys and hope the f--- you make parole.
In the middle of the waiting room are round tables of pressed wood for so-called contact visits. There is a shelf containing books you can read while you wait. The offerings are meager: What Happens When I Talk to God?, the Bible, the children's book Bubble, Bubble, Toads in Trouble, a prison rules and regulations pamphlet from 2008. A poster on the wall advertises an online program called JPay, which makes it possible to send money or an email to prison inmates all over the country. The Internet leaves no stone unturned.
The room is painted white. There is a row of vending machines in the back, and a door opposite where I am seated. After several minutes the door opens. My heart ticks up because I haven't seen Boobie in the 2½ years he's been here. An inmate enters, followed by a guard. The inmate heads straight in my direction, ready to be interviewed. He seems remarkably eager, except for one discrepancy. He isn't Boobie Miles. The prison has sent the wrong inmate down. He looks disappointed when he is sent back. I feel a little guilty about not interviewing him.
It's a welcome distraction from my feelings of disappointment in Boobie, for the chances he squandered. I remember what he has been through in his life: the beatings he received from a relative; his early separation from his mother; the foster homes he was in until he was rescued by his uncle L.V. The system of sports in this country, which grinds you up and then spits you out if you get hurt or the coaches find someone better, was the final wound. Yes, Boobie had some opportunities in life. But his life also ended when he was 18—at least the version of his life, big-time football player, that he and everyone around him had promoted to the exclusion of anything else.
Boobie Miles comes through the door, and the last remnants of my disappointment fall off. I catch my breath. I wanted memories, and now I am getting them. I suddenly realize I don't want them, at least not ones like these, so painful because they are also so beautiful. I am seeing a tape of Boobie his junior year. I am seeing his speed and strength, a man among boys, but it is the way in which he runs, with such joyful abandon, that is killing me.
He ended up in the Mark W. Stiles Unit after violating probation on a conviction for aggravated assault. In a pique of anger, arguing with someone in a car (he said the man was insulting his family), Boobie hit him in the side of the head with a beer bottle. Boobie had no prior felony record; what scrapes he had had with the law were related to driving without a license or failure to pay child support. He was given 10 years' probation. He made the mandatory regular visits to his probation officer for a while, but then he quit. When he was stopped in Dallas for making an illegal U-turn, an outstanding warrant for violation of probation came up. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison in 2012. He's eligible for parole in 2017.
Boobie is in a white prison uniform. He carries a little square towel with which to wipe his face, since any exertion makes him sweat profusely. When he went into prison he weighed 420 pounds, more than twice his playing weight. He could barely walk without becoming exhausted. He is now down to 368. Yet his face is exactly the same as it was in high school. There is still the little-kid smile, its eternal sunshine. There is still the same deep laugh. It makes me smile. It makes me want to cry.
He says he needed to go to prison to put his head right. He has done that by accepting responsibility for the first time since I have known him. "I feel good about myself," he says. "I felt like if something like this didn't happen, I might be dead somewhere." But there is such sadness in the way he relentlessly expresses disappointment in himself for not being stronger, not working harder, not being a better man.
"I could never just pick up the pieces," he says. "Every time I thought I could get it together, it just fell apart. I just let it happen. I didn't try to stay strong. Whatever happens happens, is how I took it."
The book gave Boobie a measure of fame. Then the film version catapulted him into celebrity. I can't think of anyone else who benefited from it less. It's hard to accept the routine of working a job and raising a family when people are asking for your autograph at the mall. I also think the attention kept taking him back to that moment in the fading light at Jones Stadium in Lubbock when he blew out his knee in a meaningless preseason scrimmage. He needed to let go of it, not keep coming back to it and feeling as if he was owed something because he had been so terribly cheated.
When scenes for the film were being shot at Ratliff Stadium in Odessa, a crowd of local extras gave Boobie a standing ovation. He enjoyed the star turn. It was also a half-assed way for people to forgive themselves for the racism to which Boobie was subjected his senior year, after he could no longer play. The amount of money he received for film rights, $1,000, was shameful. (I significantly supplemented that sum out of my own pocket after pleas to the producers went nowhere.) A rap song called "Boobie Miles," written and performed by Big K.R.I.T., had more than a million hits on YouTube. Boobie was never compensated for the use of his name. Meanwhile paternity suits were brought against him by women who thought he was now rich.
"It happened the way it happened," Boobie says. "Ain't anything we can do about it."
I have heard him say this before. But his voice always got quiet and low, as if he was still watching his own game film, still poised to take his place as one of the elite college running backs in the country. He's more matter-of-fact now. I take it as a good sign. But I've misread signs from Boobie so many times before, giving him large chunks of money in the hope that they would bring him stability and help him raise his kids; buying him a car; helping him find jobs; paying for trade school in heating, ventilation and air conditioning. The ensuing pattern was always the same: a period of equilibrium, then another phone call to tell me he was broke.
After he graduated from Permian, Boobie went to Ranger (Texas) College. Because of the knee injury he no longer had the speed that, along with his size, had made him so formidable. He got tackled from behind. He disappointed his coach and teammates. He flunked out. There was a brief and unhappy stint with a semipro team in Culpeper, Va. Boobie moved back to Midland-Odessa and held down a series of menial jobs: driving a forklift, doing warehouse inventory. In 1998, L.V. died. L.V. was not simply a father figure, he was the only person Boobie truly trusted. "I lost the person who loved me the most and I loved the most," he says.
I became involved in Boobie's life at that point. I had seen what had happened to him at Permian and could not live with it. I talked to him regularly. I saw him at his best in the early 2000s, as a father to his twins, James and Jasmine. I also saw what happened when he lost them in a custody dispute with his former wife. They were his heart. "I didn't have to wake up and get them dressed for school," he says. "I didn't have to wake up to, 'Daddy, pour me some cereal.' I cherished all that. That's what kept me going."
But what Boobie needed most—constant reinforcement of his value and constant personal counseling to prevent frustration—was not something I could give. I also realized that giving him money wasn't good for him. It was too tempting, as he told me, to spend it on booze and cocaine and Ecstasy and strip clubs. Or give it to people he knew for business deals, who then fleeced him. Sometimes Boobie worked. Sometimes, desperate for cash and maybe even more desperate to feel important, he sold drugs in Houston and Dallas, armed with a .45. "It's a wonder I didn't catch a case on anything," he says. It's a wonder he didn't get killed.
The last time I saw Boobie before he went to prison was in March 2012. He was working in the oil fields and seemed more together than I had ever seen him. I was working on an e-book about him called After Friday Night Lights, and we split the proceeds. It should have given him greater security and peace of mind. It led only to more bingeing. When I got a text from his old teammate Brian Chavez that Boobie was in jail for violating probation and was looking for someone to pay for a lawyer, I knew who that someone was. I was crapped out. Nothing I had done had made a significant difference. I let Boobie know that now. I say, "I was really pissed at you."
"Don't be, man," he replies. "Like I say, it's all on me. You did everything in your power to help. I screwed that up. I'm sorry. I wished I could have been strong enough to sit down and talk with you, and maybe you could have helped. At that point in time, I was so wicked."
In prison Boobie keeps mostly to himself. He says he has seen some things that he never wants to see again. He doesn't volunteer more, and I don't want to know more. He has few visitors. One is Evelyn Witherspoon, with whom he has a child named Evan. She has remained loyal to Boobie; when she visits, she brings along his twins. If Boobie can stay with her when he gets out, keep his head down and get a job, then maybe....
I have no illusions. But when I look at him across the little round table, I know that of all the themes raised in the book, the tragedy of Boobie Miles is the most important, and the most enduring. Considering today's ever-increasing obsession with sports, I wonder if anyone is really listening or even cares.
When Boobie was playing for Permian, he got 80s and 90s on his report card. The day before a test, he says, a tutor gave him the answers. "As long as I could play, I could get A's," he says. "When you got any kid at 15, 16, 17 years old, they're gonna accept that. I'm here to tell you, don't accept that. It's hard to, but don't accept it. Because look what happens: You get hurt and they don't care no more." Which is probably why Boobie had 50s and 60s on his report card after the injury. That was shocking enough, but it paled in comparison to Permian assistant coach Mike Belew's calling Boobie a "big dumb ole n-----" and some Permian boosters' laughing suggestion that like a horse gone lame, Boobie should be shot. The passing of 25 years cannot excuse those words.
One of Boobie's twins, James, goes to Irving (Texas) High. He will be a junior this fall and got picked for a Nike football camp. Boobie beams when he says that James is his spitting image on the field. Prison is not a good place from which to offer fatherly advice, but Boobie writes to his son and talks to him on the phone as much as he can to make sure he listens to the message that Boobie never heard. "If you don't have football, you have to have something," Boobie says. "I don't want him to turn out like I turned out. That's my worst fear. I don't want my son to go through what I went through. It was horrible."
Boobie's self-awareness is a wonderful thing. But watching someone find introspection in prison will break your heart.
It is time to leave. We've had more than an hour together, and the guard is getting restless. Boobie and I clasp hands. Then we embrace. There is a lot left to say. But maybe there is nothing except this.
"I love you, man."
"I love you, too."
I watch him leave. I hover near the waiting-room entrance, looking through a window into an empty corridor. Everything is still. There is the flash of another memory. It is the one of Boobie at the 1988 Watermelon Feed, the big preseason picnic in the Permian cafeteria, walking through a narrow aisle to the cheering crowd with a beatific smile on his face. Young. Handsome. Strong. Immortal.
Mike Winchell was right. If only there was a time machine.
"Whatever Dez Bryant feels playing for the Cowboys, what Tony Romo feels playing for the Cowboys, we got to feel."
THE UNDULATIONS of the Hill Country give way to the parchment of West Texas. The final 60 miles to Odessa, more than 600 miles from Beaumont, are flat and scrubby, a balding scalp with little nubs of hair. Plastic bags and cups line a fence along the highway. Rickety double-wide mobile homes look as if they were set down by the wind and just left there. You wait for someone to emerge bleary-eyed with a beer in one hand and a shotgun in the other, looking for his favorite T-shirt underneath the Ford F-150.
This was never a place to be confused with natural beauty.
Downtown Odessa, at first glance, is exactly the same as I first saw it in the spring of 1988. The Scott Theater is still closed. So is the Ector. I make an immediate assumption that nothing has changed. But Odessa is different. The boom in oil prices that lasted until mid-2014 meant a boom in jobs and population and construction. In 1990 the city's population was about 90,000. In 2013 it was roughly 111,000. On the drive east from Odessa on Highway 191, toward the Ector County line, the proliferation of new housing makes the area look like a Dallas suburb. It's the same when you drive north toward Ratliff Stadium. New shopping centers have been built. So has a row of hotels to cash in on the boom, jacking up weekday prices for oil field workers. There is even a whiff of cosmopolitanism to the place, at least in several bars that cater to young professionals.
Still, Odessa is very much a roughneck town. Fists are a lot more interesting than words. According to a Time.com article in 2014, Odessa has the most rapidly rising rate of violent crime in the country, with a whopping 75.5% increase over the previous five years. The city is ranked as the most dangerous in Texas and the eighth most dangerous in the country.
High school football, which once so dominated the culture and landscape, now just blends in. The fortunes of the Permian football team have sunk miserably over the past 23 years. The Panthers have not won a state championship since 1991. Making it to the state finals, or at least the semifinals, was the expectation when I was there, but the team has made only one other finals since '91. Even making state, once automatic, is a wobbly proposition. Amid great hoopla, Gary Gaines, who coached the Panthers from 1986 through '89, was brought back to resurrect the program in 2009. He retired after the 2012 season with a record of 23--21, only one playoff appearance and no district championship. He now lives in Lubbock and works part time as a scoreboard salesman.
The team did make it to the third round of the Class 6A Division I playoffs last year, perhaps an indication of a turnabout. But attendance for the one home playoff game was shockingly low, the Permian side barely half full. I know that because Brian Chavez texted me a picture. We have stayed close over the years. So have our families. I don't know of any two people more giving than Brian's parents, Tony and Irma.
I am sitting across from Brian at his law office in downtown Odessa. He was an anomaly at Permian High, a blend of very good football player and superb student. My wife at the time had gone to Harvard. We both thought Brian would be a good candidate for the school. We encouraged him to apply. He was accepted, and he turned down other colleges that would have given him a full ride. I was honored to be invited to his graduation in Cambridge, although I confess that when Tony Chavez turned to me in Harvard Yard and said, with a little laugh, "I hope it was worth it," I wondered if I should have kept my mouth shut, just as I should have with Mike Winchell.
Going to Harvard from Odessa was the cultural equivalent of the Pluto mission. Brian went out for football as a freshman but quit after several practices. He was scared that he would not be able to juggle the game and academics. Perhaps he wasn't good enough. But because of his experience in Odessa, he had lost the appetite to play. "The way Permian football was and the way Harvard football was, it was night and day," he says. "I didn't feel the passion, didn't feel the hunger."
Brian could handle the academics at Harvard. But he never quite made the social transition, which is probably why he spent his junior year at the University of Texas. "I had those social barriers," he says. "It was just a different world. I came from a public high school where football was king. The way my Harvard classmates grew up was totally different. They were geared to rule the world. They were geared to go to Harvard when they were in kindergarten. I've always had that inner struggle: Am I going to be the academic-rule-the-world politician or am I just going to be a regular guy and hang out?"
It did not help that a profile of Brian that appeared on the front page of The Boston Globe's sports section after the book's publication quoted him as saying that the Harvard football program was a shell of Permian's. Players on the team did not take kindly to that, resulting in some fights and verbal altercations in which Brian more than held his own—proof that you can take the kid out of Odessa, but you can't take Odessa out of the kid.
Brian returned to Harvard for his senior year and graduated in 1993, an accomplishment of which he is immensely proud. He says it was the hardest thing he has ever done. He went to law school at Texas Tech, then returned to Odessa to work in his family's law firm as a criminal defense attorney. I always wondered why. He tells me that after Harvard, he needed to come home to be with family and friends in an environment that embraced him. He did well, built an easy and very comfortable life. Until something incomprehensible happened.
In 2009 he became involved in an altercation that careened terribly out of control. By his own account, it started as a domestic dispute involving his girlfriend (now his fiancée) and her ex-husband and escalated into a brawl in which he and two other men entered the house of a friend of the ex-husband's and took on eight people inside. Brian was arrested on charges of burglary (illegal entry) of a habitation with intent to commit assault—a serious felony. Because of his exposure in my book and the film, his arrest was widely reported, appearing as far away as The New Yorker's website. He pleaded guilty in July 2010 to one count of felony burglary of a habitation, according to the Odessa American. He was placed on five years of community supervision with deferred adjudication. The State Bar of Texas suspended his law license for five years. Reinstatement is scheduled for this December.
If any good came out of the incident, it was that Brian's suspension caused him to diversify. Wanting a piece of the oil boom, he started a company called FNL Energy, with seven trucks hauling sand and water to oil fields. Since the recent precipitous drop in oil prices, however, he has branched out into the produce transport business. He also has several residential properties in Odessa that he rents out. And in El Paso he and three partners own an Italian restaurant and a converted ballroom for private events.
But what Brian did in 2009 is still something I never would have expected. His father virtually broke down at his sentencing. I would have too, had I been there.
Brian is still part of the fabric of Odessa: You go out with him, and it's unlikely you'll see anyone he doesn't know. He has relatives who go to Permian, and he believes that because of Friday Night Lights, the educational system is slightly better. But he still sees inequities in Odessa, particularly what he believes is very limited Latino representation in a city that is more than 50% Latino. "When you were here, [Odessa] was stuck in the 1940s," he tells me. "Now, in the 2000s, it is probably stuck in the '80s."
He goes to the occasional Permian game, but the atmosphere isn't the same as before. "People go on a Friday night like regular human beings," he says. There was no World Wide Web in 1988. Cable TV was nascent. The off-season workouts, with the strategically placed garbage cans for vomiting, are no longer as hard as Marine boot camp, because of a fear that kids will simply quit. In other words football is, as Brian puts it, "what it should be." But a part of him wishes for a return to the way football was.
I understand that because even I feel it. Those football games in 1988 were the best sporting events I have ever witnessed. Of course, when you have spectacles like that, there is no way to create a proper balance. Football takes up all the space and air. It needed to be diminished.
"I just remember walking down the tunnel," Brian says. "You turn that corner, and man, it was like, Wow, you can't get a high like that. Whatever Dez Bryant feels playing for the Cowboys, what Tony Romo feels playing for the Cowboys, we got to feel. It wasn't on the same scale, but we had the same feeling."
I leave his office and head 40 miles down the road to Crane. I still feel a shiver from Brian's description. I can see it: the crowd, the cheers, the chaos. Sometimes I wonder if I just imagined it all.
"Tony Randall had a boy at what, 77?"
I MEET JERROD MCDOUGAL out at an equipment yard in Crane. It is one of several around the state owned by his family business, M&P, which specializes in dirt excavation and building roads and platforms in the oil fields. Jerrod has worked there for much of his post-Permian life and has pretty much taken over from his father. He lives on a sprawling ranch in Bandera, more than 270 miles to the southeast, near San Antonio, but for now he is living in Crane as he prepares for an equipment sale.
He is slightly reticent when he sees me. A triple-wide in Crane is about as secluded a place as you can be in the Lower 48. Jerrod is solitary these days, and maybe I am intruding. It takes about 30 seconds for us to feel as if we're back in his pickup in the Permian parking lot with Bon Jovi raising the roof. I still love Jerrod. I love how he combines passion and schoolboy respect, the way he peppers one sentence with f-bombs and the next with yessirs. He is still emotional when he gets going, still on the verge of exploding until he abruptly stops. But there is a tinge of sadness to him now, a feeling that, as he puts it, "I might have missed some of my potential. I think all of us, when we reach our 40s, go through some of that."
He has never married. He has experienced searing personal tragedy: His younger brother, Jaxon, lost the use of his legs and much of the use of his arms in a car accident in 1999 and died in 2008. The first several years after the accident had been O.K. for Jaxon, or as O.K. as they could be. But the last years were rough. "Every year we had to fight pneumonia," says Jerrod, which meant hospital stays of up to six weeks. While Jerrod knew he would not get another 10 years with his brother, he hoped there might be another five. Instead Jaxon died of an aortic tear in the heart, leaving behind two children. "He was a larger-than-life character," Jerrod says. Jerrod is right. I knew Jaxon.
Then, in 2013, Jerrod was involved in an accident while driving home from work on I-10. Two off-duty police officers returning from a hunting trip stopped to help, and they were hit by a truck. One died, and the other had his leg amputated. It is not something Jerrod can forget. I felt horribly for him then. Beneath his brusqueness there had always been a tender sensitivity.
I also felt a certain debt, since my favorite moment from my year in West Texas involved Jerrod. He had invited me to go hunting for white-tailed deer. He probably thought I was too much of a damn Yankee to do it. Actually, he probably hoped I wouldn't do it, thinking that in a matter of minutes I would shoot myself in the foot. But off we went, along with his father and Jaxon. The land belonged to his family and was as exotic to me as the moon. Jerrod and I were on the flatbed of the pickup with rifles across our laps. The sun was going down, hues of red and purple rising out of the stubble and the rock. I am not sure that I have ever felt more alive and unshackled than I did that afternoon, as far away from the familiar as I could get, out there in the haunting unknown with a family of West Texans who had become my precious friends.
Now we drive south about 10 miles to a quarry that M&P owns. It is beautiful in the way West Texas is beautiful, the vast emptiness filled in by one's own thoughts. Voices and movements are softer out here, muted by the flap of the wind as it runs across the desert. You know you are someplace unlike any other on earth.
Jerrod says he likes himself much better than he did when he was at Permian. He is quieter, a loner who has given up drinking copious amounts of beer (except when he and Brian Chavez get together) for more soothing Merlots and Cabs. He feels blessed to have good parents and reliable friends. But there are missing pieces.
He was once engaged, but it ended. "I like to think that I would have been a good father," he says. "If I was to find the right person and marry, I would love to experience that.... Tony Randall had a boy at what, 77?"
He has also realized that the experience of Permian football will never be equaled for him. Not the pageantry of the games but the connection with his teammates. I think that is one reason Friday Night Lights has been so successful: Readers identify with these boys from Permian. Whether you play in front of a crowd of 900 or 19,000, the experience of high school football is unlike any other. You are young enough to dream and still not old enough to know that most dreams never come true.
"It took me about 10 to 15 years of working in different groups, different places, different environments, to finally come to the conclusion that I'm not ever gonna have a group of coworkers and teammates like I had then," Jerrod says. He and I stand at the quarry with that wind whipping across it. We continue to stare out, each finding our own point of reference on the horizon. We do not say a word.
"I knew if you really wanted to find me, you would."
I RETURN TO Odessa later that day, a Saturday, and gear up for the most challenging part of the journey.
Where is Ivory Christian? I have not talked to him in close to 20 years. I'm pretty sure he still lives in Odessa and works as a trucker. He called me from the road once at four in the morning. I was too tired to answer. I let the phone ring and then listened to the message. I called Ivory the next day. I never heard back. There had been various sightings of him in Odessa. Brian had seen him. Other former teammates had seen him. He appeared, then disappeared.
I called him before the trip to say I was coming to Odessa. No answer. I called again. No answer. I called again. No answer. I Googled him. Nothing. I went through websites that specialize in finding people. Several addresses for Ivory popped up, but it was impossible to know if any were current. I go to the first one on the list. The house is vacant. I'm getting frustrated. I call him again. This time I beg. No answer. He always did play a little hard to get. In a final gasp I look up property records for Ector County online. I find an address that matches one on the websites.
I drive out on Sunday morning. There is a car in front of the garage. I call again. No answer. I leave a groveling note. It's getting pathetic. I still have no idea if I have the right house. I knock on the door of a neighbor. She says she knows of somebody named Ivy Christian who lives there. It's a good lead. It also puzzles me. I know the Christian family, and I never heard of anyone named Ivy.
I kill a few hours. I go back on Sunday afternoon. I knock on the door. A woman answers. I ask if an Ivory Christian lives there. She tells me to wait a moment....
"I was taking a nap," he says. He is not exactly thrilled to see me, but he isn't repelled. Actually, as he lets me twist, he seems amused. The ambivalence of Ivory.
He was the only senior on the 1988 Permian team to get a major college scholarship. He played middle linebacker at TCU, starting two games and getting playing time in seven others as a freshman. But after he sprained a knee, he dropped down on the depth chart his sophomore season. The knee got better, but his relationship with the position coach apparently did not. Ivory went down to third string. He was insulted. "I've never sat on the bench a day in my life," he said. So he quit the team and left school. He got an associate's degree at Odessa College. He worked at Midland International Airport doing maintenance, then serviced planes for the state's Aircraft Pooling Board in Austin.
He became a trucker, like his father, lucky if he was home three days a month. Now he delivers nitrogen to places such as Amarillo and El Paso. He is living the trucker's dream, working weekdays and home every night. I'm not surprised. Ivory always knew what he wanted and what he did not. Even if nobody else did.
In 2008 he married a woman he had known since he was 15. They have a six-year-old named Ivy (now I get it). I watch him wrap his arms around her. For a man who played with such ferocity on the football field, he always had a gentle soul.
He looks as if he could still play linebacker for TCU. He is stable and content. "I stay in my bubble, my little shell," he says.
I ask him why he never returned my phone calls. "I knew if you really wanted to find me, you would," he replies. The ambivalence of Ivory.
"So, are you happy to see me?"
He pauses. "I am happy to see you."
I don't stay very long. He was always a man of few words, and even fewer now. He seems disappointed. He says, "That's it?"
He wants to show me something before I leave. We turn a corner into the dining area. There, on the near wall, is an intricate collage in a large black frame. It was carefully constructed by Ivory himself. In the middle is the letter jacket he wore. There are 11 patches down the leather sleeves, commemorating Permian's playoff games when he was on the team. There is the number he wore, 62, with a football between the digits. There is a large P for Permian. At the bottom is the front cover of the hardback edition of Friday Night Lights. In the adjoining panel is the page showing a picture of him.
I did not think the book mattered much to him. Which is why I smile as I head toward Dallas and my final destination.
"You did great, baby."
IT'S ODD at first to see Don Billingsley in his business-casual attire, looking as if he just walked off the pages of GQ. Crisp slacks. Collared shirt. Fine shoes with a slightly narrow toe. Not a hair out of place. Still close to his playing weight. What the....
In the book Don was a renegade, a sidewinder, a twinkle-in-the-eye bad boy. When everybody else mouthed the company line, I went to Don for the real deal. He gave it to me.
But Don was on the edge. It was hard not to think that wherever he wound up, it would not be good. He drank. He regarded life with devilish disdain. I could not imagine him turning his around. Which is one reason I now know that high school behavior is the worst predictor of future behavior.
After graduating from Permian, Don went to East Central University in Ada, Okla. He did not seem to change much—until a friend from Permian committed suicide. Then Don knew. "I just asked God to come into my life and forgive my sins and take charge, because I wasn't in control," he says. "It changed my life. It was the only thing that could have."
He graduated from East Central in 1993 and got his master's degree in human resources from the school in '95. For several years he worked for an insurance company in Oklahoma City that ran an employee assistance program. In April 1999 he married Melanie Fannin, who worked in the corporate office of Southwest Airlines in Dallas. He moved there to join her. Today he works for the California-based company Protiviti as a health-care consultant. His gift is for telling clients what they should do in such a personable style that they actually do it. He and Melanie live on a corner lot in the Dallas suburb of Hickory Creek, in a beautiful house with a winding staircase next to professional photos of their three kids.
I ask Don if he regrets the book, given his portrait as a rogue. He tells me he does not, because the epilogue showed him turning his life around. Melanie feels differently: She did not make it through Friday Night Lights because the Don she read about was not the person she knew.
Don seems quite serious now. He talks in a way that is still friendly but also careful. Every now and then I see that twinkle in his eye, particularly when he talks about the bond he has with his coworkers and about their penchant for impromptu wrestling while traveling together. Melanie tells me that Don sometimes comes home with bruises. It sounds a little like a health-care-consulting version of Fight Club.
Where the old Don shows up—the Don I found so alive—is in his 11-year-old daughter, Landry. She is the kind of spirit who, when you take her picture, gives an outrageous grin and the thumbs-up sign with both thumbs. She oozes confidence. Melanie is quick to tell me that Landry inherited Don's athleticism.
At about 7 p.m. we go to see Landry at practice at the Denton Gymnastics Academy. She tied for No. 1 in the state last year on the balance beam. She practices three hours a day after school, and Don has tried to instill in her the mental toughness he learned at Permian. Those off-season boot camps have had their residual reward. We watch as Landry practices on the beam in her purple leotard, then does a series of fearless vaults. Her joy and comfort can be felt across the gym. Don is a bit of a disciplinarian as a father, which is probably why his three children—Landry; her 13-year-old sister, Skylar; and 10-year-old brother, Riggs—have the best manners this side of the border. But he also shows a fatherly softness. "You did great, baby," Don whispers to Landry.
We have dinner afterward at a taco place in Denton. I order something called the Ridiculously Big Taco or the Very Serious Taco. I am not disappointed. I down every Ridiculously Big or Very Serious inch of it in record time. Sometimes I overeat because I am anxious. Sometimes I overeat because I know I am in exactly the place I was meant to be.
I will not make a trip like this again. The next major anniversary of Friday Night Lights is the 50th, and I assume I will be dead or deserving of it. I love Texas, but this is the last time I will spend a week driving through it. The old players and I talked of a reunion and of keeping in touch. No promise is more easily broken. Yet it doesn't matter. I have seen all that I wanted to see. I have found what I needed. I have found more.
Don and I walk out into the parking lot after dinner. We hug. I think I see his eyes glisten after we disengage. But your perception plays tricks when you are hoping for something. So probably the glistening eyes are just my own.
THE PART OF FOOTBALL WINCHELL LIKED BEST—UNDERSIZED UNDERACHIEVERS BECOMING OVERACHIEVERS—WAS ABSENT AT BAYLOR. "AT PERMIAN," HE SAYS, "THEY GOT IT DONE."
I AM SEEING A TAPE OF BOOBIE HIS JUNIOR YEAR. I AM SEEING HIS SPEED AND STRENGTH, A MAN AMONG BOYS, BUT IT IS THE WAY HE RUNS, WITH SUCH JOYFUL ABANDON, THAT IS KILLING ME.
THE FINAL 60 MILES TO ODESSA ARE FLAT AND SCRUBBY, A BALDING SCALP WITH LITTLE NUBS OF HAIR. RICKETY DOUBLE-WIDE MOBILE HOMES LOOK AS IF THEY WERE SET DOWN BY THE WIND.
THE EXPERIENCE OF HIGH SCHOOL FOOTBALL IS UNLIKE ANY OTHER. YOU ARE YOUNG ENOUGH TO DREAM AND STILL NOT OLD ENOUGH TO KNOW THAT MOST DREAMS NEVER COME TRUE.