Monday, March 26, 2012

Friday Night Lights

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Ten years have passed since the publication of Friday Night Lights, and still, its words continue to influence and reverberate beyond anything I could have ever imagined. Nearly half a million copies are in print. The book is used in dozens of high schools and universities across the country. Barely a week goes by even now without getting a call or comment about it. Over the past decade I have heard strange and remarkable stories of the books impact--a man who left his job in Brooklyn so he could become a football coach in Texas, a songwriter who wrote a moving ballad inspired by the book, teenagers forsaking Florida to make spring break pilgrimages to Odessa. When readers tell me they have been touched by this book in a way that no other book has ever touched them, their words of praise leave me humbled, but also make me wonder if I have become the writing equivalent of the high school football hero, destined to spend the rest of my life trying to get back to a moment and place that can never be reached again.

How did it all happen? Why did it all happen? In light of the controversy that erupted in Odessa after the book was published and the accusations of betrayal that still ring in certain corners today, are there any regrets about what I wrote?

I have had ten years to think about it all, ten years to examine what it was that catapulted this book into the reading consciousness of so many, ten years to examine the harsh judgments made of me as well as my own decisions about the words I chose and the words I did not, ten years too to think about this team that I grew to know so intimately during a remarkable year of my life. I said in my acknowledgements that I grew to adore the players on the Permian Panthers, whose lives I followed during the 188 season. In the womb of a new millenium, it is a feeling that still stays with me. Memories crease through me at unexpected times--the awesome silence of the locker room with those eyes locked tight, the gleaming shape of a playoff trophy held high as another rung in the ladder of goin to state is climbed, the thrust of a fist into a wall in the helplessness of defeat, the silence of the plains suddenly broken by adoring screams.

I still think of how it all began, in the rocket ship of Ratliff Stadium, on a sweet and still night, when those teenage boys crashed through the handheld sign that had been made for them by the cheerleaders and a sea of fans drenched in black came to their feet. I still think of how it all ended, in spitting rain and misery, when that hand of Jesse Armstead came out of nowhere to swat down a pass that should have been the winning touchdown for Permian against Dallas Carter, the same Jesse Armstead who is now an All-Pro linebacker for the New York Giants.

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In particular, I think of the six players I wrote about who so graciously allowed me to intrude on their worlds. Our lives have all spread in different directions. But I still stay up with several of them on a regular basis, and both directly and indirectly, I am familiar with the roads their lives have taken or not taken.

Brian Chavez returned to the football field at Harvard, for his undergraduate house tackle football team. He was a linebacker on defense and a blocking back on offense, but since these were Harvard men, an intellectual judgment was made to give him the ball in short yardage situations. He graduated Cum Laude from Harvard in 1, and I was both honored and privileged to be invited to his graduation. Given the monumental transition he was forced to make from Odessa to Cambridge (it is hard to imagine any two places in the world at more opposites other than the moon and the sun), watching Brian get that diploma under the proud gaze of his family was one of the most inspirational moments I have ever witnessed.

Brian approached the east coast with a combination of curiosity and anthropological interest, as if studying a different species, but he also concluded that it was no place for a human being to actually live. At the personal invitation of the dean, Brian went on to law school at Texas Tech University on a full scholarship. He started the Mexican-American Law Student Association at Texas Tech and graduated in 16. Afterwards he returned to Odessa to his familys law practice. He recently opened a satellite office in El Paso, and has aspirations of becoming a federal judge. While he seems eternally wed to the haunted plains of West Texas, he is also thankful he spent time beyond its borders.

It was hard as shit for me to adjust and hard for me to deal with, but Harvard changed my life. It showed me that theres more out there than West Texas.

Jerrod McDougal went to Odessa College in the spring and fall of 10. He did not play football because Odessa College does not field a team, and he was not invited back to school after the fall semester. I didnt have any enthusiasm for it at all, he said at the time. Jerrod also went to Midland College, as well as several community colleges, but he has never received a degree. He went to work full-time for his fathers oil field construction company in Crane at the beginning of 11. In 1 he moved to Bandera, near San Antonio, to work for Roger Stevens, a contracting company acquired by his father. He has had his personal traumas over the years, including a serious car accident that shattered his ankle. But he has still maintained his West Texas spirit of passion and emotion.

At one point he tried to erase his memories of playing football for Permian, because he felt emotionally stunted by it. But he realized it was impossible anyway. It will never be lifted off of me, he said, and if it was football that consumed him at Permian, it was also football that kept him in school. Otherwise I wouldve been down on dynamite crews blowin shit up, because thats what I liked, he said. Sometimes Jerrod thinks about the 188 season with the wincing anger of not winning a state championship. But mostly he thinks of it with the private beauty of what he and his teammates shared and will always share.

I got a group of brothers, a set of friends that you could never ask for and get. Theres nothing I wouldnt do for any of em and theres nothing they wouldnt do for me.

Don Billingsley, the Permian player most likely targeted by the coaches and teammates for an early grave, became proof of how the worst predictor of future behavior is behavior in high school. Don stopped playing football in the fall of 18 after arthroscopic surgery to his knee. Instead of falling prey once again to alcohol and drugs, he began to actively study for the first time in his life. It feels good to be learnin somethin, he said at the time. The prior summer, Don also underwent a religious reawakening, and he has kept the keenness of his faith ever since.

Don remained at East Central University, graduating with a bachelors degree in public relations in 1. He then received his masters from the university in human resources counseling in 15 and did counseling work in Oklahoma City and Norman. In April of 1 he married Melanie Fannin and moved to join her in Dallas. Melaine already worked for Southwest Airlines in the finance department, and Don became a care manager for Magellan Behavioral Health. There are still certain aspirations that elude him. He would like to make more money, and he isnt sure about the trajectory of his career. But he has no complaints about life.

I feel good about it.

Mike Winchell went to Baylor for a year after he graduated from Permian and quit at the end of the 18-0 school year because of cost and the realization that he had no future there as a football player. Heck, Im not going to play in the pros, he said at the time.

Winchell went to Texas Tech for a semester and then transferred to Tarleton State University in Stephenville. He graduated with a bachelors degree in marketing in 15. He returned to Odessa for roughly a year, and then moved to the Dallas-Ft. Worth metroplex. When the Odessa American interviewed him in 18, he was working as an independent surveyor in Decatur and also playing golf on the Iron Man Tour. Sponsored by the Texas Professional Golf Tour, tournaments consist of 7 holes in a single stretch. Winchell finished tied for 55th in 18, and was still competing on the Iron Man Tour into the summer of 1. He values his privacy, and during the interview he made it clear that he no longer was interested in questions relating to Friday Night Lights.

People always want to talk about the book, but I dont care. That was a long time ago.

Ivory Christian had a successful freshman football season at Texas Christian University in 18, starting two games at middle linebacker and receiving playing time in seven others. But frustrated over a strained knee and his drop in the depth chart the following year in 10, he quit the team and left school. His father prodded him to stay at TCU for the obvious athletic and educational benefits, but Ivory told him he was no longer interested in playing football. He returned to Odessa, where he received his associates degree at Odessa College. He worked at Avion Flight Centre Inc. at the Midland International Airport for several years doing plane maintenance. He then moved to Austin to work for the Texas Aircraft Pooling Board, a state agency that maintains and operates a fleet of planes for official government business. Ivory had always been ambivalent about his Permian football experience, consciously resisting any of its trappings. But on the cusp of turning 0, he had begun to take some measure of pride in what it meant.

Now, twelve years later, I think about it.

Boobie Miles flunked out of Ranger College at the end of the 18-0 school year when, according to his football coach Joe Crousen, he just stopped going to class. He returned to the Odessa-Midland area and has basically been there ever since, with the exception of a brief and unhappy stint with a semi-pro football team in Culpepper, Virginia. He has held a series of jobs over the years, most of them involving warehouse work such as driving a forklift. Most recently, he had landed a job in the Odessa area doing inventory work.

Life has not been economically easy for Boobie. There have been times when he has struggled, and I often wonder how different his fate would have been if his cleat had not gotten caught in the artificial turf of Jones Stadium that terrible August night. The moment took a fraction of a second, and yet its impact on him was forever, a brutal reminder of the very fragility of sport, how all that you have and all that you think you have can be taken away in an arbitrary stroke. But Boobie refuses to look back with bitterness and regret and the pity of what could have been. He still loves football, although his links to Permian have understandably broken down completely. I dont go to the games, he said.

At the end of 18, Boobies Uncle, L.V., died of heart complications. Boobie has continued on, working to provide for a family that includes a four-year-old daughter, a three-year-old son and twins born earlier this year. But L.V.s absence is felt by Boobie, as it is felt by everyone who had the privilege of knowing this uniquely fine and decent man.

I miss him.

When Friday Night Lights was first published in September of 10, it set off a storm of controversy in Odessa that to this day still flares at the very mention of the books name. Shortly after its release, I was scheduled to do a series of appearances in Odessa as part of a tour. But the trip was cancelled after several bookstore owners said that threats of bodily harm had been made against me. The owners took those threats seriously and so did I, particularly since the books release coincided with Permian being banned from participation in the playoffs by the University Interscholastic League for conducting supervised workouts before the official start of the season. To make the tension even more palpable, Permian had been turned in by Jerry Taylor, the head coach of cross-town rival Odessa High.

The game between Permian and Odessa High had always been something of a spiritual civil war in town, but feelings now rose into the ozone as the two teams prepared to meet each other the following week. On its front page several days before the game, the Odessa American made a plea to the presidents of the booster clubs of both schools asking for harmony. As the situation began to receive national attention, the mayor of Odessa at the time, Lorraine Bonner, taped a public service message asking for calm. The eyes of a nation are focused on us this week, said Bonner, as if she was making a plea for peace in the Middle East. And its up to us to reach out and pull together. The Odessa police force doubled security for the game, and a final call for peace came during the pre-game prayer to the sellout crowd of 0,000 Theres a lot of tension built up at this game tonight. Oh Lord, please give us strength to relieve the tension tonight.

There were in fact no incidents as Permian beat Odessa High that night, 4-6, to run its winning streak over the Bronchos to twenty-six years. The animosity between east and west died down, but animosity over Friday Night Lights has never died out. Ten years later, the book still evokes feelings that are raw and passionate, particularly since one of the most enduring and attractive characteristics of West Texans is their utter contempt for moderation.

Over the years I have been accused of betrayal, and sensationalism, and taking information out of context, and mis-quoting. I am not surprised by these accusations, nor am I troubled by them. When I first got to Odessa, I anticipated a book very much in the tradition of the film Hoosiers, a portrait of the way in which high school sports can bring a community together. There were elements of that bond in Odessa, and they were reflected in the book. But along the way some other things happened--the most ugly racism I have ever encountered, utterly misplaced educational priorities, a town that wasnt bad or evil but had lost any ability to judge itself. To ignore these elements would have been a journalistic disgrace.

Every word of the book is fair and true. It was never intended as a diatribe or an expose. It was written instead with enormous affection and empathy, because as deeply troubling as the over-emphasis was on high school football, those games were, and always will be, the most exquisite sporting events that I have ever experienced.

For all the controversy and verbal volleys of unfairness, the book has actually had a profoundly positive impact on Odessa. It clearly forced certain individuals in power to look in the mirror and examine the culture of football that had been erected, and to their enormous credit, it was a reflection they knew must be altered. I think for some people (the book) was a wake-up call, Chuck Hourning, the public information officer for the Ector County school district, said in 18. I think the community kind of reassessed itself. I dont think the community of today would necessarily identify with the community then.

The book was a bit like medicine, wrote the citys most respected voice, Odessa American columnist Ken Brodnax. Perhaps it was a bit bitter to the taste, and it probably had some bad side effects that were hard to shake. But the dose also heeled a few ills.

The result of that medicine has been a stronger academic curriculum on virtually every level. SAT scores for boys have improved, and the number of female students taking the test has nearly doubled. The school district has spent some $5 million to upgrade technology at both high schools. Strides have also been made in establishing equal athletic programs for males and females with the $1.1 million construction of a new softball and soccer complex.

A softball and soccer complex in Odessa? Miracles do happen.

When I was there, nothing was considered more socially acceptable than being an unabashed Permian football booster. Living, and eating, and breathing high school football had become a way of life. Today such fanatical behavior has been tempered, in part believes Brian Chavez, because fans dont want to be associated with the kinds of extremes that were so evident in the book. People have kind of shied away from being real avid fans, he said. Devotion is still there, but it no longer routinely rises to the level of worship, and as Brian puts it, people are more likely to express it under their breath.

There is no doubt that the fixation on Permian football made it great. There is also no doubt the same fixation caused the educational system to suffer in the shadows. The shift in priorities was desperately needed. But as a consequence of it, the glory of Permian football has dropped to an all-time low.

Gary Gaines left as Permians head coach after the 18 season when the team won the state championship, embarking on a course that would take him to college as an assistant at Texas Tech, back to high school, and most recently to Abilene Christian University where he was named the head coach earlier this year. Gaines was replaced at Permian by assistant Tam Hollingshead, who promptly led the team to another state championship in 11 and then left after the 1 season to become an assistant at Texas A&M. Hollingshead was replaced by Randy Mayes, who had been an assistant. Mayes first two seasons were in keeping with Permian tradition as the most storied program in Texas football history. The team went to the state semifinals in 14 and the state championship in 15. And then it fell apart. Permian finished -6 in 17, ending a string of straight winning seasons. That was difficult enough, but Permian also lost to Odessa High for the first time in 4 years. There were as usual 0,000 people in the stands that night, and the impact of the outcome was like the aftershock of some profound religious sighting in which no one could quite believe what they had just witnessed. After the game, Permian fans dressed in black sobbed on one side and Odessa High fans dressed in red sobbed on the other.

Permian ended the decade of the 10s with perhaps its most shameful season ever. Under the once-sacred lights of Ratliff, Midland High beat Permian for the first time since 17 in a 5- embarrassment. Hated sister city rival Midland Lee, on its way to a second straight state championship, toyed with the Panthers in a 4- victory. Players in the system began to quit at alarming rates. Attendance was down, and the team was in danger of going winless in the district before it beat Odessa High in the last game of the season. Desperate for some measure of relief, coach Mayes called the victory a great win. But it wasnt.

I know Randy Mayes, since he was an assistant coach at Permian during the 188 season. I went out to dinner with he and his wife Cynthia. I saw him teach in the classroom. He is perhaps the biggest critic of Friday Night Lights. Last year in an interview with Texas Monthly, he called it a novel and said that I would do anything to sensationalize. What I have to say about Randy Mayes is this

He was not only a superb defensive coach when I knew him, but far more important a superb teacher and husband and man. I could imagine what he was going through during that final season of the 10s in which the legend of Permian had turned to bitter memory. I could imagine the pressure and hurt and scornful ridicule heaped on him. Because once upon a time I myself had witnessed the mercilessness of it, not with the clever eyes of a novelist, but the clear eyes of a journalist.

Football may have a different place in the psyche of Odessa than it had a decade ago, but it still holds a forceful grip. The sight of a boy, a high school boy, sacrificing himself in the service of team and town on a glowing field is still a powerful intoxicant, just as long as it is accompanied by the intoxicant of winning. So I wasnt surprised to learn the fate of Randy Mayes future under the Friday night lights of Odessa.

There was none.

Because he got fired.

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