ODESSA, Tex. -- High school football is more than a game in Texas. It's a religion.
Sun columnist Eric Francis recently travelled to the Lone Star State and visited two towns where high school football is an all-consuming passion: Galena Park and Odessa, the setting for the filmFriday Night Lights.
It starts early in the week when almost every conversation in town revolves around the previous Friday.
Those wearing the black and white of the Permian Panthers football team are the centre of attention everywhere they go.
With upwards of 20,000 locals from this desolate West Texas oil town having seen their every move under the Friday night lights, the players are asked about what went right and what went wrong.
They can't escape it.
As the next battle approaches, Permian Peppette cheerleaders, who've been assigned individual players, begin showering their guys with various treats, as dictated by tradition.
Whether they be baked goods, candies, small gifts (or six packs in one legendary case), these tokens symbolize the gratitude everyone in town has for the players' efforts.
Earlier in the season, they're called onstage one by one at the school's annual Watermelon Feed, where that year's varsity players receive thunderous ovations from students and local supporters alike.
A similar scene is played out in the school auditorium Friday mornings when pep rallies precede the boarding of busses for that evening's contest. In years past, when the team defied all odds by winning a handful of state championships over a 20-year span, a convoy of Odessans would follow the players into every Texas town they played.
Nowadays, as the club struggles to end a six-year playoff drought, the players leave town alone, knowing the pride and identity of their dilapidated town of 90,000 rests on their shoulders.
Still, anyone who has ever pulled on the Permian P is a local legend of sorts, a proud member of a football fraternity few varsity programs in the U.S. have been able to match in either stature or success.
It gives these kids confidence, self worth, pride, discipline, work ethic and inspiration, raising them up on a pedestal like the towering lights of famed Ratliff Stadium that jut out of the Texas plains like beacons in the night.
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For most of these kids, this is as good as it gets. At age 18, they reach the pinnacle of their lives, giving them memories to last a lifetime as they find their feet to various degrees of success in the real world.
As longtime local columnist Ken Brodnax points out, several Panthers have used their fleeting fame as a springboard to become doctors, lawyers, dentists, judges, police officers or even city mayor.
The sad irony of the Panthers' success is relatively few players from Odessa have had the size to attract scholarships to Div. 1 colleges. They generally make up for their diminutive stature with heart, determination, teamwork and the club's famous mojo, which has become their rallying cry. They're powered by tradition and by those lights.
There's plenty to be said for giving children of any age the type of opportunities Permian football affords them, the least of which is a deafening applause most only dream about.
But in many cases it gives the kids false hope, as it did to powerful running back Boobie Miles, the tragic central figure in Friday Night Lights. Blessed with brilliant speed and power, Boobie spent his time in the back of the classroom ignoring teachers while reading scholarship letters and picking out his Mercedes before a pre-season knee injury ended his career. Miles now lives just outside Odessa in Monahans, unable to hold down a steady job while he raises twins without the help of his wife, who is serving 18 months in jail for drug trafficking. As Boobie tells youngsters today: "I'm a poster boy for what should never happen."
Unlike Brian Chavez, who used the 1988 season outlined in the book to attend Harvard and become an Odessa lawyer, many others spend the rest of their lives wondering how it all went so terribly downhill.
Those who couldn't escape this city riddled with pawn shops, empty store fronts, vacated houses and vandalism, are left with little but menial jobs and memories of their days in the spotlight.
Much the same way pro athletes are spit out when they pass their primes, players of Permian's past quickly become yesterday's news, going from hero to zero when the final whistle blows on their senior season. It hardly seems fair to build these kids up to such heights and then let them crash down to earth when the stadiums go dark.
But then again, in what rule book does it say life is fair?
The team that beat Permian in the movie's state final (in actuality, they lost in the semifinal) was Dallas Carter, which was later stripped of its title for using a star player found to be academically ineligible. Two Carter players also wound up doing jail time for armed robberies committed during the season.
Who knows how things would've turned out for Permian if the whistle was blown on Carter earlier?
Then again, what difference would a state championship have made in Miles' life or those of his teammates now?
At the time, it would've meant everything.
That's the power of Friday night's lights.