Bissinger shifts to the August of 1988, the start of the 1988 Permian Panthers football season. Fifty-five players gather early one morning in the locker room, and Coach Gaines praises them for even making the team in the first place: competition to make varsity at Permian is stiff. For Gaines, the team, and the town, the goal for the season is to make, and win, the Texas State High School Football Tournament: “Goin’ to State in ’88.”
The entire town tends to get behind the team each year, and the goal, regardless of the talent level of the squad, is always the same—go to, and win, the state championships. This year, the expectations are especially high, since word has gotten out that the Panthers are very talented, filled with players who might be able to “make it” at the collegiate athletic level.
Bissinger steps back, to tell a brief history of the town of Odessa, where Permian is located. Odessa, in West Texas, was originally marketed by real-estate hucksters from Zanesville, Ohio, in the 1880s, as a place easterners could move to—one with good soil and ample opportunity for riches. In truth, however, the soil in Odessa was poor, and a small town there scratched out an existence with ranching and other “cowboy” businesses. Ranchers gave the town a rough-and-tumble reputation, often at odds with the Methodists who had also moved to Odessa as part of the 1880s real-estate rush to the area.
Odessa’s reputation as a rough and tumble cowboy town never really dissipates, and people in the town are very quick to point to this heritage as a way of explaining what makes Odessa unique—different, for example, from the more urbane and pretentious character of Midland. Odessa’s cowboy streak becomes directly embodied in the football culture, which praises toughness and teamwork above individual stats or star-power.
Odessa developed a reputation as a violent, murder-filled town of around 1,000 people, mostly ranchers—until the 1920s, when oil was discovered in the “Permian basin,” a geologic formation in West Texas. Bissinger remarks that, when oil was found, the original claims of the Ohio real estate hucksters—that Odessa would become a boomtown—came true. Bissinger relates that, from the 1920s to the 1980s, Odessa was a town of booms and busts, riding high when oil prices were high, and cratering when the prices cratered.
The boom-bust cycle is also built into Odessa’s history from the very beginning. Indeed, the town is founded by men looking to make a quick buck by convincing other easterners to come to a region they know to be dusty, difficult to live in, hard to grow crops in. As Bissinger notes, Odessans view with pride their ability to live in a place with so few natural amenities and conveniences, and with weather often characterized by harsh storms.
Despite the oil industry and an influx of money into Odessa following the ‘20s, the town retains its violent streak, its difficult weather (sand- and thunderstorms), and its stark geography. A mall and other suburban amenities were built to the east of downtown in the 1980s, and though many residents half-jokingly call Odessa “hell on earth,” some are proud to have made a life there, in a place so seemingly inhospitable, with so little natural beauty or comfort.
Bissinger frequently links the suburban, mall-like, east side of town with Permian itself, which is located in the eastern part of Odessa and which draws from the largely white community there. Odessa, on the other hand, retains the small-business, mom-and-pop quality of the downtown area, which does not experience the same development boom as the eastern part of town.
Bissinger describes some of the characteristics that make Odessa a complex place. Like many other small communities in the US, Odessa has a conservative, libertarian streak—many people in the 1980s are staunch supporters of Ronald Reagan and the Republican Party. But people tend also to believe in helping their neighbors—an old rancher custom, designed to make living in a desolate and difficult place more comfortable. The town is filled with traditions, but those traditions typically apply mainly to the white, middle-class Christian communities that sprouted up following the initial oil boom. Other parts of Odessa, including Latino and African American communities, are kept away from the downtown and eastern suburbs, and their relationship to Permian High and football in the region is less obvious, less direct—since Permian retains a reputation as being a “white” school.
Odessa’s conservatism, as Bissinger points out, is difficult to explain fully. In fact, Odessa might even benefit from government intervention into the price of oil, for example, which would even out some of the booms and busts of the oil industry and make life in the region more predictable and manageable. But many in Odessa find in the Republican Party the virtues of self-reliance and independence that are reflected in the “cowboy” nature of the town itself. White Odessans also tend (unfairly, as Bissinger notes) to view “outsiders,” including Latinos and African Americans, as populations demanding more from the government—values which go against the self-reliance they believe is truly “Texan.”