Bissinger describes the uneasy relationship between the cities of Odessa and Midland, only a few dozen miles apart in West Texas. Odessa, as Bissinger has said before, is a rough-and-tumble town, a cowboy town, one that doesn’t stand much on ceremony. Many of the blue-collar workers associated with the West Texas oil boom live in Odessa, and work in construction, or petroleum management. The financing of the boom, though, the corporate headquarters and shining offices and banks, are in Midland, which has streets named after Ivy League schools, and a general attitude of superiority over violent, dusty Odessa.
For Bissinger, the antagonism between Midland and Odessa, as towns, mimics the antagonism between the football teams in each of those communities. It is unclear which comes first—the animosity between teams, or between towns—but certainly the one feeds into the other. Midland, as Bissinger notes, has a higher opinion of itself, perhaps because, since its inception, it has tried to incorporate touches of east-coast wealth into its town planning and self-image.
Bissinger describes the way the oil boom of the mid-‘70s effected both Odessa in Midland, making businessmen believe they were invincible, and allowing even uneducated workers in Odessa to make many thousands of dollars a week. Bissinger goes on to describe the rise and fall of a man named Aaron Giebel, living in Midland, whose prosperity and collapse in the oil industry is indicative of a great many businessmen’s careers. Giebel, Bissinger explains, started out a modest businessman, but soon began investing in oil prospecting, and as the price of oil rose, Giebel gambled more and more on the industry, seeing his profits continually rise through the early 1980s.
Aaron Giebel, whom Bissinger interviews and focuses on in this section, is meant to stand in for a large number of Midland and Odessa businessmen and women in this time, who, though normally quite cautious and rational in their investments, were caught up in the boom years, and felt, like gamblers, that the good times could never stop. Of course, they did stop, and much of the economy of Midland crumbled soon after. Giebel recognizes how foolhardy he had been, to get caught up in the craze. Yet there is perhaps an echo, here, too of the way the football team’s use their players, going for the win on the backs of boys who might be injured, gambling with the future lives of young men who’ve been brought up not to care about anything other than football glory.
But the bust was inevitable—it would come, and it did. Giebel had spent enormous amounts of money on a private jet, and on his own gigantic home, only to find that he was no longer making enough money per barrel to justify his expenditures. OPEC—the oil cartel in the Middle East—was flooding the market with oil, driving the price down with demand holding steady. Bissinger notes that, in Midland, a great many reputable businesses also failed, including the First National Bank, long a bulwark in the community. Bankers there, like Giebel and other prospectors, had begun to assume that the boom would last forever—they over-leveraged, making risky loans, only to find that, when the bust came, it came swiftly. First National filed for federal bankruptcy protection, and Midlanders viewed this as a final indication, in the late 1980s, that the oil bust was real and lasting.
Bissinger notes that the fall of the bank was an almost unfathomable blow to the community. In a place where very few institutions are built to last, the banks in Midland and Odessa were similar to the football programs in that area—bastions of tradition, and sources of pride for the community. It is hard to imagine what it would mean to Odessa, for example, if Permian High were to close, or if the Panthers were no longer a dominant team. This is why a merger between Odessa and Permian High Schools is almost unthinkable to many residents—the Panthers’ tradition must be maintained, for the good of the community—or so think many.
Bissinger tours a field in Midland, where large pieces of heavy machinery and other oil equipment are now stored, unused. Businesses are trying to unload this equipment, but the bust means that wells are no longer being tapped, since oil is not worth enough to make the drilling profitable. Bissinger notes that the late-‘80s bust has humbled many of the businessmen and workers both in Odessa and Midland, but he wonders whether they don’t just expect another boom—and whether they will speculate just as wildly when that next boom comes.
The rusting machinery, simply waiting in the field for another boom, another rush of capital into the region, is, for Bissinger, an indication of the perpetual optimism of places like West Texas, even though they know that another boom almost certainly means, eventually, another bust. For Bissinger, the fates of the oil industry and of the football teams of West Texas are similar—every fan hopes that they can win it all next year.
Bissinger transitions to the Midland Lee-Permian game, and to a pregame speech that Coach Gaines delivers just before. The speech, about an Olympic swimmer named Steve Genter, praises that man’s courage in the face of a terrible injury—but Genter swims “through the pain,” and Gaines demands that same toughness of his players against Midland Lee. Bissinger notes that Brian Chavez, and some of the other players, detect a real fear in Gaines’ voice as he delivers his pregame speech—as though Gaines, too, worries that Permian might not be able to beat their sister-city rivals at Midland Lee.
Brian Chavez, perhaps one of the most perceptive players on the team, understands that the Midland Lee game, like the Odessa game, is crucial for the team, and even crucial for Coach Gaines, who relies on key victories to retain his job. It is unclear whether other players think much about Gaines’ job security, but Chavez appears to be the kind of young man who is mature beyond his years—and recognizes the pressure that winning places on the coaching staff.