Permian wins its first game of the playoffs, against Amarillo, very easily, although Coach Gaines is upset with what he consider a sloppy effort over a much weaker opponent. A few days after that game, the Permian players find a note in their lockers back in Odessa, presumably written by one of the assistant coaches, that calls them weak and “losers,” more concerned with “flaunting rules” and getting “inebriated” than winning a state championship. The Permian players, though angered by the note, respond that they will work extra hard to defeated Irving, their next opponent.
Bissinger indicates that this anonymous note serves its intended purpose—it angers the players, who, even though they resolve to continue partying, don’t want to think of themselves as “losers.” This appeal to the strength and manliness of the football team is, unfortunately, all too common in the hyper-masculine world of West Texas football—and it helps players to win games.
Bissinger follows the team as they prepare whole-heartedly for Irving, using the note as motivation. Irving has Roderick Walker, one of the most highly-touted running backs in the US that year, on its squad, but the Permian defense is prepared, and they beat Irving to earn a berth in the quarterfinals, as one of the final eight teams—the true state playoff. After the victory Don Billingsley vows that he will “get inebriated” and “flaunt rules”—a nod to the letter that helped galvanize the team.
Of course, once the team wins, Billingsley wants everyone to know that he will do nothing to amend his ways. The other players recognize that, so long as they win, they will be allowed to drink and party and even start fights. It is only if the team is in danger of losing that parties become problematic, and that coaches chastise players for their “flaunting of rules.”
Bissinger, in the leadup to the state quarterfinal game against Arlington, interviews several former players, all of whom were on state championship teams at Permian. One, Jerry Hix, was almost unbelievably undersized to play football—only 5 feet 8 inches, and 135 pounds—yet he led the Panthers to a title in 1980, scoring a go-ahead touchdown in the state semis. Joe Bob Bizzell, another Permian star, was good enough to play college ball at the University of Texas, but was eventually kicked off the college team for smoking marijuana—a decision that ended his football-playing life. Another player, Daniel Justis, complains of the arthritis and aches he now experiences, from his days of playing football. All the former players mourn the loss of high school football as something that impacted the rest of their lives—which are disappointments, compared to their heroic high school selves.
These three former players, like Shawn Crow at the beginning of the book, have taken mighty blows on the football field, and there is now evidence of their high-school football trauma later in life. As before, Bissinger focuses on bodily pain, and not on the side effects of repeated blows to the head, which were not studied intensely and understood scientifically until some twenty years after the publication of the book. But still, the idea is clear—playing football has serious consequences for the body, and though the glory of any given moment on the field will pass, some of the ailments that playing entails last for many years, or even until death.
Bissinger follows Ivory Christian in the lead-up to the game against Arlington, in the state quarters. Ivory, who was until recently interested in a preaching career after high school football, is now being recruited by Texas Christian University, and Christian finds that his love of the game has increased once again—because the thought of a college scholarship is becoming more real. In part due to Christian’s strong performance in the quarterfinals, Permian handily defeats Arlington, and goes on to the semis where it will face Dallas’ Carter High, a historically black high school with an incredibly strong team, one of the best in the country.
Here, Ivory Christian’s commitment to preaching wavers, and understandably. Christian has worked every day, for years, in order to make his way onto the Permian team, and how he has an opportunity at a free college education at a quality university in Texas. Although Christian does not immediately abandon his desire to join the ministry, the offer from TCU is, in many ways, too good for him to pass up. For Christian, football has given him a future, even as in the paragraphs just before Bissinger shows how football has limited the futures of Jerry Hix, Bob Bizzell, and Daniel Justis.