Boobie prepares for the first scrimmage of the ’88 season, two days after the Watermelon Feed. Bissinger flashes back to the ’87 campaign, when Boobie was a junior, and some of the major Texas college programs already expressed interest in him. Boobie is an agile, quick, explosive runner, and many on the team, including Winchell and Jerrod McDougal, say he’s “the best player they’ve ever seen.” Boobie’s uncle, LV, acts as Boobie’s father figure and mentor, and is deeply invested in Boobie’s success on the field—believing that Boobie has the talent to become a Heisman Trophy candidate once he reaches a major college program.
Part of what makes Boobie’s fall, from starter to practice squad, so difficult is the almost poetic height of football efficiency he was capable of when healthy. As these testimonies of fellow players indicate, Boobie was as good as any young running back they’d ever encountered. But once Boobie is “of no use” to the squad, after his injury, very few are willing to talk about how good he was. The philosophy of Permian is, simply, “next man up”: whoever can fill in, will.
During the first scrimmage of ’88, however, against a high school called Palo Duro, Boobie gets his toe caught in the artificial turf, and a Palo Duro player falls on his leg, injuring Boobie’s knee. Boobie goes to the sideline, and trainers fear he has at best a strained ligament, and perhaps a torn one—an injury than can result in, at minimum, 6-8 weeks on injured reserve, and perhaps the loss of a season, if the injury is a full tear. Boobie is terrified that this will ruin his season and keep major colleges from investing a scholarship in him. The trainers tell Boobie that he’ll be OK, and that he shouldn’t give up on the season yet.
Boobie wants to resist what is, essentially, a medical truth: that, if his ACL is fully torn, he will be out for the entire season. Physical therapy in the late 1980s had very little to provide when it came to rehabilitation for the ACL tear, or the time-table thereof. Although methods have since greatly improved, it was, and still is, possible that an athlete never fully recovers from an ACL tear—never recaptures the “magic” required to cut effectively on a football field.
Bissinger switches to a narrative of LV’s upbringing, in Crane, Texas. LV has become invested in Boobie’s football career in part because LV himself was not able to play football at Bethune High, Crane’s high school for African American students. Only Crane High, the “white” school in town, had a football team. Instead, LV played basketball for Bethune and dreamed of what he might have achieved on the football field. LV lived on one side of a five-foot-high concrete wall in Crane, a literal dividing line between the white and black neighborhoods of that segregated city.
Like many characters in the book, LV is content to live through Boobie, whom he has adopted as his son. Charlie Billingsley does the same, with Don, and other fathers admit to having a special interest in their sons’ football careers. Bissinger does not directly condemn this practice, but he does wonder, as the book goes on, whether it is healthy for the parents, and fair for the student, for so much pressure to be placed on them at a young age.
LV himself admits that he displaced his dream of a football career onto his nephew Boobie, whom he rescued from foster care in the Houston area when Boobie was five. Boobie’s father, James, was abusive, and Boobie’s domestic situation was difficult and dangerous for several years, before LV offered to take him in in the Southside neighborhood of Odessa—the neighborhood composed primarily of poorer African American families. Although some in Odessa, who know LV, say that he pushed Boobie too hard to excel in athletics as a young boy, LV maintains that Boobie’s natural talents are so significant it would be a crime to waste them. LV also believes that sports have given Boobie a sense of purpose in life, after a difficult childhood.
LV’s interest, as Bissinger depicts them, seem to be good-intentioned, even if he occasionally puts too much pressure on Boobie to perform on the field. But Bissinger’s description of LV is a subtle one, indicating that LV, too, is probably motivated by some amount of vicarious living, since he was not permitted to play football in his segregated Texas hometown. Football, in Bissinger’s hands, becomes a means for analyzing the psychological motivations of many of his characters—it is a prism through which the Odessa community can be viewed and understood. That LV’s segregated high school was dubiously kept from even fielding a team also illustrates racially tinged unfairness.
Boobie, as Bissinger explains, is “classified as a learning disabled” student at Permian High. Boobie struggles in school, and though he receives some special educational attention at Permian, he finds that he has difficulty maintaining the minimum academic standard for admissions to a Division 1 football university. LV believes that Boobie will receive special dispensation, called Proposition 48, which will allow Boobie to make up credits once he gets to a university—presuming that Boobie is awarded a scholarship in the first place. But Boobie’s injury makes it less clear that he will have the outstanding senior season necessary to maintain the interest of football scouts in Texas.
Interestingly, although LV pushes Boobie hard on the athletic field, he does less to encourage Boobie academically, perhaps because he feels that academics will not get Boobie a scholarship, whereas athletic achievements will. But in this case, at least a minimum of academic achievement is required to get Boobie into college in the first place, and LV’s scoffing at the SAT and at graduation requirements for D-1 colleges seems, at best, short-sighted.
After the Palo Duro scrimmage, Boobie is told that he only has a seriously sprained, rather than torn, ligament in his knee. Boobie believes he can return to full strength in the season, but some, like the trainer for Permian named Trapper, believe that Boobie does not have the mental toughness to work through his physical rehabilitation—and that Boobie is less concerned with helping Permian, and more concerned with his individual statistics. Bissinger notes that, once Boobie is ruled out for the first part of the ’88 season, quarterback Mike Winchell realizes that a good deal of the team’s offensive pressure will now fall on his shoulders.
Although characters assert throughout the book that Boobie does not care about Permian, Bissinger makes plain that Permian also seems to care very little for Boobie as a person. Rather, he is treated like a machine to help them win football games, when he is healthy—a member of the Mojo community only when he can lead the Panthers to a state championship. Boobie is said to quit on the team, but no one argues the opposite: that the team has probably quit on Boobie.