Bissinger recounts in brief the life story of Mike Winchell, Permian’s starting quarterback. Mike’s father, Billy, died when Mike was thirteen—Billy had been injured in an oil rig accident and never recovered fully. Billy taught Mike how to play football and baseball, and was considered a demanding but loving instructor and father. Mike lived with his mother in Odessa following his father’s death, and resolved to make Billy proud by performing well on the field. Mike’s mother was quiet, reserved—the family was poor, and Coach Gaines, who knew most players’ families, did not know Mike’s at all.
After describing LV’s relationship with Boobie, Bissinger switches to a description of Mike’s relationship with his father. Although few people consider Mike to come from a “broken home” like Boobie’s, Mike’s childhood has nevertheless been a traumatic one, and the memory of his father motivates Mike on the field. Bissinger also seems to imply that his father’s memory puts a certain amount of pressure on Mike, to succeed as a quarterback for his father’s memory.
Mike became the Panthers’ starting QB when he was a junior. He was a talented passer, but often beset by a lack of confidence, which would cause him to make costly errors during games, overthrowing receivers. But Mike performed well enough to earn the starting job again in his senior year.
Consistency remains a steady problem for Mike. Bissinger implies that an enormous amount of pressure is placed on Mike, and other players, to perform well despite incredible fan interest. It is more than is asked of most 17 year-old boys.
Bissinger then switches back to the narrative of the ’88 season, describing the Panthers’ first game, against El Paso Austin. Bissinger moves from Winchell to a running back named Don Billingsley, whose father Charlie sits in the stands, watching his son play.
Another father-son pair. Bissinger clearly has a theory about football in Odessa: that it is a rite passed down from father to son—in both its positive and negative qualities, its insistence on teamwork and its claim that nothing is more important than athletic achievement.
Charlie Billingsley was a notable running back for Permian in the 1960s, where he was also a rough-housing drinker off the field. Charlie’s off-field antics were typically tolerated, because his production on the field never wavered. He was recruited by, and played for, Texas A&M for several years, but did not quite crack the starting rotation, and so transferred to a small college in Durant, Oklahoma, before finally leaving university without taking a degree. After football, Charlie lived a life characterized by continual fighting and heavy drinking, serial marriages, and several jobs held consecutively, without any one turning into a stable career. His son Don was raised by his mother, one of Charlie’s wives, in Oklahoma, away from Charlie, but Don decided to move back with his father in high school, to play for Permian.
Charlie, like Don, has a mean streak, and serves as an emblem, for Bissinger, of the kind of life that football playing occasionally encourages. As Bissinger notes, football players are treated like gods in the school—they can do no wrong, and often their bad behavior is excused so long as they are performing on the field. Both Charlie and Don have been beneficiaries of this kind of treatment, and it is not clear that it serves them well in the long haul. Because, of course, after football season is over, one is no longer a player for Permian—and is no longer afforded the kinds of protections players receive. And yet having such privileges can warp one’s development, can make a person feel like he deserves those privileges, like he can do whatever he wants.
Charlie, watching the El Paso game from the stands, comments that he is perhaps living through his son, “and that’s pretty special.” But on the field, Don has trouble “holding onto the football”; he fumbles several times in the game, and though Permian winds up defeating El Paso in a shutout, Don is taken out and replaced with an African American player, Chris Comer, a junior. Comer has several impressive runs, piquing the coaches’ interest, especially after the devastating knee injury Boobie has suffered. Don tells Bissinger after the game that he is frustrated another black player has taken “his” job at running back, using a racial slur to describe Comer and Boobie—a word that is all too common among white players and coaches at Permian, even in casual usage.
Fumbling is an almost inexcusable problem for football players generally, and Don has very little justification for why it is difficult for him not to fumble the ball. Don’s play in this game sets the stage for Comer’s move into the starting position, which ultimately helps the Permian Panthers to make a charge into the state tournament. Note the way that Don considers the running back position to be his on almost racial grounds, that he thinks black players who take starting roles are “stealing” them for white players. The racial dynamics of the town are evident also in the views of the football players.