The book begins “in medias res,” or in the middle of the action. It is the 1988 high-school football season in Odessa, Texas, the western part of the state. The high school powerhouse there is Permian, whose Panthers have a strong team for the 1988 season and hope to make the state tournament. The book begins as Boobie Miles, a running back for Permian, thinks about his previous game against Cooper High, and worries how his previously injured knee will hold up against Midland Lee, Permian’s biggest football rival.
In many ways, Boobie is the central character of the book, not because he turns out to be the most athletically successful, nor the most charming—but because the difficulties of his life and season are, for Bissinger, emblematic of the struggle of life in West Texas. What happens to Boobie’s knee seems terribly unfair, especially since he has come from disadvantaged circumstances to make the Panthers squad.
The narrator—the author, Buzz Bissinger—repeats that Boobie “feels good” as he goes through the preparations before the Midland Lee game. He can barely concentrate in class—something common among football players at Permian during the season—and even the scheduled Friday pep rally can’t hold his attention. Boobie is focused on playing well, regaining his earlier form—from before his knee injury—and he hopes to impress whatever college scouts might be at the game. Boobie, like many Permian players, hopes to earn a full scholarship to play Division 1 football in college.
Bissinger, in this passage and throughout the book, will employ something like a “free indirect style,” where he tracks the thoughts of characters without having exact access to their thoughts. Bissinger interviews characters and takes notes on their activities in order to gain a sense of how they viewed events in hindsight; Bissinger then combines these notes to re-construct what passed through players’ minds during games.
Bissinger shifts his attention to Jerrod McDougal, a defensive utility player on the team, who, before the game, slips into his Chevy pickup truck—painted black like Permian’s school color. Jerrod listens to Bon Jovi and tries to put football at the center of his mind; he tries not to think about what comes after the football season—perhaps a job in the oil industry of West Texas, like his father—since he believes that, in-season, there can be nothing more important than Permian Panthers football. He leaves his pickup and enters the locker room, to dress for the game.
McDougal is, in many ways, representative of what Tom Wolfe might term a “good old boy,” or a white, working class Southerner, largely Republican in sympathy, with racial attitudes that some might describe as unenlightened. But McDougal is also a subtle thinker and a young man deeply affected by the world around him. When Permian loses in the state tournament, at the end of the book, McDougal is more devastated than any other player.
Mike Winchell, the quarterback for the team, remarks to himself—as Bissinger reports—that he wishes he could be “knocked out” until right before the game. He finds the pregame routine excruciating, and he worries that his nerves will overcome his natural talents at the position—as they sometimes do. Winchell does fairly well in school and finds some of the academic routines pleasing, and he has considered offers to play football on the east coast, at schools like Brown and Yale, although he has no concept of what those places and universities might be like. Winchell tries to tamp down his nerves as the Permian school buses make their way, “like a presidential motorcade,” to the enormous Permian High stadium in Odessa.
Schools on the east coast—especially of the Ivy League—form a kind of mythically “other” place for many players on the Permian squad, including Winchell and Brian Chavez, who will go on to attend Harvard as a student. Odessa is geographically distant from the east coast, but perhaps more to the point, it is culturally distant, too. As Presidential candidate George Bush points out, in a visit to Midland later in the book, the east is associated with “liberalism,” whereas in Texas, “traditional values” reign supreme—values aligned often with the Republican party’s.
Ivory Christian, a talented linebacker for Permian, “prepares” for the game by vomiting in the locker room. He does this, out of nervousness, before every game, and the other players take comfort in his vomiting, since it means that preparations are all going to plan. Gary Gaines, coach of the Permian Panthers, calls the team in for a pep talk before the game, encouraging them to play as hard as possible, for themselves and for their teammates. Bissinger also introduces Brian Chavez, a talented defensive player who loves to hit his opponents, and who has dreams of going to Harvard—he is number one academically in his class at Permian. The Panthers prepare to take the field, to the roar of fans filling the stadium. Fans for Permian scream “MOJO,” the nonsense word that has become an unofficial nickname for the Panthers, among diehard fans.
Gary Gaines’ pep talks, which recur in the book, often take the form of prayers—and they typically thank God, for endowing the Panthers with great “talents” and “abilities.” These speeches are designed, on the one hand, to make the Panthers feel good about how strong and fast they are. And, on the other, they are embodiments of the Christian faith that is so prevalent in Odessa. Citizens there tend to feel that their community, their football, and their Christianity are all of a piece, each an embodiment of the moral toughness and character of the region.
The game begins. Midland Lee’s fans are just as loud and excited as Permian’s, and they love their team with the same fervor. Odessa and Midland are “sister cities,” located close to each other in West Texas; both are oil towns, and their football rivalry is deep and often contentious. Lee is a “twenty-one point underdog” in the game, but despite this, the early score is close, with both teams trading touchdowns early. A talented running back named Chris Comer scores early for Permian, and Boobie, who is still on the bench, becomes upset that another player has stolen his position—and has performed well at it. At halftime, Permian is up 21-16, and Boobie, angry at sitting on the bench, says that he is quitting the team—during the game.
Chris Comer is a foil for Boobie Miles—he, like Boobie, is African American, and his successes as a junior mirror Boobie’s same successes a year before. But Comer seems less concerned with his individual achievements and his “star status” than Boobie was, and next year, as Bissinger will go on to report, Comer and his teammates will win a state title—something that eludes Boobie and the other members of the ’88 squad. The reader gains very little access to Comer’s thoughts, and mostly hears of his performance on the field, through Bissinger.
Nate Hearne, an African American assistant coach for the Panthers, tries to convince Boobie, who is also black, to remain on the team, for his teammates. The other coaches, who are white, recognize Boobie’s gifts, but believe he is tentative after his knee injury, unable to cut and juke as he once could. The white coaches also feel that Boobie cares only about his own fame, and not about the success of the team. Hearne convinces Boobie to sit on the bench for the remainder of the game; Boobie does this grudgingly. The Panthers head back to the field for the third quarter.
Boobie’s supposed selfishness will be a touchstone for the book—although Bissinger seems less inclined than others—fans and coaches—to believe that Boobie is truly an egomaniac. Instead, like Hearnes, Bissinger feels that Boobie has been born into unenviable and impoverished circumstances, and that his success on the field, and his intractability as a student and player, derive in part from the instability of his family life for many years. The racial dynamic in which it is the white coaches who particularly question Boobie’s grit and determination is also worth noting. For Boobie, also, football stardom was what he saw as his one route to success.
Midland Lee scores again, going up 22-21, and though Permian mounts several drives to retake the lead, Winchell cannot manage to lead the team back into the end zone. Permian loses the October game 22-21, and people in Odessa worry that, now, Permian’s record will not be strong enough to make the playoffs—one of the goals of the season for a team considered one of Permian’s most talented in history. People in town increase their calls for Gaines to be fired; they believe he is not “strong enough” for the job of Permian head coach. The Permian players are dejected after losing a game they feel has slipped through their fingers.
Gaines’ lack of strength is another refrain spoken by the fans throughout the ’88 season. But it is not clear what “strength” would be by comparison, since Gaines works his players hard, demanding that they practice, frequently, twice a day. John Wilkins, Gaines’ predecessor as coach of the Panthers, was a more grim, less outspoken man, and perhaps the fans confuse this grimness with a greater intensity in coaching, although this is by no means apparent or provable.