I didn’t know how I was going to feel eight months out of college packing up everything I own, shoving it into my midsize sedan, and moving nearly two time zones away from the East Coast for the first time. But I knew for growth personally and professionally, I needed to feel it.
Whenever reporters would come talk to the journalism classes I would take at Towson, every single one mentioned in some form how nomadic sports writing can be, and to prepare yourself for the grind of filing stories from a Burger King at 11 p.m. from a desolate location if you wanted to make it in the field.
Everyone’s path is different, but for me, that trajectory was dead on as I moved to Odessa, Texas as a bright-eyed, wanting to improve at reporting with every fiber of my being, 23-year-old. Being introduced to the town home of the Permian Panthers, the team chronicled in Buzz Bissinger’s 1990 book Friday Night Lights: A Town, a Team, and a Dream, and the 2004 film adaptation, in real life was a culture shock that hit me immediately. This suburban boy wasn’t in a place of comfort anymore.
I still think back to one conversation I had in my time in a smaller, bordering town to Odessa. A local policeman and I started chatting. I figured there wouldn’t be many better representatives to teach me something about the towns I had only covered for about two months at that point than someone who patrolled its streets for a living. He made sure my recorder was off, looked at me and said off-the-record “If you want to steal something in this town, do it on a Friday night. Everyone’s at the stadium.”
I was in no place to question him and over the years, I never heard a peep about a raid of Friday night thefts, but the sentiment I felt was true. I also don’t know if he was joking, trying to scare me or what. I chose to focus on his message about the town’s passion for football. You don’t move to that West Texas island for comfort, even if you still crave the outstanding Mexican food four years after moving away. If you move to cover high school sports in Odessa, you’re there to get immersed in everything weird and work. I say “weird” as a positive now. Several years ago, it was strange because I was an outsider and had to learn their way of life to cover their teams and the children of newspaper subscribers.
The adapted television series is phenomenal, but not worth truly mentioning in the universe comparing real life as the film or book. For one, it takes place in the fictional town of Dillon, Texas. No. 2, Permian’s signature black and white “P” decaled helmet was changed to blue and yellow. It just looked strange. One thing it did perfectly capture was the passion for the town’s athletic teams as true community events, not something you attend just because someone you know is participating.
Another thing the television show gets right in the later seasons, something that only got one chapter in the book and is never mentioned in the movie is that Permian isn’t even the most-populous high school in its town. Odessa High, on the west side is the older school and housed more students annually during 2015-18 when I was an Odessa resident. Both routinely have student bodies of more than 3,500 kids at one time.
One culture shock that hit me the second I drove into city limits for the first time. My MapQuest app directing me to an extended stay hotel no longer worked. It had never been updated since a reconfiguring of the town’s roads decades prior. I realized this when the directions took me to the parking lot of Permian High School’s gymnasium, not where I wanted to sleep until finding an apartment. I would end up covering nearly one hundred events while parking in that same lot, which conveniently, new Texas Tech head football coach Joey McGuire, himself a former high school football coach, visited Thursday, likely visiting recruits. I’d now recognize that billboard leading to the team’s practice field from anywhere.
Covering high school sports in Odessa was the best training regimen for moving on to a Southeastern Conference beat I ever could’ve asked for. The workload was the same. The devotion from fans was the same, although the SEC per town had way more people, and much bigger stadiums, although the press box food wasn’t as consistent.
Odessa and similarly sized Midland (“You from Midland!”), 20 miles away, serve as the center for its region of Texas. The Friday night football craze extends to every little corner of the state. What makes the Permian Basin — the area of West Texas closely connected to Odessa and Midland and where the high school gets its name — unique is how there’s not much outside of what’s organically native to those areas present. The oil industry is what dominates that part of Texas and truly sets the tone for rent prices and most other things. Yet, no one is deterred. And nothing gets in the way of the support of Friday night football.
I covered a ton in Odessa. From a deadly bus crash involving the school’s cheerleaders on the way home from a state-quarterfinal victory and how so many people came together to help those affected. To a hurdler from the small town of Wink competing at the state track meet with his sister in mind, as she battled Cystic Fibrosis. That story had a happy ending with Wade Halterman finishing third in his classification in an event his senior year after I’d already left for another gig. Had is used in the past tense because Halterman passed away at age 20 this past November in a car accident. I read his mom’s Facebook posts about her “Golden Boy” all the time. Halterman’s sister, Carson, is still battling the disease.
There were an overwhelming number of positive things to cover, too. I discovered six-man football out there, an enticing combination of backyard football, NFL Street and the games we’ll see on Sunday for a spot in the Super Bowl. Other sports had tremendous support as well. The local amateur soccer team made the national championship with me watching from the press box. Texas high school track’s state championship wasn’t too far off from what I’d watch in the SEC years later.
Football is the unquestioned king of the area and state, though. It’s a cliche to say this, but it truly is a religion out there. Look at how state championships are contested, played at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, home of the Dallas Cowboys, with more than 40,000 people in attendance at times. In the movie, a state final between Dallas Carter and Permian takes place at Houston’s Astrodome. That 1988 playoff matchup was actually a semifinal game, played in Austin at Darrell K. Royal Memorial Stadium, home of the Texas Longhorns.
Boobie Miles, who plays a coach in the film adaptation, standing near actor Derek Luke (who portrays him) in the halftime speech scene, was the most prominent figure in the book. He wasn’t seen much around town any more when I was there. Neither was the Panthers’ quarterback Mike Winchell, who had since moved to the Dallas area.
Odessa has more 7-Eleven locations per square mile than I’ve ever seen. A quick Google search shows 33 within city limits. Your local grocery store makes fresh tortillas and guacamole in-house. There was ongoing construction to repair roads and buildings. Odessa has a 5,000-seat arena sturdy enough to host annual rodeo and WWE events. It’s also the home of the city’s amateur hockey team. The streets are designed as much more of a grid than your usual rural town. It’s hard to get lost since everything’s connected. Being in Texas, the barbeque was decent. Nothing like the masterpieces you’d find in Austin.
Sports wise, the Oakland A’s Double-A team plays in Midland. Professional allegiances tend to be the strongest with the Cowboys, Rangers and Astros. A few local bars opened early on a Sunday to show Mexico playing in the 2018 FIFA World Cup. A ton of Texas Tech fans were in the area. Oh, and of course, fervent support of the local high school teams.
A few Permian players from my later years in town went on to play for Power Five Conference programs including Matt Jones, a linebacker who was critical in Baylor’s run to a Big 12 title this season. Several other kids have gone to Division-I schools in other sports, too. The formation of UT-Permian Basin’s football team, the local Division-II school, was a huge deal at its inception in 2016. Several local talents decided to suit up for the Falcons.
I’ve watched the film several times, it was about the same experience every time. I read the book twice. The first time was right after I moved to the area. Tried to learn from it as much as possible, but having lived near pump jacks and Ratliff Stadium only for weeks, it was only a good book. It didn’t move me in any way. That completely changed the second time, when I cracked it back open ahead of revisiting the area to be a groomsman in a former Odessa co-worker’s wedding. Everything finally had context. I thought during almost every nightly read: “How did I miss that the first time?”
Most bigger schools around the state have a stadium in their town comparable to, or better than, some FCS programs. The stadium in Southlake, Texas, the former stomping grounds of players such as Chase Daniel, Greg McElroy and Quinn Ewers, looked more impressive to me than Towson’s. It was newer, bigger and undergoing plenty of renovations when I last saw it in the summer of 2019. It’s also several miles from the high school campus. Inequality exists out there, too. That town of Wink, which competes at the smallest 11-man football classification has an indoor practice facility. Permian has one, too. Odessa High, however, does not.
A lot of kids that grow up in Odessa want to get out by the time they’re 18, and want to see what exists beyond their corner of Texas. That’s an important journey. Just like me, coming in and visiting all of you. The grind of covering high school sports in West Texas changed me for the better. It was a struggle at times. But I’m so much better for it.