150904-cowboyA friend tells me about the time he was having drinks with a couple of Texans who seemed unremarkable until the topic turned to high school football.

“Those people were crazy,” he says. “I mean, absolutely nuts.”

A fair appraisal, if H.G. Bissinger’s Friday Night Lights is accurate.

Bissinger, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, wrote Friday Night Lights after taking a leave of absence from The Philadelphia Inquirer in 1988 to immerse himself in small town high school football culture. Odessa, Texas was the town he chose as his base of operations and the team he followed, the Permian High School Panthers, was legendary. So was Odessa’s fanatical, balls-to-the-wall, win-or-die-trying boosterism.

Named the second-worst place to live in America by Places Rated Almanac, Odessa was a community ardent for some desperate glory, and Permian Panther “mojo” was how its citizens got their fix. The lopsided priorities that funneled so much time and money into athletics and so comparatively little into academics were a time-honored tradition in Odessa, and locals who questioned that tradition openly were few and far between.

Want examples? In 1980, roughly 19% of Odessa’s 90,000 residents age 25 and over had less than a 9th grade education (Source: 1988 Odessa Comprehensive Plan, page 21). Two years later, in 1982, Odessa spent $5.6 million ($13.8 million adjusted for inflation) to build a new high school football stadium. Or this … In 1988, Permian High School spent $70,000 ($173,000 adjusted) chartering jets to fly its players to away games, the same year that one of its English teachers ran out of money for textbooks. She ended up paying for them herself.

350 miles away in Dallas, Carter High School’s grade fixing scandal was making a mockery of the “no pass, no play” rule Texas had signed into law four years earlier. When the case went to court, Carter High School principal C.C. Russeau actually changed a player’s failing grade to secure his school’s berth in the state playoffs. Russeau got away with this and Carter High School went on to win the state title. The algebra teacher who’s grade Russeau changed was transferred to a middle school.

It’s tempting to use west Texas high school football as allegory, but I’ll do that another day. When primary season hangs heavier on the vine.