TCS Daily

Versace Out; Varsity Jackets In

By Ilya Shapiro - October 8, 2004 12:00 AM

ODESSA, Tex., Oct. 6-7 -- The road was long and flat, the scenery unremarkable. Until we saw our first oil rig. Like one of those plastic bird desk ornaments see-sawing into its "drinking water" -- the one with a beak on one side of the fulcrum and a weighted tail on the other -- the pumping mechanism bobbed up and down beside of I-20. This, definitively, was West Texas.

Hurtling to the press screening of Friday Night Lights with my partner in crime, a Dallas Morning News reporter with a nose for unconventional feature stories, I reflected on how easy it is for us modern cosmopolitans to scoot across the broad expanse of this country. You don't realize what's going on around you: the intense dramas and quotidian banalities both. You fly into a major airport, get in a car, and zoom through towns typified by Steinbeck novels and the wistful elegiacs that end up consigned to the Barnes & Noble discount bin. And everything in between -- which is where Bissinger's book comes in.

We made it to the Century Theatre -- one of three in town -- just in time, two minutes after the film began, with the soaring music contrasting gritty images of Odessa and the Permian Basin. The state trooper didn't help, but I appreciate that he only gave me a warning -- they give 'em on paper in Texas -- after pulling me over for running "just about ten miles" above the speed limit. ("Is there an emergency?" "Well, we're trying to get to Odessa to cover Friday Night Lights," I stammered, hoping he'd either like the reference or be so incredulous at my invoking it as to pardon my vehicular indiscretion.)

I won't spoil the movie for you, but I will recommend it. Quite intentionally, it minimizes the book's controversial aspects -- the racial issues, the misplaced educational priorities -- while enhancing the contrast between the glory of the gridiron and the bleakness that many of these kids will face once they leave the spotlight of the stadium. Billy Bob Thornton does a tremendous job as a mild-mannered leader of men in an embattled environment that demands little beyond the bottom line of the championship race -- but demands that a lot. A subtle football mind and humble family man, Thornton's Gary Gaines -- who now coaches at Abilene Christian University, which I drove through yesterday, and on which more later -- evokes the quiet conflicts that boil under the surface of what should be an obvious "this town loves its football" story.

And these are the quiet conflicts that I began to discover today. We talked to Vickie Gomez, who was a long-serving school board member board when Bissinger arrived, being turfed out of office soon thereafter at the height of her push for higher academic standards and funding. Now an admissions official at the University of Texas-Permian Basin, Gomez could not explain to me to me why the parents of the vast majority of students who were not directly involved with the football program (not in band or cheerleading, for example, let alone on the team) did not demand that their kids' educations be taken as seriously as the football team's need to install the same artificial turf as the Dallas Cowboys.

We talked to Kenneth and Mary Scates, who have been fans of the Permian Panthers since the school was founded in 1959, sending all three of their kids there, and still owning season tickets. Ken, now living in a nursing home but still with a feisty glint in his eye -- and decked out in Permian black-and-white -- told me how proud he was to have attended the team's first practice and to have served as president of its booster club. And to have asked his son to hold the phone by the radio so he could listen to a game from his hospital room in Houston -- a little post-op radio broadcast re-broadcast.

The Scates's daughter, Jan (Permian '73), meanwhile, spoke fondly of her days as a Pepette, an organization of girls who, having fallen short of cheerleading, were each assigned a varsity player to "pep up" that season. Pepettes competed to make the most outlandish signs and tastiest baked goods for their boy. There did not seem to be any overt pressure to provide any further services -- this not being a college recruiters' female auxiliary -- but it wasn't unusual for Pepettes to date their charges.

After the Scates, it was time to visit with the mayor of our little slice of American pie. Larry Melton turned out to be a congenial former bank president and civic leader, who nonetheless acknowledged that he had been unhappy with Bissinger's portrayal of race relations -- "let's face it: it was a fiction book" -- but had mellowed with time and welcomed the publicity and business that the movie was giving the town.

Then it was time to visit the stadium, where we sat in on the pre-game warm-up of the JV game between Permian and Midland High -- whose varsity contest under the, well, Friday night lights, I was eagerly anticipating. And then on to the red-carpet media line to talk with Peter Berg and the young stars of his film (Messrs. Thornton and McGraw were unable to attend), as well as Bissinger and the real life players from the great Permian team of '88. It was admittedly my first brush with Hollywood -- other than meeting and being told off by Alec Baldwin in the aftermath of the 2000 election -- but it was everything you would expect from the decidedly non-Hollywood premiere of what is expected to be the hit of the season. (Versace out; varsity jackets in.)

I'm not sure what I'll end up thinking about this whole experience, or whether there are any lessons to be drawn beyond the obvious point that much of this story could have been Valdosta, Georgia, or Allentown, Pennsylvania, or the equivalent places for hockey in Minnesota and basketball in Indiana. And I still have to digest the movie and reinterpret it in the light of ongoing conversations with the cast of characters, real and thespian, that I'm having this week. My first impression, however, is that it's quite true to the book, even if some details are smudged -- à la Hoosiers, Bissinger's ostensible inspiration -- and some controversies minimized. More importantly, it's worth the price of admission.

Ilya Shapiro is a lawyer and writer living in Washington, D.C. He is currently on-location covering the events surrounding the nationwide premiere of Friday Night Lights.


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