The beauty of Boobie is that he sees what happened to him but refuses to spread the blame for it, though he should. When he talks to teenagers about his experiences at Permian, he holds himself out as an example of what not to be. "If you were 16 and you were the star of your team, if all you had to do was play football, if all you had to do was show up to class and get a passing grade, would you do that?" he asks the kids.
"The first thing that comes out of their mouths is yes," he tells me. "And I tell them that was the mistake I made. I'm living with this. It's damaging. I should have known better than to sit back, take free grades, take grades I didn't deserve. I knew better."
Then he says something he has never told me before. It bolsters my conviction that Boobie could never have realized he needed anything in life but the ability to play ball.
He says he received money for his exploits on the field.
It began when he became a starting running back as a junior. One day he found an envelope in his helmet in his locker. It was unmarked, but Boobie was sure it was from one of the boosters who often roamed the locker room. Inside the envelope was the equivalent of a performance bonus: as many dollars as the number of yards Boobie had gained the previous Friday night.
The first time it happened, Boobie says, he left the envelope in his locker. Somebody had been stealing watches and money in the field house, and he was afraid he was being set up. But the next week a second envelope appeared, and Boobie took the money in both. He got used to the envelopes' regular arrival. He bought nice clothes. "It was crazy, man," he says, still hardly believing it. "It was crazy."
But from what I can tell, Odessa is different now. It's more enlightened about race relations and the right of all kids to get a good education. If not entirely free of its Friday night habit, it's no longer addicted.
When I was thinking about writing the book, it was Odessa's $5.6 million stadium that convinced me there was no better place to go. Rising out of the desert like a pyramid, with artificial grass and a two-story press box, Ratliff wasn't simply a high school stadium. It was a temple to something more powerful. It looks different today, no longer a shrine to football. Now it's part of an athletic complex with fields for soccer and softball--two sports that in 1988, as far as Odessa was concerned, didn't exist.
"If you read the book and step back and ask, 'Are we like that today?' no, we're not," says Ector County school superintendent Roy Benavides. Problems of race are faced and resolved, he says. So are issues of academic proficiency, and the proof of that was in a stunning front-page story in the June 9 Odessa American announcing that Permian's principal was being removed because of low test scores. Priorities have changed in Odessa, and the superintendent gives the book some of the credit.
"I think overall it had an impact," says Benavides, but he also makes it clear that I shouldn't plan a parade through town. People still feel betrayed, he says. Yet he notes that a school board member acknowledged to him privately that the book "showed us another side that we had to deal with."