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Return to Odessa
October 04, 2004
A new movie based on his controversial 1990 best seller about high school football in West Texas took the author on a long-dreaded journey to revisit his main characters
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October 04, 2004

Return To Odessa

A new movie based on his controversial 1990 best seller about high school football in West Texas took the author on a long-dreaded journey to revisit his main characters

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I'm also aware of the dwindling grip of Mojo madness. "The football players are not so glorified anymore," says Ken Brodnax, who writes a column for the American. "The idol worship has gone away."

In the 1970s and '80s Permian won four state championships and never had a record worse than 7-2 in the ultracompetitive sphere of Texas 5A football. The principal reason for this success was a fanaticism run amok. "It's kind of a necessary evil," acknowledged Chavez, the onetime Panthers tight end. "You're not going to have a great team year after year unless you have all that craziness." But in the late 1990s the fortunes of the Permian program changed. Two losing seasons were followed by three seasons of .500, and no trip to the playoffs after 1998. The fanaticism is gone, in part because losing chases it away.

People in Odessa have turned their attention elsewhere, but the spirit of Mojo isn't dead. Permian has had three football coaches in the past six years. Mediocrity burns like hot grease. "If they ever started winning," says Benavides, "it would be like, We're back."

Boobie and I are in Lubbock now, in Jones SBC Stadium, home of the Texas Tech Raiders, where on an August afternoon 16 years ago Permian had a preseason scrimmage against Amarillo's Palo Duro Dons. The stadium is empty, but not for Boobie. He hears his quarterback, Mike Winchell, call the play in the huddle, Right 18 pitch on go! Boobie is running now, cutting left to the outside as wide receiver Lloyd Hill blocks in. He's up the sideline now, at about the 40, planting his left foot so he can cut back toward the middle and maybe break it all the way. And then his cleat gets caught in the turf, and he feels his left knee snap back. The Palo Duro defenders fall over him but don't hit him. The knee hurts a little. Boobie doesn't think it's serious--until he tries to get up and falls back down. When he pulls up his pants leg, he sees the knee is already swelling.

"That's all it took," Boobie says in a low voice. "Half a second, the blink of an eye. It was over with." He had torn his anterior cruciate ligament. His season was finished. So was the life he had envisioned. "I went from Heisman hopeful to hope-to-do-something," he says as he gazes at the field.

He tried to come back in the middle of the season, after arthroscopic surgery, but he wasn't ready--and he wasn't needed, anyway, since he had been replaced in a heartbeat by another black running back. Boobie was a bench player now, a disposable commodity. He quit the team, his physical and psychological pain too much to bear. Having been so resplendent at that Watermelon Feed, he became an object of scorn at 18: a quitter, a bighead, a dumb ole nigger.

After Permian he played at Ranger ( Texas) Junior College. He even played a year of semipro football for a team in Culpeper, Va., after the owner read Friday Night Lights and invited him to try out. But his knee had given up on him long before.

I know that Boobie has spent much of the past 16 years angry over that half second, and more than once he has asked God for an explanation without getting an answer. But I don't see self-pity in Boobie now. His immediate concerns are to be a good father to his twins and to prevent what happened to him in high school from happening to little James. "If anybody gives him anything, it will be me," says Boobie. "I'm not gonna let him get all blown up."

During the filming of Friday Night Lights in Odessa last spring, Boobie received something else: the recognition that had eluded him for 16 years. In the film Boobie is played by a young actor named Derek Luke. Boobie received a standing ovation when word trickled through Ratliff Stadium that he had arrived on the set. The actors delighted in his presence, and he delighted in the attention, although he broke down and cried when he watched the terrible scene in which his knee is destroyed.

"I feel this movie is my victory, my draft pick, my comeback," says Boobie as we gaze out on the empty field at Jones Stadium. "Now I can be at ease. People will get to see the talent, that this kid could have been one of the NFL's greatest."

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