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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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It's Thursday, and I'm on the road to Abilene at 5:30 a.m. The 175-mile trip I'm making is a total crapshoot. I haven't called ahead to let him know I'm coming, because he would likely tell me not to waste my time. But it's worth the risk.

Nothing has stabbed at me more since the book came out than the reaction of Gary Gaines. In those 14 years we have never spoken, although I know from newspaper articles what he thinks of me: I'm a man who lied about his true intentions, a man without integrity. Gaines was a good man in the insane storm that was Permian football in those days, and I tried to portray him as a good man, but obviously he felt tarred by the problems I wrote about. Still, what bothered him most was the supposed come-on in my pitch to gain access to the team: I wanted to write a book similar in inspiration to the film Hoosiers.

I did invoke Hoosiers, and the book, I think, contains moments of sustained inspiration, depicting the willingness of kids to sacrifice themselves to a cause much larger than they were. But I knew the second Boobie was injured that this would be a book with more than a passing share of darkness. I heard the word nigger used all too often. I saw linebacker Ivory Christian being given IV fluids at halftime even though he was terrified of needles. I learned that more money was spent getting rush film prints of football games than buying books for the Permian English department. I did what journalists do: played it close to the vest and let events unfold. When Gaines asked me what I planned to write, I was vague. Hoosiers became my cover.

Just before the book was published, I spoke to Gaines for the last time. I said I thought he would like the book, and while I was hoping he would appreciate my sympathetic portrayal of him, I knew I wasn't being honest. After the book came out I tried to speak to him, but he never returned my call.

I pull into the campus of Abilene Christian University around 7:45 a.m. Gaines is the football coach there, and I know that he arrives for work early. My butterflies have gathered speed now. The football offices are in a low building overlooking the practice field. As I walk toward the entrance, I see Gaines through a window, sitting at his desk. I wave. He gets up and does a double take, as if he has just seen a ghost.

In his office I am carried back again to the days in which this man showed grace under intolerable pressure. I see his face after the one-point loss to hated rival Midland Lee that jeopardized Permian's playoff chances. He's spent, as exhausted as any man I've ever seen. I see him give a bemused shrug--Hey, this is the price of being a high school football coach in Texas--when, several days later, he mentions that when he went home after the game, he found for sale signs planted in his yard.

He smiles. We shake hands, and he offers me a seat. Although I've rehearsed what I am going to say, I stammer. I tell him that while I don't regret what I wrote, I do regret the pain it caused him. He listens thoughtfully, but he shows no inclination to dredge it all up again. So we just talk--about our lives, our kids. For this hour at least, we are what we once were. Friends.

It's Friday, my last night in Odessa. I pull into a strip mall, about to make my first public appearance in town since the publication of Friday Night Lights. The bookstore manager said apologetically that he couldn't supply me with a bodyguard, but I won't need one. Many of the Friday Night Lights haters have died or moved away. There are also a few who, like Gary McMillan, aren't afraid to say they've been converted.

In 1990 McMillan was president of what then passed for Odessa's politburo, the Permian Booster Club. He told USA Today that the book "took out all the positive parts" of high school football. Since then he and I have become friends, and while he still questions parts of the book, he acknowledges that "overall it was pretty damn accurate."

Wherever I've gone in Odessa people have been friendly and cordial. There's a giddiness over the movie. A film crew of several hundred spent three weeks in town, pumping an estimated $3.5 million into the local economy. Even residents who disliked the book were among the thousands who lined up to see if they could become extras.

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