It's a trip I had thought about making for a decade, but I had always found an excuse to put it off. Too busy. No point in returning to the past. They were reasonable justifications, but I also felt a swirling apprehension, a queasiness--oh, what the hell, just come out with it: fear.
News of my possible return to the West Texas town of Odessa had once been greeted with threats of bodily harm. Since the publication of my book Friday Night Lights in 1990, dozens of people in town had accused me in the press of deception and betrayal, of wooing and then verbally raping them, of blaspheming the god of high school football and desecrating Odessa itself by depicting incidents of racism and misplaced educational priorities. The recriminations had died down over the years, but with a movie based on the book scheduled for release on Oct. 8, they had appeared again in newspapers. I saw them, just as I saw a poll on an Odessa website in which 56% of respondents, asked if they would like me to come back, said, Hell, no!
But I am back, driving into town on a Monday in June. I have no impulse to turn around and go home, as I essentially did in 1990 when a visit to promote the book was canceled by my publisher because of threats phoned in to local bookstores. I am alone, unlike on the two trips I made to Odessa in the early '90s, when, fearing reprisals, I crept in like a church mouse for a day or two and then crept out. I feel a twinge in my stomach, but mostly I feel curiosity. I have time on my side: 14 years of it. Still, I know that grudges in West Texas, like the nubby mesquite bushes rising out of the pancake landscape, tend to last forever.
When I first arrived in Odessa in 1988 to write about the influence of high school football in an American town, I had no idea, of course, that the book would cause a national sensation. It became a best seller, and it still sells nearly 40,000 copies a year. Now it has been made into a movie starring Billy Bob Thornton and Tim McGraw. " Andy Warhol talked about 15 minutes of fame," says Brian Chavez, the starting tight end for Odessa's Permian High School in 1988, who went on to Harvard and is now a lawyer in Odessa. "Ours has lasted 15 years."
Driving down U.S. Highway 80 on the edge of town, past a jumble of warehouses selling anything that might squeeze a little more crude from the unyielding ground, I'm transported back to 1988. I'm inside the surreal rocket ship of Ratliff Stadium on a Friday night as 15,000 fans drenched in Permian black bellow, "Mojo! Mojo! Mojo!" the rallying cry of their beloved Panthers. I see, in the locker room, the faces of kids too young to be going off to war like this, the hopes and dreams of an entire town heaved onto their shoulders.
Back in the present again, my stomach tightens a little more. I've returned because I want to see someone I haven't spoken to in those 14 years: former Permian football coach Gary Gaines. We were friends at one time. He trusted me. Given his feelings of betrayal, feelings that have kept me up at night, I have no idea if he'll see me. I'm also back to see what changes have occurred in Odessa, a flawed place whose strong spirit will forever move me.
But I'm back for another reason, an unintended consequence of the book and its most powerful by-product, the one that will most endure for me.
It's Tuesday now. I'm on Interstate 20, driving through the numbing flatness toward Monahans, about 30 miles southwest of Odessa, on my way to see James (Boobie) Miles. We have kept in close contact since the book was published. We speak on the phone at least once a month, but I haven't seen him in 10 years.
It's 1988 again. I'm at the Watermelon Feed, the annual event that the Permian Booster Club holds to kick off the football season. I watch Boobie as he walks down the aisle of the school cafeteria to the wild applause of nearly a thousand Mojo faithful. I see his face, resplendent, brimming, and his body, a perfect running back's body, six feet and 200 pounds, with which he had gained 1,385 yards the season before. Then I'm in a classroom, watching Boobie as he sits in the back and, rather than pay attention, because the teacher doesn't really care if he pays attention, opens recruiting letters from Nebraska. Then I'm in a football stadium in Lubbock in the fading afternoon light, seeing the stupid, meaningless play in the stupid, meaningless preseason scrimmage that changed everything. I hear an assistant coach refer to Boobie as a "big ole dumb nigger." I hear the cackle of a booster as he says that without football, Boobie might as well kill himself.
I ease into a gas station on the north side of Monahans, a small oil town as gritty as the sand that kicks up in the wind. Boobie pulls in about a minute later in a red truck. He greets me with "What's up!"--the phrase he sometimes uses when he phones me--and a beautiful smile. We hug. He still has powerful shoulders, but he looks older at 34, as I look older on the cusp of 50. He is appreciably bigger around the midsection, and I am appreciably balder.