Monday, November 10, 2008
Updated: November 17, 5:40 PM ET
Friday Night Lights
By Jon Gold
Twenty years is a long time.
You can see it in Don Billingsley's eyes, hear it in Brian Chavez's voice, feel it in Jerrod McDougal's words. The three former Permian Panthers are among six pivotal figures in Buzz Bissinger's seminal 1990 book Friday Night Lights: A Town, a Team, and a Dream, along with teammates Boobie Miles, Ivory Christian and Mike Winchell, who celebrate the 20th anniversary of their Texas State Championship run this year.
In 1988, Bissinger left his job with the Philadelphia Inquirer to chronicle the life of a high school football team. He stumbled upon Odessa, Texas almost by accident. There, he met the Panthers, a team dutifully doted upon by an entire town. There, he met Billingsley and Chavez and McDougal.
This year, as the latest incarnation of the Panthers rolled through an undefeated regular season, The Mag.com reunited the three former teammates to discuss how their lives—and the town—have changed. Billingsley, the book's wild child, talked about his transformation from hard partier to Christian family man. He's a little wiser now, speaking in a measured pace and tone. He lives in Dallas, waking early in the morning for work instead of practice. "I miss the physical contact and the camaraderie of the teammates from that time," he says. "And I miss having thousands of people cheering you on. I would go back and do it all again if I could." Chavez, the team brainiac, talked about the town's transformation. He returned to Odessa after graduating from Harvard and completing his law degree at Texas Tech. Back in 1988, he couldn't wait to leave Odessa. But this town and its relationship to football can take hold of people. "The first five, 10 years, it was hard to get over," he says. "I look back on it with great memories—a great time in my life, a great time with my friends." McDougal, the football fanatic, talked about Permian's transformation from perennial title contender in his day to also-ran and back to contender. He lives outside of San Antonio, but frequently returns to Odessa. More than anyone, he misses Permian Panthers Mojo football. "For a long time, it was hard to talk about it without getting emotional," he says. "I missed it too much. I still miss it. It's tough to have it in your life for so long, and then not."
Standing on the sidelines of Odessa's 19,000-seat Ratliff Stadium, the three recalled the book that chronicled their senior season—"a yearbook that everyone has seen," Chavez calls it. Friday Night Lights became a best-seller and went on to spawn a successful movie and television show, bringing the town both fame and infamy. And freezing Billingsley, Chavez and McDougal in time as iconic characters.
Watching the 2008 Panthers defeat rival Midland Lee, 35-17 last month, the former teammates revisited old stories, like when Billingsley edged out McDougal for Permian's "Mr. Mojo" by a single vote. They laughed and patted each other in the back, even as McDougal shook his head at Billingsley—"But you voted for yourself!"
They stared at the new versions of themselves on the field and screamed every time the Panthers scored. The three got emotional when asked what they missed most, all of them stressing the friendships formed through those four years of football. At one point, each went silent for a moment, stuck in time. They were back in 1988, back in high school, back on the field, back in character.
Twenty years, it turns out, isn't all that long.
A Q & A with Buzz Bissinger