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Schoolboy Football, Texas Style

Academics are thrown for a loss in a town where winning is everything

NOTRE DAME football coach Lou Holtz, when asked if winning the game his team would play the next day ``was a matter of life and death,'' quipped, ``Oh no! It's much more important than that.'' In west Texas, high school football is no less important.

``Friday Night Lights'' records the staggering effect of sports on American life when a community cannot distinguish between good schooling and a winning football team. It pits the American passion for football against the need for schools in the United States to prepare the next generation for a global economy.

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A Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, H.G. Bissinger moved to Odessa, Texas, with his wife and two children in the summer of 1988. He left an editor's job at the Philadelphia Inquirer to write about a high school football season in a town where 20,000 fans cheer the home team on Friday night.

Bissinger portrays Odessa and its citizens as middle America, a place where bedrock, traditional values of hard work, family, church, and patriotism run deep, deep as the oil drills bobbing up and down on the flat, brown landscape. ``[T]he values of Odessa were ones that firmly belonged to a certain kind of America, an America that existed beyond the borders of the Steinberg cartoon, an America of factory towns and farm towns and steel towns and single economy towns all trying to survive.''

But, of course, Odessa is not every town. Something is amiss or Bissinger would not have chosen to write about it. Journalists, seeking the obvious can trip into being simplistic. At times, this book is guilty of that. That criticism aside, Bissinger touches the real boy in American manhood when he writes about game-time Friday night.

Not every teenage boy, however, wants to play football as passionately as do the boys who play for the Permian Panthers of Odessa. A perennial football powerhouse in a state renowned for its devotion to football, Permian High is as extreme a case of the tail wagging the dog as you are likely to find in high school sports.

BISSINGER'S northern sensibility about the role of sports and education filters the plain facts of west Texas values - direct as winning football games and pledging allegiance to the flag - without seeing the connection between character development and team loyalty, ingrained values in the South and Southwest.

On one level, the book reads like an extended series in a newspaper. Transitions between chapters are event driven, with the narrative loosely structured around the lives of six seniors, each a starter on the Permian Panthers. We get to know these young men and meet their families. We enter the locker room with them. We see them in their homes and classes (all but quarterback Winchell's home that is; he will not put his poverty on display to anyone). There are the inevitable comparisons between these young men and players of yesteryear. And as one would expect, fathers are important, driving forces in the lives of each boy.

Football consumes their lives, as it does boys in thousands of high schools. Each dons the armor of manhood - football pads and the black jersey of the Permian Panthers. The physical and psychological training remind one as much of the 82nd airborne or Marine boot camp, as it does interscholastic sports. The Spartan motto,``Come back with your shield, or on it,'' fuses with youthful idealism. The drinking, swearing, and fighting of many of the young men rings true enough, but one wonders if the journalist-author has not been a little too gullible in reporting on fisticuffs and not checked the losers version of how the fight went down.

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One technique Bissinger employs effectively is to let deeds speak (and damn) for themselves: the $70,000 annual tab for chartered jet planes so the players don't have to take the long bus rides to and from games; the pre-game ritual of dry heaves by nervous young men; double standards in grading football players, especially blacks.

BISSINGER is at his best in describing the relationship between Boobie Miles and his adoptive father L.V. Miles. A foster child, Boobie was rescued from the wasteland of institutional life at age 7 by a loving and wise L.V. The black senior was the star running back his junior year. Scholarship offers were coming in until a knee injury in a preseason scrimmage ended his and L.V.'s dream.

There is always an element of mano a mano violence in football and Bissinger relies on understatement to convey just how violent. But with Boobie and L.V., ``tenderness'' is the word that comes to mind, that and racism.

Boobie and his father's shattered hopes jarringly remind us of the nation's legacy of racial segregation. When L.V. grew up it meant exclusion from the American way of life. It meant no high school football for him and thousands of young black men. The memory is still raw, not more than one generation deep for many African-American adults.

The sensitive, yet ``tell it like it is'' way in which Bissinger chronicles the life of L.V. and Boobie makes his rendition of what happens to two football players from the 1988 state champion Carter Cowboys, an all-black Dallas high school, one of the most devastating accounts of adults failing young people I have ever read. Shortly after the football season ends, and before either star could sign with a college team, both are arrested, convicted, and sentenced for 10 to 20 years in the state prison for armed robbery.

Bissinger's writing is guided by questions, questions he sets forth in the book's preface: ``What were the attitudes toward race? What were the politics, and as the 1988 election approached, what did people want from their president. In a country that was having more and more difficulty teaching its young, what was the educational system like?''

Though I'm convinced the author never played high school football; that he voted for Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis (de facto a clash of values between himself and the people he writes about); that he ridicules George Bush (who when campaigning for the presidency in west Texas was proud of the fact he had lived in Odessa and attended Friday night games in the 1950s), this is a pressure-cooker of a book: it scalds.

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