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A REAL TASTE OF TEXAS FOOTBALL.

Byline: JILL PAINTER

I'd heard Texans are crazy about their high school football. We've all heard it. But it couldn't be more true, especially in Odessa.

I know. I lived it.

I moved there to cover high school football in 1995. Odessa has a population of about 90,000 and the important thing I first learned was that the town was divided into two parts: those who were for Permian High and those who were against it.

The enthusiasm for high school football is breathtaking, inspirational and uniting. But there's a price: The pressure teenagers endure is unthinkable and often troubling.

The movie has ``for sale'' signs in the coach's yard after one loss. That happened. Twenty thousand fans for a regular season game? Absolutely true. Teenagers as town celebrities? Yup.

You can see snippets of it all as ``Friday Night Lights,'' a movie based on H.G. Bissinger's novel, opens Friday and captures the very essence of the town and its obsession with football. Bissinger lived in Odessa for a year and chronicled Permian's 1988 season.

For two years, I covered Odessa High, the other school. The school of the have-nots. Permian players have the football signs in the front yard, a status symbol around town. Permian also had the mystique, known as ``mojo.'' The Odessa High Bronchos (pronounced Broncos, just not spelled like it) often had a decent, gritty team but always found a way to sputter against Permian.

When I arrived, Permian had won 32 consecutive games over crosstown rival Odessa High. The streak started in 1965. It carried a life of its own. No one ever expected Odessa High to win. Really, no one expected Permian to lose.

But on September 26, 1997, Odessa High beat Permian 20-17. The Bronchos fumbled twice in the fourth quarter but hung on and secured the victory with an interception with a minute left. It was one of the biggest upsets in state history.

As I stood on the field of Ratliff Stadium, I got chills. Ratliff, digs that would put many college football stadiums to shame, has a capacity of 19,300. More than 20,000 packed the stadium. On one side, there was sheer pandemonium. For the Permian faithful, there was complete silence.

``The most impressive thing to me was how long you looked in the stands an hour after the game and nobody went home,'' said Randy Quisenberry, the former Odessa High coach who engineered the victory. ``The other side was just standing there. They couldn't believe it. There was a party. I remember pulling out in front of the school and we couldn't get out of the bus. It was wall-to-wall people. I guess 32 years of frustration busted loose.''

You know how every time the Lakers win an NBA title in Los Angeles and you can buy T-shirts with the cover of the sports section on front? There were T-shirts for Odessa High's big win, too.

I just read ``Friday Night Lights'' again. Mention the book in Odessa and you'll get an earful. Residents don't like the portrayal of racism and lack of educational priorities for athletes. But they'll like the movie. The school board was flown to L.A. to watch a screening last month and apparently liked it, too.

Quisenberry said he won't have time to see the movie until after the season. It's football season, after all. He grew up in Odessa. He played at Permian, was an assistant coach at Permian and then coached at Odessa High. The power has shifted to nearby Midland.

Midland Lee, where Quisenberry now coaches, has won three consecutive state titles from 1998 to 2000 and Permian hasn't qualified for the playoffs since 1998.

``At times, some people take (football) too far but that's the expectations,'' Quisenberry said. ``We don't have college or pro sports. Right or wrong, it's a way of life. The community bases its identity on how the high school football team does.''

Odessa, once a booming oil town, has its charms but doesn't have much of the frills as its upscale neighbor Midland, a 15-minute drive to the Northeast, where Quisenberry lives. Odessa was affectionately called, ``Slow-Deatha.''

I talked to Quisenberry last week while he was scripting plays for practice in the afternoon. Most head football coaches don't teach class, proof that their priority is to win football games. In addition to coaching, they also oversee the junior high feeder programs and that's an important gig. Everyone in town knows the town's promising stars.

All District 3-5A coaches in West Texas make about $90,000 a year, just a few thousand dollars less than Jeff Kearin's salary to coach Division I-AA Cal State Northridge before the football program was dropped in 2001.

Coaches work around the clock and there's no job security. Wins are the bottom line.

Before coach Scott Smith was hired at Permian in 2003, the two previous coaches were fired. T.J. Mills coached for three years without getting to the playoffs. Randy Mayes was there from 1994 to '99 but never won state.

I once attended a Permian practice during the rivalry week with Odessa High in 1996. Within five minutes of my arrival, Mayes interrupted practice, walked over and said: ``I have your word, don't I?''

As if I would return to Odessa High with plays in hand. Paranoia is part of the game.

As for racism, I didn't see it. I can't remember hearing a racial slur. Of course, people are usually cautious about what they say when a reporter is around.

But the community of Odessa that I know is warm, friendly and hospitable. What I remember is the football coach's wife who invited me to the coaching staff's Thanksgiving dinner. I remember athletes always following questions with ``yes, ma'am'' and ``no, ma'am.''

I'll remember the phrases ``ya'll'' and ``fixin' to'' and that colorful Texas twang. When I got a job in California, one of the assistant football coaches gave me a Bronchos jacket with my name embroidered on it. I still have it.

And I still have those memories of Odessa High's victory over Permian. It hasn't happened since. On that day, many of us learned anything is possible.

I was lucky enough to be a part of it.

CAPTION(S):

photo

Photo:

Actor Billy Bob Thornton, left, plays Odessa Permian coach Gary Gaines in the new movie ``Friday Night Lights,'' which opens Friday, based on the school's 1988 season.

Ralph Nelson/Associated Press
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Title Annotation:Sports
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Oct 6, 2004
Words:1080
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