By Emily Keefer Student at Shepherd University Shepherdstown, W.Va.
Success can mean different things. Some believe it’s how well known they are among others. Some feel success is reflected by the balance in their bank account. Maya Angelou believes it to be how “in love you are with your life and what you do with it.” None are better explanations than the other as they each represent how humans experience success, but I’ve learned firsthand this definition can change based on experiences. After embarking on a recent adventure to feed my curious mind, my view of success changed dramatically.
About a year ago, I finished the non-fiction book, film and television series “Friday Night Lights.” I am an avid football fan and love inspiring stories of passionate people from small towns. As a result, I became easily fixated upon everything associated with it. I researched the school, town and football team, trying to glean every detail from the novel, show and film — and whether it was depicted accurately. It was my attempt to experience it for myself.
One afternoon a friend asked, “If you could visit one place right now, where would you go?”
“It may sound random, but I would love to visit Odessa, Texas,” I answered.
Unfamiliar with the town, my friend wondered why I wanted to visit. I explained the book was written about Odessa’s Permian High School football program and I wanted to visit because I believed in their passion. I would be thrilled to experience it in person. This conversation was just the spark I needed. Within a month, I had emailed the principal of Permian High School about my longing to visit and write about Odessa. With his blessing, I requested time off of work, bought a plane ticket and booked a hotel room for a weekend.
The few weeks leading up to my trip to Odessa seemed like an eternity but finally, the wait was over, and this aspiring writer was on a flight to Texas!
The folks in Odessa were some of the most remarkable yet humble human beings I have ever encountered, and they welcomed me with open arms despite being a little gunshy about reporters and writers. As it turns out, not everyone was pleased with how the town, team or school in “Friday Night Lights” was depicted nor felt it was completely accurate.
Through my whirlwind weekend of meeting the people of Odessa through interviews, meetings and football, I learned important lessons about success and came to believe the town and high school possess something quite powerful.
Principal Danny Gex was full of kindness and hospitality and I am forever grateful he allowed me to walk the grounds of Permian, ask questions and take lots of pictures. He has many years of experience as a leader and principal, but this was his first year at Permian. He also has remarkable plans for the students and staff to allow the school’s traditions to continue with pride. We discussed how different it was compared to any other school and when I asked him to use one word to describe Permian, he chose “proud.”
Gex set up my interview with Steve Melon, a defensive coach on the Permian football team during the writing of “Friday Night Lights.” During their high school careers, Melon coached Bront Bird, linebacker for the Los Angeles Chargers, as well as Roy Williams, wide receiver for the Dallas Cowboys, Detroit Lions and the Chicago Bears. Now a substitute teacher, his students reportedly adore him.
We talked for hours, during which he shared so much wisdom. Melon said his view of success was “empowering students to change the world.” If he can inspire others to be the best they can be, he felt he was successful. He said, “It is not about me when I am with the kids at the school. Permian is a team and there is no ‘I’ in team.”
When I asked him to use one word to describe Permian, he answered, “Permian is one of a kind. It is an honor to teach here and it was an honor to coach here. Tradition is a heavy thing here in Odessa, it is the backbone.”
At the Friday night football game I attended, Permian faced Odessa High School. Odessa is their district rival, a team they defeated for years. I was able to spend the entire game with my now dear friend, Elizabeth Faught. She was an Odessa High graduate who later became the Permian High School football coach secretary, also during the time the book was written. She is one of the most loved women in Odessa for her dedication, passion and pure love for the town, and specifically, Permian High. She was a pure joy to talk with and allowed me to better understand the phenomenon of Friday Night Lights in a different light.
Defensive coordinator and coach Vance Washington allowed me to interview two key players from the Permian Panthers in quarterback Stephen Steen and defensive tackle Tanner Adams. These boys were some of the most genuine, mannerly, passionate young men I have met. They answered my questions honestly and respectfully. Their responses to the question, “What does success mean to you?” touched my heart.
“Success is when you are accomplishing exactly what you want in life, no matter what it is, no matter what others think you should be doing. If you are happy and a good person, I believe that is considered success, at least in my opinion.” Said Steen, senior at Permian High and U.S. Naval Academy signee.
“When you’re happy and doing what makes you happy, then you are successful. I think people have different opinions of it but I know I am successful by how content I am and how happy the people around me are.” said Adams, junior at Permian High.
When it came time for me to pack up my belongings and leave for the airport on Saturday morning, my heart wasn’t ready to leave Odessa. There was so much passion, tradition and talent in this small town built from the ground up and I didn’t want to ever forget about it.
I left with a full and grateful heart to be a part of this powerful town for a few short days. I left Odessa changed — not in a physical sense, but in an emotional one. How blessed I felt to have something so raw, simple and unique to write about. Yes, there are already books, films and a television series based on this town and what has happened in its past to build these traditions. However, I am grateful to have experienced it firsthand and to have had it impact me in such a profound way.