The 1988 football season was far from perfect, at least by Permian's lofty standards.
The year started ominously, with a preseason injury to a star player that crippled both the Panthers’ state-title aspirations and the promising future of talented running back James “Boobie” Miles. Three losses on the field followed, including a stunner at home against archrival Midland Lee.
Permian persevered and threatened to accomplish its ultimate goal anyway, with reserve running back Chris Comer and a fortuitous coin flip providing a push. But the Panthers’ luck ran out on a gloomy Saturday afternoon in Austin, where a controversial call contributed to their season ending in the state semifinals against a team caught up in an even bigger controversy.
But it all made for perfect theater, at least for everyone outside Odessa.
East Coast author H.G. “Buzz” Bissinger descended upon West Texas and chronicled the fateful season in “Friday Night Lights: A Town, A Team, And A Dream,” which became a New York Times bestseller and spawned a blockbuster film and popular television series by the same name. It also made Permian the most famous high school football program on the planet.
“Well, for writing a book, he couldn’t have picked a better year,” said Don Billingsley, a senior running back in 1988 and one of the book’s leading characters. “I think the drama and all that happened that season actually led to a better product.”
Not everyone involved was fond of Bissinger’s behind-the-scenes look at the Panthers, which highlighted their greatness on the field and the passion of their fans but also their flaws. The book exposed racism within the community, a school system that prioritized athletics over academics and a gladiatorial culture that turned young men into heroes but left them struggling to cope with life after high school.
According to the wife of then-head coach Gary Gaines, Bissinger gained access to the team by pitching his book as a feel-good, football version of “Hoosiers.” It ended up including some of those elements but also less flattering ones.
Sharon Gaines said she and her husband, while he was portrayed as a gracious, godly man who cared for his players and rarely used profanity, took issue with racist sentiments attributed to his assistants and the notion their community had its priorities misplaced.
“It was just shock and disappointment and betrayal, a huge betrayal,” she said. “It was very traumatic for our family and our town.”
Bissinger did not respond to interview requests. Whether his story was fair or not, it propelled Permian from its status as a legendary program within Texas to an iconic brand celebrated across the country and the world.
Tam Hollingshead was promoted from assistant to head coach in 1990, the year the book was released, and said he received calls from Australia and Canada. Hollingshead, now a member of the coaching staff at Texas A&M, said he also heard from American literature teachers who were sharing the book with their elementary students.
The legacy endures 30 years later as Permian begins a new season against a relatively new state power, with 2016 state-champion DeSoto visiting Ratliff Stadium on Friday. It has been 27 years since the Panthers’ last state title and nearly that long since they played for one, but the team’s traditions remain and so does its pride.
Permian’s expectations, while tempered some in an era when the state’s best teams are concentrated in metropolitan areas, remain lofty as well as Jeff Ellison begins his first season as head coach. The Panthers’ hopes are pinned on major-college prospects such as quarterback Peyton Powell, defensive end Matt Jones and offensive linemen Landon Peterson and Dawson Reynolds, who might possess more talent than the most well-known players from 1988 — among them were Billingsley, Miles, tight end Brian Chavez, linebacker Ivory Christian, receiver Lloyd Hill and quarterback Mike Winchell.
“Our goal this year is to win a district championship, play December football and go on and win a state championship,” Permian defensive coordinator Vance Washington, a member of the title team in 1980, said. “We believe that and the kids believe it.”
WHAT COULD HAVE BEEN
Billingsley, now a health care consultant based in Dallas, said it’s hard to believe 30 years have passed since the season that immortalized him, his teammates and his alma mater. That time has done little to ease its most painful, enduring moment on a cold, rainy day on the University of Texas campus.
Permian, after surviving a three-way coin flip with Midland High and Midland Lee to earn one of its district’s two playoff berths, advanced to a Class 5A state semifinal against Dallas Carter. The Cowboys nearly did not reach that point either after it was discovered before the playoffs that star running back Gary Edwards had failed an algebra class and played when he should have been ineligible.
But his grade was eventually changed to a passing mark after the case was taken to court, so Carter was allowed to continue at full strength. The Cowboys needed every bit of that strength and then some in their 14-9 win against Permian.
Their go-ahead touchdown drive in the fourth quarter was aided by a completion from Robert Hall to Marcus Grant, who according to Bissinger’s account had clearly let the ball hit the ground before cradling it. Carter then beat Converse Judson in the state championship game, but was later stripped of its title because of UIL rule violations.
“Great memories,” Billinsgley said, “but all very disappointing.”
The 1988 season was most disappointing for Miles, who entered it as the Panthers’ marquee player and top college prospect. But the big, speedy back suffered a significant knee injury during a preseason scrimmage in Lubbock, played only sparingly during the regular season and quit the team before the playoffs as Comer had become entrenched as Permian’s featured runner.
Miles played at Ranger College the following year but never reached the potential he flashed in high school. He served time in prison earlier this decade after violating probation related to an aggravated assault charge and, according to Hill, now lives and works in Odessa.
“It’s a sad deal,” said Jeff Garrett, a junior offensive lineman in 1988. “I definitely feel for the guy.”
One of the other senior players featured in “Friday Night Lights” experienced alternating triumphs and trials after graduation. Chavez, a standout tight end and defensive end, was the top student in his class and earned an undergraduate degree from Harvard and law degree from Texas Tech.
Chavez returned to Odessa to practice law but was involved in a home invasion and assault in 2009 and pleaded guilty to burglary of a habitation. His law license was temporarily suspended following his guilty plea.
While those incidents were not necessarily related to the notoriety the players gained from “Friday Night Lights,” they kept them in the public eye.
Chavez did not respond to interview requests.
“The ones who kind of had the limelight on them, a couple probably didn’t particularly care for the limelight,” Hollingshead said. “There were a couple that ate the limelight up and thought it was a good deal.”
MORE FAVORABLE LIGHT
The film version of “Friday Night Lights,” released in 2004 as an adaptation of the book, was more well-received by many of those portrayed. It focused less on the economic and social issues facing Odessa and the country in general, instead zeroing in on the heroism of the players and coaches as well as the pride they displayed for their school and community.
Gary Gaines was portrayed by actor Billy Bob Thornton, who prepared for his role by having a phone conversation with Gaines when he was the head coach at Abilene Christian University. The coach claimed to have never read the book and did not attend the Hollywood premiere of the movie along with his family, with Sharon Gaines saying he chose to remain in West Texas with his football team.
Gary Gaines later watched it and mostly approved — taking exception only with the unrealistic scene in which Billingsley’s father marched onto the practice field to chastise his son for fumbling the ball.
Sharon Gaines said the movie healed some of the wounds inflicted by the book, because it more thoroughly conveyed the love her husband felt for the Panthers, who he guided to an undefeated state championship in 1989. Gary Gaines coached at seven other high schools and two colleges, but Permian was the place he most identified with.
“It’s just a special place,” Sharon Gaines said. “It was for us.”
The movie wasn’t entirely true to reality, because it had Permian losing to Carter in the state final at the Astrodome instead of the semifinals in Austin. The film version of the Panthers also practiced at Ratliff Stadium instead of on campus, and the movie made no mention of crosstown rival Odessa High.
And whereas the movie softened some of the harsh realities chronicled in the book, Billingsley said it did the opposite in his father’s case. Charlie Billingsley, played by country singer Tim McGraw, was portrayed as an abusive former state champion who berated his son for failing to become one as well.
The elder Billingsley never won a title, though. And while acknowledging that he and his father had their share of disputes, Don Billingsley said the volatility displayed in the film was exaggerated.
“There were some things that were dead-on accurate and other things that were totally contrived,” Billingsley said.
Billingsley was no angel in the book, the details of which he does not dispute. He was characterized as a heavy-drinking ladies’ man who ignored authority, coasted through classes and used racist epithets.
He underwent a transformation the following year at East Central Oklahoma University, eliminating some of his vices and renewing his faith in Christianity. Billingsley said he used his own experiences to mentor later generations of high school students, with his notoriety from “Friday Night Lights” providing a platform.
Hill, a junior wide receiver on the 1988 team, said falling short of a state title helped spur the Panthers’ championship run the following year. He and the linebacker Christian enjoyed the most football success after high school, with Hill playing for Texas Tech and Christian for TCU.
Hill, who now lives in Fort Worth, said he maintains regular contact with Chavez, Christian, Miles and Winchell. Hill and Miles both have sons who now are football standouts — Hill’s son, Keanu, is a senior at Euless Trinity, while James Miles III graduated from Irving last year and signed with Fort Scott Community College.
The older men are forever linked by their shared experience as teenagers in Odessa.
“You play football three to four years with those guys, you get that bond,” Hill said. “In my opinion, it never breaks.”
Billingsley and Hill share much the same connection with Gaines, having attended his induction into the Texas High School Coaches Association Hall of Honor in 2013. But they can no longer reminisce with the former coach like they once did.
Gaines, 69, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease about a year ago and lives in Lubbock. He was unavailable for an interview, with Sharon Gaines saying he no longer drives and sometimes becomes distraught by his memory loss.
But Gary Gaines’ home office remains a shrine to his career and particularly to Permian, where he captured his only state championship as a head coach.
Panther pride runs just as deep for former players such as Billingsley and Garrett, who are anxious to relive their Permian years with anyone willing to listen. The notoriety of the book, and subsequent film and TV show, continue to provide plenty of opportunities for conversation.
“I think it’s aged well,” Garrett said of the book. “A lot of people in the community were very, ‘Hey, Buzz did us wrong.’ I guess there may have been some exaggeration, but for the most part I think Buzz got it correctly. I don’t think people liked things brought out quite as starkly as he did.
“I’ve enjoyed it,” Garrett added. “I’m glad to tell people about it. A lot of people like to talk about it. It’s fun conversation if nothing else. You can brag about your team and where you came from.”