The preface to H.G. Bissinger's book pretty short, and mostly background information. Bissinger was in his mid-thirties, married, raising two small twin boys, and working for the Philadelphia Inquirer when he set out to find a story of a high school sports team “keeping a town together.” It was an idea, he writes, that had been with him since he was thirteen.
He doesn’t detail the process that led him to settle on the city, but in July 2008 he quit his job and moved his family to Odessa, Texas. He describes his early impressions of Odessa and the surrounding area in pretty bleak terms:
- “Severely depressed”
- Feeling “powerless and insignificant” driving through West Texas plains
- Rows of oil field equipment sitting unused
- Grimy hotels without customers
- Buildings belonging to banks
- Closed down movie theatres
- An abandoned JC Penny
- Some restaurants, more pawnshops
Even the nicer, more apparently affluent parts of Odessa don’t seem that comfortable. The east part of the city has shiny malls and comfortable ranch houses, though many of them have FOR SALE signs. There is a south part of Odessa, too, populated mainly by minorities.
For now, I’m not going to seek any information that Bissinger doesn’t provide, but in the preface he does not mention how big a city Odessa is. He does emphasize, though, that on Friday nights during football season the Permian Panthers play to crowds that exceed 20,000 in a stadium that
…rises out of nowhere, two enormous flanks of concrete with a sunken field in between. Gazing into that stadium, looking up into those rows that can hold twenty thousand, you wonder what it must be like on a Friday night, when the lights are on and the heart and soul of the town pours out over that field, across the endless plains.
The preface closes with some disclaimers. This town is not just about football, and these kids are not just players. Bissinger is encountering Odessa during a bad time for the city, and he wonders what the people think about race, about education, about the economy, about the presidential election that will happen later in the year. And he wonders what it costs for the team to hold the town on its shoulders. Near the end of the preface, Bissinger quotes a man whose son had gone to Permian.
Athletics… ends for people. But while it lasts, it creates this make-believe world where normal rules don’t apply. We build this false atmosphere. When it’s over and the harsh reality sets in, that’s the real joke we play on people… Everybody wants to experience that superlative moment, and being an athlete can give you that. It’s Camelot for them, but there’s even life after it.
This notion that football can be transcendent, but that life outside of and after it is harsh and difficult will be a major theme in the television series, too, keeping its portrayal of smaller-town, prayerful southerners from getting too romantic for too long.