Twenty-Two years ago, When H.G. (Buzz) Bissinger was 13 years old, he read an SI story by Dan Jenkins about a Texas high school quarterback named Jack Mildren (Pursuit of a Big Blue Chipper, Sept. 9, 1968). Among other things, the piece addressed the phenomenon of high school football in Texas. "The story just stuck in the recesses of my brain, and I never forgot it," says Bissinger, now an investigative reporter for the Chicago Tribune. "I became fascinated by high school football as the glue that keeps a small town together."
The piece remained in the recesses of Bissinger's mind while he worked as a reporter for The Ledger-Star in Norfolk, Va., the St. Paul Pioneer Press Dispatch and The Philadelphia Inquirer, where he shared a 1987 Pulitzer Prize with two other reporters for a series on the Philadelphia court system. Not long afterward, he decided the time had come to turn his obsession into a book. After sifting through dozens of newspaper articles about such prominent high school football towns as Massillon, Ohio, Aliquippa, Pa., and Valdosta, Ga., Bissinger settled on Permian High in Odessa, Texas.
He took a leave of absence from the Inquirer and, with his fiancèe (now wife), Sarah Macdonald, and his twin sons, Gerry and Zachary, then 5, moved to the arid plains of west Texas for the 1988-89 school year. "When we got there, the first thing I noticed was the smell," says Macdonald. "Everything smells like oil in Texas. And the taste. Even the sodas in our refrigerator tasted of oil."
But they got used to Odessa, just as Odessa became accustomed to them. Bissinger was given complete access to the school and the team. "Buzz fit in pretty quickly," says former Permian tight end Brian Chavez, now a sophomore at Harvard. "He was like one of the coaches."
The result of Bissinger's stay in Odessa is Friday Night Lights: A Town, a Team, and a Dream (Addison-Wesley Publishing, $19.95), which is adapted in this week's issue (page 82). Bissinger had gone to Odessa with certain preconceived notions about Texas football. He wasn't prepared for what he encountered. "I didn't anticipate the incredible, overriding need to win," he says. "Once, I watched a kid get an IV of sugar solution during halftime so that he could keep playing."
Bissinger was also pleasantly surprised by the players. "They were really good kids, just brimming with potential," he says. "Anytime I read stories about high school football, I am mesmerized. It seems to be the last age of innocence in athletics. But now, even that is changing."
ROB CLARK JR.
The Bissingers were temporary Texans.