Odessa, Texas is separated from Cambridge by fewer than 2,200 miles, but when it comes to football the two might as well be light years apart.
There, as in many small towns scattered throughout the South and Midwest, life begins and ends on the gridiron, not just for the youths who don the pads, but the locals they represent as well.
Not exactly the environment cultivated at Harvard, as Brian Chavez ’93—a former tight end for Permian High School and one of the primary subjects of the newly released film Friday Night Lights—learned shortly after arriving on campus.
“There’s a big emphasis on something other than [football at Harvard],” Chavez said. “It was tough to adjust. It was really eye opening to see a world where sports aren’t so important.”
Just the second Odessa resident to study at Harvard, Chavez struggled to reconcile the way of life he’d known since he was a young boy with the college’s expectations.
Although he’d been an academic stud at Permian, the public school product doubted his ability to juggle college-level football and academics.
Chavez’s early encounters with Harvard athletics—on the junior varsity football team, since freshmen were banned from the varsity by Ivy League rule—quickly sorted out that dilemma, however.
“I went to a practice on a Friday, then I went to a Harvard varsity game on Saturday,” Chavez. “And I saw the enthusiasm was not as strong, the support not as strong, the competition lacking a little bit. I was already having my doubts. After watching the varsity, I think I said, ‘I’m not going to show up on Monday morning.’”
And before it ever really began, Chavez’s collegiate football career was over—a decision he would recall years later with a tinge of regret.
“I really wish I would have played, to have that experience of playing for Harvard, playing football again,” Chavez said.
Almost without warning, Chavez had stumbled upon a path scarcely imaginable one year earlier as the Panthers launched themselves on their ill-fated effort for the state championship.
Playing before crowds of 20,000 each week in their five million dollar stadium, Permian seniors had, in many instances, achieved the aspirations they’d held for as long as they could remember.
“It was the most fun time of my life,” Chavez said. “We were kings of the world and had a lot of adulation from a lot of people, just treating us like royalty...That was my life. That was all I did.”
But Chavez never lost sight of his future, as many of his teammates did. Always a stellar student, he knew his academic career would continue somewhere—maybe not necessarily Harvard, but somewhere—when the lights were turned off.
“I’m a competitive person and that extended to the classroom,” Chavez said. “A lot of guys got blinded by high school football. They forgot why we were supposed to be there.”