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.”
Not Chavez though. After graduating in 1993, he moved on to law school at Texas Tech before returning home to Odessa to find that many of his former teammates had never left.
“That was the highlight of their career, of their lives,” Chavez said. “That was their lifelong goal and they’d already achieved it. Things sort of plateaued after that.”
And, eventually, so too did Permian football. Texas semifinalists Chavez’s senior year, the Panthers brought state titles home to Odessa in 1989 and 1991 before hitting a lull that has kept the school from the playoffs in recent years.
But that doesn’t mean the faithful are any less loyal, that the crowds still don’t turn out each Friday night.
“It has decreased some, but the support and everything—it’s still bigger than 99.9 percent of high schools in the county,” Chavez said. “But it was just so intense. It has softened up a little bit, but if some one from the outside came in, they’d still freak out.”
“The game tomorrow against our crosstown rival is going to be televised on Fox Sports pre-empting the [Major League Baseball] championship series,” he added.
Though Odessa residents initially villainized H. G. Bissinger for his harsh depiction of the town’s unquestioned devotion to churning out winning programs, most have now warmed to the story and embraced the film version, including Chavez.
“I liked it,” he said. “I thought it really captured the spirit of the book, the spirit of that year and was really powerful and intense.”
That’s not to say it was perfect, however, particularly when it came to Chavez’s character, portrayed by actor Jay Hernandez.
Though certain attributes of his personality were captured nicely, Chavez said he felt as though some of his other traits had been neglected in the script.
“I thought he was a little too quiet,” Chavez said. “I was more of a leader type, a partier, on top of being studious.”
But that specific criticism aside, Chavez’s only complaint was that the movie fell victim to one particular stereotype often inserted into films—the desire for youths to “make it big” and finally get out of the small towns in which they were raised.
“I think that was a little overplayed in the movie,” Chavez said. “I don’t think we really thought that way. You have to put that in when you’re talking about a small town, but I never felt that way.”
—Staff writer Timothy J. McGinn can be reached at email@example.com.