After Friday Night Lights (Excerpt)

When the games ended, real life began. An unlikely love story.

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  1. Boobie and I didn’t know it when we first met twenty-four years ago, but one day we would form the ultimate odd couple. A brash Jew from Central Park West in Manhattan who comes up to the chest of a black man from the bad side of the tracks in Odessa, together in the American forgotten. Boobie and me. Me and Boobie. I grew up in privilege and he grew up in poverty. My mother and father took my education as a foregone conclusion. Boobie’s mother was a crack addict whom he did not meet until he was eleven; his father liked to beat him until his uncle rescued him.

    Some of the time we don’t understand each other, my sharp East Coast accent and his wide-load Texas one like storm waves toppling over each other. I pronounce the town “Andrews” and he thinks I have said “hamburger.” He says “hamburger” and I think he has said “Andrews.” Our favorite mutual phrase is “What’d you just say?” But we shared a year in our lives that forever changed us and created a bond that, no matter how elasticized, will never break. It is the most lasting legacy of Friday Night Lights, or at least the legacy I care about the most. Which is why I’m driving on Farm Road 1788 to Kermit, on my way to draw from him as he draws from me. I speak to him on the phone all the time, but I haven’t seen him in four years, and the time has come to see him again.

    Boobie became iconic to many Americans because of Friday Night Lights—he was the book’s most talked-about character and a symbol of everything that was wrong with high school football because of the tragedy that befell him as a rising senior and the virulent racism directed against him afterwards. He became the country’s ultimate cautionary tale of what happens when a young athlete puts all his hopes in the false god of football.

    The film version of Friday Night Lights, in which Boobie was played superbly by Derek Luke, metastasized him into a celebrity. A newspaper profiled a local resident simply because he once had blocked for the “famous Boobie Miles” in grade school. He was stopped for autographs in the malls of Odessa. Most recently, a popular rap song was released featuring the title “Boobie Miles.” His was an all too typical American celebrity, misleading because it didn’t move his life forward a single inch, destructive because it only made it a hundred times harder for Boobie to get a grip on the simple rigors of an ordinary life. “I ain’t tryin’ to be no big man, impress anybody,” he’s told me. “Just tryin’ to make it. That’s about all I can do.” I only hope he means it.

    I already knew about Boobie before I arrived in Odessa with my family in the summer of 1988 to begin research for the book. He was one of the top running backs in Texas going into his senior year at Permian High School, a blue-chipper worthy of recruitment by the giants of college football, programs such as Nebraska and Oklahoma and Texas A&M. At eighteen, he stood six feet tall and weighed two hundred pounds. He ran the 100 in 10.3 seconds and the 40 in 4.5, and he would have run the 40 even faster had he been quicker out of the blocks. He was mean and tough and never intimidated. Teammates wondered about his habits in the weight room, because he didn’t really have any habits. He was cocky: as far as Boobie was concerned, he had the right to be cocky, because cocky equated to confidence. “Why are the scores of Permian games so lopsided?” he asked rhetorically. And then answered himself: “Because they only have one Boobie.” He blocked savagely, obliterating linebackers. He trash-talked, telling defenders, “You ain’t ever gonna catch me.” He was right much of the time, gaining 1,385 yards while playing second fiddle his junior year.

    Every teammate said he was a helluva football player who could pretty much do it all. But his coaches felt differently—they saw a powder keg with a fuse. And I think they wanted that keg to go off, just as long as they had another running back to replace him.

    ***

    I remember the first time I talked to Boobie. I didn’t know how he would react to me, so obviously an alien, with glasses and a thin reporter’s notebook dangling from my right hand. He was all chisel and sinew, beautiful in the distinct way high school athletes are beautiful, their bodies ripped with the grace of the last days of their youth. At that point I had never seen him run in person. But I had watched tape of his junior season. I saw him outdistance defenders by ten or fifteen yards to the end zone, seemingly speeding up with every step. He may have been a teenager, but he ran like a man, none of the gangly flailing that high school kids display when they haven’t quite caught up to their size. I’m not a football coach, but you didn’t have to be a coach to know his greatness.

    He was in the trainer’s room. It was August of 1988, a few weeks before the first game. He knew that all eyes in the bleachers would be on him. The boosters talked about him excitedly. They loved him then because he was a football animal with high value; he might as well have been a prized steer. At the preseason watermelon feed where players were officially introduced to the fans, a standing-room crowd of more than five hundred clapped in a frenzy. Boobie was carefree because he was convinced of his glorious trajectory. He was also childlike, suffering from learning disabilities, with most teachers treating him as if he were still in elementary school. But they knew the unwritten code: Boobie passes so he remains eligible for football.

    On the day we met, he was lying on his back on the trainer’s table and could not keep still. He tapped his fingers on the wall and started to chant a rap tune. He was handed a list of defensive plays to study, found it as interesting as the homework he often didn’t do, and read it aloud in the form of a rap. He flipped onto his stomach, then flipped back onto his back. He talked about going to the pros as if it were a foregone conclusion, as long as it wasn’t the New York Jets, because he detested the color green. Life without football, he told me then, would be a “big zero, ’cause, I don’t know, it’s just the way I feel. If I had a good job and stuff, I still wouldn’t be happy. I want to go pro … that’s my dream. Be rookie of the year or something like that.” As I listened to him, I could already sense doom. I hoped I was wrong.

    ***

    Preview more of Buzz Bissinger's After Friday Night Lights.

Originally published in Byliner, April 2012