Permian High School in the west Texas oil town of Odessa, Texas in 1988; the cities of Midland, Texas and Dallas, Texas are also settings for parts of the story.
H. G. Bissinger - The author of the this book is also the narrator who unfolds his experiences with the Permian Panthers during the 1988 football season. His viewpoint, being an outsider, is integral to understanding the events and the emotions they spawned during that painful season.
Boobie Miles - One of the six players the narrator focuses on, he is the ultimate example of woulda, shoulda, coulda after a silly ankle injury during a scrimmage ends a promising career.
Jerrod McDougal - He is the player who readily admits that even years after he graduates, he can't let go of Permian football. He likens the experience to gladiators or Christians versus the lions with Caesar standing up in the arena asking the crowd to yell yay or nay.
Mike Winchell - He is the team's quarterback whose lack of confidence in himself leads to mistakes that he questions the rest of his life. His hopes and dreams are to play college ball, but in the end, he knows that his dream will probably never come true.
Ivory Christian - He is the black player whose vomiting before each game is almost a comforting sound to the other players that events are moving along like they're supposed to. He has ambivalent feelings about football - he hates it at the same time it has a funny hold on him.
Brian Chavez - He is the only Hispanic who is a starter and unlike the other players to whom school and grades are incidental to football, his goals involve being accepted by Harvard. He is the valedictorian of his class, but loves the thrill of the hits that come with football.
Don Billingsly - He is the excellent football player who cannot get his drinking problem under control. He loves the game but looks forward to the girls, alcohol, and parties that follow every game.
Gary Gaines - He is the head coach of Permian High School football team who agonizes over every game both because he cares about his players, but also because he becomes the scapegoat in the community if the team loses. His job is just coaching, not teaching, so his livelihood depends on the whims of the townspeople and whether or not they believe he can get it done.
Odessa, Texas - The west-Texas oil town is definitely a major character in the way it is consumed with football and how the season is all that seems to bring pleasure to the lives of its citizens. Its booms and busts in the oil business give it an almost desperate characteristic that can't help but impact on the young men who seem to carry the hopes and dreams of Odessa on their shoulders.
Sharon Gaines - She is the Permian football coach's wife and feels the animosity of the town as keenly as, if not more than her husband. She must sit in the stands and hear the insults and read the letters in the newspaper that vilify him. She must even face the criticism from someone who contacts the school board, because she dares to stand up at times during the games and block his view. She lives an agonizing existence until the season is over.
Tony Chavez and Dale McDougal - Two parents who experience the agonies of their sons during each and every game and even readily admit that they live vicariously through their children.