“In the Shreve High football stadium, I think of Polacks nursing long beers in Tiltonsville, And gray faces of Negroes in the blast furnace at Benwood, And the ruptured night watchman of Wheeling Steel Dreaming of heroes.”
- From Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio by James Wright
This poem is about Martins Ferry, Ohio, by is significantly applicable to Odessa, Texas where the same hope for heroes pops up every Autumn in American towns.
The Preface is the author’s explanation for how he came to Odessa, Texas to live for one year with a high school football team. He explains that he felt something nagging at him to see for himself what was out there. He wanted to see how the idea of high school sports keeps a town together. So he goes in search of Friday night lights. All of the roads of his research lead him to Odessa, Texas and the team called the Permian Panthers that played to an average of 20,000 fans on Friday night.
He begins by describing the town, how it is divided into the eastern suburban area and the area called the Southside, which is inhabited predominately by minorities. Then, he visits the stadium to imagine for himself what it must be like for those rows of bleachers to be filled to capacity under the lights on a Friday night.
He comes to Odessa in March of 1988, and meets the coach to relay the intent of his journey there. He wants to live there for a year and spend the season with the team. He has come to realize that this is a town where high school football goes to the very core of life. It is a depressed area with many for sale signs and empty factories. It makes him want to know their attitudes toward race, their politics, the state of their educational system, what motivates the people during the loss of their economic base, and what has happens to their American Dream. So he left his job as a newspaper editor for the Philadelphia Inquirer in July 1988 and moved to Odessa, Texas.
He meets the team and for the next four months, he is with them through every practice, meeting, and game to chronicle the highs and lows of being a high school football player. He also goes to school with them, and church, and into their homes, and even rattlesnake hunting, because he wants to portray them as more than just football players. He also talks to hundreds of people in the community to try to capture their values about race and education and politics and the economy.
He further explores how he and his wife and his children become caught up in the Friday night lights as well, even as he sees the inevitable danger of adults living vicariously through their children. He comes to the realization that these kids held the town on their shoulders, but that Odessa could be any town in America.
The purpose of the Preface is to introduce the reader to the town and the people of Odessa. More importantly, it prepares us for the highs and lows of being a high school football player in town where winning is not everything; it’s the only thing.