The author begins the story from the viewpoint of Boobie Miles, a black athlete who as a junior at Permian had already begun to be courted by colleges all over the place. He had been raised first in foster homes, but eventually came to live with his uncle, L. V. Miles, who had great dreams of a Heisman Trophy for his talented nephew and had worked with him for years on how to play football. Unfortunately, he had injured his knee which led to arthroscopic surgery and meant surgery later. Now, he couldn’t move as he had done before and the opposition seemed out to get the knee and ruin it forever. But he has a fire in his belly, because the Panthers are going to play Midland Lee, their arch-rivals, for the district championship. If they win, it is a guaranteed trip to the State Championship playoffs and a chance to go all the way to State. He feels as if this night will bring back the fans, the college recruiters. So he feels good as he walks into the locker room that morning to pull on his #35 jersey and go to the pep rally where the entire student body is wildly cheering. The cockiness and the attitude are back and he can hardly wait to get the ball, tuck it under his arm and run forever like “someone in the euphoria of flight.”
He tries to concentrate in class all day, but feels it’s all irrelevant, because the true purpose of going to Permian High School is to play football for the Panthers. There is almost desperation in his emotions, like an aging prizefighter, as he ponders whether he’ll be able to regain his former footing or whether he’s already a has-been.
Jerrod McDougal leaves school at the end of the day and does what he always does to pass the time before he’s due at the stadium: he climbs into his Chevy pickup and turns up the sounds of Bon Jovi. As he listens to the music, he feels like there’s no way Midland Lee can beat them. He knows that he is too small to ever make a college team, but he also knows that he’s an offensive tackle with a lot of heart, even if he has no natural ability. He thinks that high school football is like the gladiators in ancient Rome or the Christians facing the lions in the Coliseum while Caesar calls for a thumbs-up or thumbs-down from the crowd. He says it’s a high that no drugs or booze or women can give.
Mike Winchell hates the moments in the field house before the game begins. He is the quarterback, which gives him a certain status over the other players. However, it’s hard for him not to feel overwhelmed at the same time. He lives in a shabby house and doesn’t own his own car. He’s so ashamed of his home that he won’t even allow his girlfriend to enter. That plus the expectations of the community intensify the pressure he feels. He wants more than anything to play for a big time college so a good game against Midland Lee would be vindication, further proof that he has what it takes. Later, he partakes of the obligatory pre-game meetings and then as part of a long-standing tradition, the lights are turned out to allow the players to focus on the coming game. For Mike, this is the worst part of all.
When the sound of vomiting echoes throughout the dressing room, everyone knows it is Ivory Christian who goes through this physical reaction to the game every week. It is an example of his ambivalence toward football. There is so much about the game he hates, but it also has a funny hold on him. He is a gifted linebacker with a potential he doesn’t even begin to fathom. The vomiting then is his catharsis. It gets out the ambivalence and the fear, and he becomes ready for the game.
The sounds in the dressing room in the final minutes before the game seem amplified a thousand times. They are like boys going off to fight a war for the benefit of someone else, unwilling sacrifices to a strange and powerful god. Boobie sits on a bench with his eyes closed while Jerrod paces back and forth, becoming enraged from the sound of the Midland Band playing “Dixie.” Gaines, the head coach, then calls them together with a short message but one that is sincere. It’s time for the contest.
Brian Chavez, Ivory Christian, and Mike Winchell, the three captains, make their way to the center of the field for the coin toss. For Brian, it is the beginning of a metamorphosis. As a tight end, he prepares himself to hit his opponent as hard as he can to hurt him or scare him or make him think twice about getting back up again. He knows he’s an “asshole” when he plays, but he figures it’s better to be that way on the field than in life. He is number one in his class and his aspirations extend to being accepted at Harvard. But now he wasn’t thinking about Harvard. He was thinking about the District Champs patch he has already ordered for his letter jacket. That’s how confident he is and that’s how much he hates Midland Lee.
The team leaves the dressing room behind a huge banner, and when they pour onto the field, the crowd erupts with such a deep-throated roar that they seem to lose sight of who they are. These are their boys, their heroes, and they rest all their vicarious thrills and dreams upon them. They begin to yell, “MOJO, MOJO, MOJO!”, the Permian motto taken from an old Wilson Picket song from the late sixties. On the other side came the screams, “Rebels! Rebels! Rebels!” in response. There were Confederate flags in the hands of the Midland Lee fans and white handkerchiefs in those of Permian. The bands played songs in competition with each other while the Rebelettes match cheer for cheer with the Pepettes. Then, the teams take the field.
Instead of Boobie carrying the ball, it falls to his replacement, Chris Comer, the new black hope, who makes a 77 yard run to put Permian up 14-7. Boobie comes to the realization that the coaches have no intention of playing him that night. He sits on the bench and feels a coldness swirl through him as if something sacred were dying inside him. He watches his dream disappear and knows there’s nothing he can do about it. The score at halftime is 21-16.
The Permian players are exhausted and in a fight they never expected. The strange Lee touchdown at the end of the half is like a weird and scary omen. Boobie is in a furious rage, determined to quit at halftime of the biggest game of the year. None of the varsity coaches make any attempt to stop him, but for Nate Hearne, a black JV coach. The rest privately deride him as shiftless, lazy, stupid, just another “dumb nigger.” But Hearne convinces him he can’t quit in the middle of game, and Boobie reluctantly puts his pads back on even though it seems as if he’s wearing a Halloween costume.
The Rebels score early in the 4th quarter to make the score 22-21 and to take the lead. Brian Chavez can feel the game slipping away. They are going to lose and Mike Winchell, after making a sixty yard TD pass in the first quarter, now can’t complete a pass to an open flanker Robert Brown. The Rebels win.
Jerrod watches in agony as the Midland Lee players roll all over the field in ecstasy at their win, spitting on the ground of their arch-rivals. He has never in his life felt so humiliated. What’s more, Permian, now in a three way tie, might not get into the playoffs.
Boobie officially quits the team three days later. The loss sends the team into a tailspin. Coach Gaines is distraught - a whole year’s worth of work has been wasted and the chorus against him is beginning to pick up. He comes home to the sight of stolen "For Sale" signs all over his yard. He isn’t surprised by them because he is a high school coach in a town where realtor Bob Rutherford said, “Life really wouldn’t be worth livin’ if you didn’t have a high school football team to support.”
The author begins the story in the middle of the season during the agony of the loss to Midland Lee, Permian’s arch-rivals. It allows the reader to see immediately how sacred high school football is in Odessa, Texas. We see the hopes and dreams of the players and in the case of Boobie Miles, we see the loss of those dreams. This is all there is for these young men and, this night under the lights, they have lost it all.