Permian beats Amarillo Tascosa in the first round of the playoffs with ease, 31-7. Then they fly to El Paso by chartered jet to face the Andress Eagles. They play in the gigantic Sun Bowl where their usual contingent of thousands of people looks like little bits of scattered paper in the stands. Gaines prowls the sidelines with fury, because now there is no room for mistakes. His fury extends to the locker room at halftime when the score is only 21-7. He is convinced they cannot win, because of the way they’re playing, but they win easily 41-13. As usual, the boys don’t listen to his exhortations to be better disciplined and go out drinking and partying after the game.
During Thanksgiving vacation, when the team comes in to practice, they find a mysterious note in their lockers. It is entitled, “An Open Letter to the 1988 Permian Panther Football Team,” and sharply criticizes the players for their lack of moral integrity and discipline; it calls them Losers, and insists that their success is nothing more than their feeding off what was done in previous years. It is unsigned, but many of the players believe the coaches wrote it. Jerrod McDougal doesn’t find it funny, because he thinks it is impossible not to feel mentally and physically exhausted at this point in the season. What’s even more important, they are also scared to death. He feels furious that now he has to contend with an unsigned letter accusing him of being a loser after all the hard work and despair they’ve dealt with all season. Ivory Christian and Chad Payne also find jerseys with the numbers of Irving Nimitz High School’s starting running backs on them. Also, there are crude notes attached about how their opponents are going to drive them into the dirt. No one ever knows where these notes came from.
On Saturday at the second game, Gaines gives his players a really positive pep talk, exhorting them to play “balls out,” and telling them how proud he is of them and how after tonight, they will be one of eight teams left in high school football in Texas. Finally, he tells them they need to “light up” Roderick Walker, the star running back of Irving Nimitz. He gathers his players around him, aware that for the first time all season, he has them exactly where he wants them. They are angry, enraged, and humiliated that they have been called losers. They are ready to show the world who the real loser is.
On the first play from scrimmage, the great Roderick Walker takes a pitch and moves to the right side of the line. However, he is unprepared for the mass of black shirts that meet him there. Jerrod McDougal is right – it is like imperial Rome, like the Christians and the lions, fighting it out violently, viscerally, with excitement and craziness. Walker takes the ball again and is hit with a helmet right where he carries the ball, causing a fumble recovered by Permian. Two plays later, Comer takes off on a 49 yard TD run. It is evident with only 22 seconds gone, that the game is over. The final score is 48-7. The note fired them up as intended, but doesn’t stop them from heading for a party after the game.
This section of the chapter focuses on Jerry Hix, who relives his greatness as a Permian Panther in the State Championship won 8 years before. He re-plays the film of the game over and over and knows every play by heart. He has created a nice life for himself over the last 8 years including his own business, but there is still something missing. He can only find that missing something by returning to the film or speaking before the present players about the glories of a State Championship. At the public pep rally for the quarterfinal showdown, he steps to the microphone to the sound of a standing ovation and speaks to everyone about believing in themselves and in each other. Jerry is followed by other past players who had made history for Permian High School – guys like Joe Bob Bizzell and Raymond Clayborn. Joe Bob had played for Texas A & M, but was arrested for public intoxication and his life as never been the same. He now works for Amoco as a production operator, but he doesn’t have season tickets anymore and he never sees his old teammates. He hardly ever goes out, because he can’t afford to pay a babysitter, so his life consists mainly of his wife and three boys and nights at home. Like Jerry Hix, he finds it hard not to wish the old days were back, because he is hurt by how his life has turned out.
Daniel Justis may have been another to receive a standing ovation as an All-Stater who had gone to the state playoffs. However, now Justis hates the game of football and is programming his son to hate it as well. He wants the boy to understand that he doesn’t have to play football to be someone. His attitude may have been affected by all the injuries he still suffers from; it may be because of the memories of throwing up and having diarrhea before every game and knowing he was going on the field to be kicked around all over the place; it may be because of the 7th grade coach who had made him play with a broken arm; but mostly it’s because he can’t get football and the adulation out of his blood. Nothing in life will ever be as glorious, as fulfilling as playing high school football. He doesn’t want his son to ever live with that burden. Trapper really understands this phenomenon. He, as a trainer, always has another season to look forward to, but these boys have no soft cushion to fall on when they graduate. His salvation is the next year, but what is theirs? They are victims of the Friday night addiction.
Ivory Christian comes off the field at halftime in the Lamar Viking game exhausted and complains that he didn’t know whether he can continue. The result is an IV bag filled with lactose to give him energy. He hates needles, and it all awakens his ambivalence about football. In the last game against San Angelo, he had said once again while sitting on the bench that he didn’t care less whether he played anymore. He continued to put emphasis on preaching as well. Then, his ambivalence all came to an end when he received a call from a college recruiter. Once the playoffs began, Ivory never preached again. Fortunately, the IV also works, and Ivory plays a wonderful second half against the Lamar Vikings and with the rattling of the nerves of the Viking quarterback, Permian wins 21-7. Now they are on their way to the semi-finals, a breath away from the “promised land” that they have dreamed of since they were little boys. Of course, an enormous obstacle stands in their way: a school from Dallas called the Carter Cowboys, believed to be the most talented team in the state of Texas, perhaps in the whole country. They are afraid of no one and their Mojo is ten times greater than Permian’s. What’s even more remarkable about them is their performance off the field.
This chapter reinforces the addiction that football has become for so many people connected to Permian. The notes in the boys’ lockers, no doubt composed by the coaches, does its job in reinforcing the stress the school, the community, and the players place on winning above everything else. However, it also emphasizes how the players can’t leave these memories behind as they go on with their lives. It affects them in all they do and even if they’re successful in how they live their lives, the adulation and the glory of that “one great season” never leaves them. And unfortunately, only “bigger and badder” teams lay ahead.