As a child, Mike had dreamed of the day he would play in the semifinals. His brother had once taken him to Memorial Stadium at Texas A & M and allowed him to walk on the field and enter the locker room. They had gone there many times after that, and Mike couldn’t get the university out of his mind. Now he is in the field house again, not as some starry-eyed kid, but as a real player. Recruiters are interested in Ivory Christian and Gaines believes that Mike Winchell also has potential, because colleges will never see a player who is more dedicated or disciplined. Most of the time, Mike isn’t at all sure that he is what colleges are looking for, and his fears are probably right: he isn’t fast enough or tall enough. He doesn’t really possess a good arm and no amount of work is going to make up for that. However, now he is in the place of his dreams, where Goliath is whipped by David, where every feeling he has seems like the most important in the world.
Then, on the morning of the game he is filled with a nagging feeling that he can’t get rid of – it is too wet and he will never be able to throw the ball, he will never be able to get a grip on it. This is not going to be a field of dreams. It’s going to be a field of nightmares.
Jerrod McDougal enters the locker room that night where he sees everything laid out just right and he says in a whisper, “Damn! It’s here.” Everything then follows in the same sequence as always: the same music, the same conversations, the same sounds of Ivory throwing up. It makes the players feel more at home. Outside, the Carter team is warming up, and it is obvious from the look of them, that Permian is facing a team like no other they have faced that year. The Permian Pepettes arrive and begin chanting, “MOJO! MOJO!” With that, the Carter players edge over to the Permian sidelines and start making low guttural sounds that are reminiscent of dogs and the they begin clapping in unison. It is an apparent effort to intimidate the crowd. They chant, “Oreo!” at black teacher from Permian, and they also use vulgarities to further intimidate everyone from Permian. Usually, the Permian band would march all around the field when they first entered. But this time, the decision is made to keep them on their own side to avoid violence.
In the locker room, on the other hand, the feeling is like no other. Anyone who has ever played high school football remembers that moment with great clarity, that moment of emotional peak, which no matter what follows it – win or lose – will never be forgotten. There is no one in the locker room who believes they can lose. That’s their edge – their belief in themselves.
The game is defined by the savage spirit expressed by both teams. For Carter High School, it is all about the Intimidation Trip: filthy language whispered, shouted, screamed at everyone across the line of scrimmage. It is what Derric Edwards uses every time he tackles Mike Winchell. The Carter defense is as good as all the college scouts heard they were, and Mike is having tremendous difficulty throwing the ball. However, the Permian defense meets the Carter offense with as much strength as Carter throws at them. So both offenses have trouble moving the ball.
Then, with about three minutes left in the half, Permian executes a perfect play, momentarily holding up Derric Evans and giving Comer daylight out in front of him. Comer scores, but the extra point is no good. It doesn’t matter to Permian, because they have MOJO! However, the Cowboys come back, moving 58 yards to tie the score. Their extra point is good and they take the lead, 7-6. This is followed by Permian moving the ball from their own twenty and with the help of a 25 yard scramble and an interference penalty, they take the ball to the Carter 14 with four seconds left on the clock. They try a field goal but it is no good and at halftime, Carter still leads by one point. In the locker room, McDougal yells at his teammates frantically that this is it. They don’t want their last game to be here. Gaines follows this up with his insistence that their conditioning will pay off in the end, but they have to keep clawing and hammering. The worry in everyone’s mind, however, is Winchell who is only 2 for 16 passing with 42 yards in the first half. He seems to be losing the struggle to his old demons.
In the second half, Comer fumbles to begin play. Carter takes over, but can’t move the ball and must punt. Steve Womack blocks the punt, and Permian has the ball on the Carter 17 yard line. Their drive sputters and another field goal is attempted and this one is good. The two sides then battle back and forth for the rest of the quarter with Permian leading still by two points. At the start of the fourth quarter, the Carter quarterback throws a pass to Marcus Grant which falls from his fingers to the turf. However, Marcus deftly cradles the ball as if he has caught it and even though TV replay shows that he dropped it, the referee calls it a completed pass. He happens to be a black official and he really wasn’t in a position to see the play, so the Permian fans insist that he calls it good, because he favors Carter. Carter then scores and with eleven minutes left in the game, they lead 14-9. There are two series of plays that then occur: Permian and Carter each stall in their drives and each must punt.
With a minute and 15 seconds left, Permian has the ball on its own 48. It has stopped raining, and there is a curious detachment in the air as if no one is really there. There is no glory here, just the raw-boned sound of bodies crashing into bodies. For Permian, there is still hope, because there has to be. In the stands, Doug McDougal can’t bear the thought of it all ending here. Ronnie Bevers, an offensive lineman, tells his teammates in the huddle that this is the last minute of their lives. They feel like they are in rhythm now and can move the ball. Shawn Crow stands in the rain wishing he could be out there. He has a picture on Permian’s Wall of Fame, but he also has a herniated disc that football had given him along with a repaired broken leg, broken arm, and smashed up thumb. Nonetheless, now he would give anything to return to the field, take the ball, lower his helmet and show the remarkable balance that had once made him so invincible.
Winchell throws the ball against an exhausted Carter defense and gains nine yards. They now have a second and one on the Carter 32 with 56 seconds on the clock. Gene Ater, a district judge and a die-hard fan of Permian, has driven away two fans sitting in front of him, because he is screaming so loudly. He has not lost hope in these final seconds. He can’t, because this team is something that keeps him going. On second down, Mike Winchell throws an incomplete pass, and now it is third down on the Carter 32. Ken Scates huddles by the radio in his home in Odessa. He had missed his ride to the game and was unable to find another one. He has everything he wants in this town – it is simple, friendly, God-fearing, and patriotic. Through all of the tribulations and successes of his life, he has always had the Permian Panthers to fall back on. He is jittery as he listens in these final seconds, but he still believes that the Carter Cowboys are about to fall to the Permain MOJO just like so many others. On the next play, Comer dives forward for a first down. Then, he peddles backward on the next play and throws to an open Brian Chavez. The sideline is convinced it’s got touchdown written all over it, but Jesse Armistead, for Carter, covers the field with his fantastic speed and swats the ball down at the last second. That’s followed by a run by Comer that goes nowhere, and now the Panthers have the ball with a third and eight on the Carter 26. Boobie Miles also is listening in the final seconds. He no longer has a link with Permian football – people still believe he’s a quitter and he is often morose and silent – but he still feels the anxious familiarity during the final minute of a football game. He thinks to himself, “I wish I was out there with ‘em.” Then Hill takes a hand-off from Winchell and makes it to the ten yard line before being pushed out of bounds. Permian has a 1st and ten on the Carter ten with 22 seconds to go.
Meanwhile, Sharon Gaines is pacing the sidelines. She has trouble remembering any season that has been more emotionally wearing than this one. She feels humiliated that she has had to defend herself as well as her husband to the community. But they aren’t interested in her feelings or those of her husband. They are interested in winning. She becomes really excited when Hill makes it to the ten yard line, but when the Permian crowd becomes ugly, she know something horrible has happened. Center Clint Duncan is called for holding and moves the Permian offense back to the Carter 35 with a third and seventeen. They run another trick play for an eleven yard gain. They now have a fourth and six at the Carter 24 with only ten seconds left to play. Ronnie Bevers kneels on the ground to pray. Winchell is afraid to look at the clock. Duncan is silent, dwelling on the holding penalty. A play is sent in from the sidelines. It is one they have practiced and run a thousand times in their six year careers. But this is definitely it – this is the play that determines whether they go to State or not. When Winchell lines up behind the center, he sees that Hill, his ace receiver, is going to be doubled up, so he will have to look for his flanker Robert Brown over the middle. When Brown turns toward Winchell, signaling he’s open, Winchell throws the ball. Duncan waits and listens, knowing the sound of the crowd will tell him whether he wins or loses. But it is more than the sound of the crowd that tells what has happened. It is also, in his own words, the sight of “a bunch of cocky niggers jumping up and down.”
Dale McDougal runs to her son and they sob together. The Carter crowd and their players taunt Permian fans and players while the TV reporters mill about looking to interview Carter. Mike Winchell has just had the worst performance of his career. He shows little outward emotion, but in his heart, he knows all his dreams are over. Brian Chavez sits silently in the locker room, sad at what has happened, but still hopeful, because he has a future lined up. McDougal and Billingsley are in tears, and Ivory Christian has a strange smile on his face, because after all the personal agony and angst, it is actually over. Gaines reminds his players of how proud he is of them, but Jerrod McDougal can only sob that it hurts more, because they lost to a team which hadn’t worked as hard as they had. Furthermore, he is sad, because the long road is at an end, and it happened so much faster than he ever thought it would. By the time he leaves, the locker room is totally empty and the silent room looks like it had never been inhabited. As he leaves, he hears the coaches, whose focus is now totally changed. There is no time for sentiment, no reason to postpone the work. This season has ended, but there is another that now begins. People everywhere in Odessa are already dreaming of the next group of heroes.
The juxtaposition by the author of actual play on the field with the reactions of fans, family members, and former players is an effective way to show greatly winning is valued by the entire town. To the last second, none of them can imagine a loss. And when it happens, the events that follow reinforce the end of everything for the players, but the beginning of the “wait ‘til next year” attitude of the fans and the coaches. The heroes are done, but there are new heroes coming up to take their place.