December 30, 2008

SAN ANTONIO – With three words, Garrett Porter's massive shoulders dropped.

Friday. Night. Lights.

Being a Permian Panther football player carries a little extra weight, even for a 6-foot-6, 308-pound offensive tackle.

With a book, a movie and television show based on the Odessa, Texas, high school released in the last 20 years, sports fans all over the country know about the Permian MOJO.

Porter wasn't born in 1990 when Buzz Bissinger's account of the 1988 Permian season was published. Bissinger's work became one of the most acclaimed sports books of all time, documenting the highs and lows of football in an oil town in West Texas.

From Porter's point of view, Permian must be the nation's most famous high school. It's a pop culture phenomenon that has strangers asking for the shirt off his back.

"You can go places and if you wear a Permian shirt, people will try to buy it off you," said Porter, a Texas commitment playing in the Saturday's U.S. Army All-American Bowl. "We'll go to a church camp and we'll come back with more money than when you left. It's a five-buck shirt you made for a game, but they'll buy it for 20 bucks."

The book documented the hysteria surrounding the high school football team in Odessa and painted portraits of the key players on the team. The book also exposed skewed priorities and racist overtones in some parts of the community.

"The reaction to the book was sour," said Chris Gove, sports editor of the Odessa (Texas) American. "Time healed some wounds but not all."

In 2004, Bissinger's book spawned a feature film, which was sanitized for Hollywood. A television series followed two years later. The TV series subbed the high school and the characters from the book with fictional caricatures, but the block "P" on the helmets and Panthers nickname stuck.

Some of the sting from the book has been dulled. In its place, some at Permian embrace its cult status.

The American has received a phone call from a New York stockbroker every year for a decade. He doesn't have any connection to Permian or Texas high school football but checks in to see how teams are doing.


It's just like you're expected to be the '89 team… It's the tradition, everyone knows about Permian.
- Garrett Porter

"We get calls from all over the nation," Gove said. "The exposure's still out there. … It's a cult culture, I guess."

Porter, though, isn't crazy about the notoriety that comes with a Permian Panther.

He read the first page of the book before deciding it wasn't for him. He saw the movie once.

"Once is enough," he said. "It's a good book and a good story but not the way it happened, I guess."

Porter prefers to keep his distance from Friday Night Lights, but not everyone at Permian does. Some players watch the movie on Thursday nights to get pumped for Friday football, he said.

First-year Permian principal Roy Garcia winced at times when he read the book, but says Odessa has moved on.

"I felt it was on target," Garcia said. "I didn't like some parts of it, but it was where we were."

Garcia is now a part of Permian's present. When he became the principal at Permian this year, he was prepared as anyone could be.

He spent three years at Permian Junior High. He was an assistant principal at Permian for two years, at the same time of filming of the movie on the campus.

He knew he'd be under the microscope by the local community as well as the rubbernecking Friday Night Lights crowd.

"I knew it was a different place," Garcia said. "I was interviewed by all three TV stations when I was hired. Someone made the comment, 'You're not in Kansas anymore.'"

The nationwide exposure has its positives and negatives.

There's a market for Permian gear. The Panther Den souvenir shop generates "a considerable amount of business," Garcia said.

Fans from out of town make special trips to Odessa to pick up Permian gear. The Den takes online orders from people from 48 states and even foreign countries and provides money for the student center and student groups.

"It's a good size small business," Garcia said. "Everyone at Permian benefits."

But Friday Night Lights overshadows just about everything else at Permian for those outside of Texas.

Garcia sighs when people would rather talk about a football season from 20 years ago instead of the players on the A honor roll in this year's class or that Permian's star football player, Porter, is also in the school's choir.

"We don't want to take away from that," Garcia said. "Just as proud as we are about (the football team), we want to be proud of the academics. Our kids have a lot of pride in being able to wear Mojo name."

Thanks to Friday Night Lights, Permian's 1988 season is frozen in time. The Panthers lost 14-9 in the state semifinals to Dallas Carter that year. Since then, Permian won state championships in 1989 and 1991.

After a decade of mediocre results, Porter's senior class helped Permian carve its own niche in MOJO history. The Panthers became a top high school program again even if it wasn't documented by Hollywood.

The Panthers went 9-4 during his sophomore season and 12-1 during his junior season. In his last season Permian went 12-1 with a loss in the playoffs to eventual state champion Allen.

"It's just like you're expected to be the '89 team," Porter said. "We broke that (slump) this year. There was a span of eight years where they didn't make the playoffs. When I was a sophomore we went 9-4 and 12-0 the last two years. … It's the tradition, everyone knows about Permian."

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