It’s Personal

Friday night lights shine
on Odessa’s big game

Christ ChávezOdessa High wide receiver Andrew Rodriguez and Permian quarterback Jakob Garcia face off at Ratliff Stadium.
Two helmets sit on a bright green turf football field under blue sky
Christ Chávez

Evel Zubiate sits inside a dually pickup truck, towing a hulking smoker. The smoker belongs to the Odessa High School Bronchos booster club and is painted a crisp red with white trim—the school’s colors. It is just past noon on Friday, Oct. 6. The Bronchos football team won’t take the field at Odessa’s iconic Ratliff Stadium for another seven hours. But Zubiate seeks a prime position inside the gates for the booster club’s pregame tailgate.

The gates open and Zubiate drives onto the flat, treeless parking lot, where wind gusts send the ever-present dust swirling through the dry air. He ruminates about the evening’s crosstown rivalry game, which will take place as the sun sets on this West Texas oil town of roughly 100,000 residents. The Bronchos’ opponent, the Permian Panthers, are the formidable high school football team immortalized in the bestselling book Friday Night Lights, written by Buzz Bissinger about their 1988 season and then adapted into a Hollywood movie, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this year, and critically acclaimed TV series.

Of course, Zubiate feels love por todo de su familia that goes to Odessa’s Permian High. Pero esta noche? He winces. Tonight is personal.

Raised in west Odessa, in the unincorporated area past the city limits, Zubiate grew up hearing stories about “the other high school football team”—the six-time state champions with all-black uniforms and white helmets. Their rabid fan base, standing nearly 10,000 strong on their side of the field, is known for chanting the school’s rallying cry: MOJO, MOJO. To the Panthers, MOJO is a mindset—a winning mindset. Tradition influences every element of the program, so well-known that high schools travel from Florida and California to meet the Panthers in pre-district play.

It’s different on the west side. “We’re working people,” Zubiate explains. At Odessa High, football remains a game, not a religion. Sometimes the Bronchos are good, sometimes not so good. But they rarely beat Permian. Entire generations of kids have started kindergarten and gone on to graduate from Odessa High without ever experiencing a victory over Permian. The longest losing streak lasted 32 years. Zubiate played defensive end for the 1996 Bronchos team that lost to Permian 13-7. A year later, the Bronchos finally beat Permian 20-7. “We laid the foundation,” Zubiate says.

A group of men stand around a motorcycle
Christ ChávezFrances Rodriguez, Piedad Rodriguez, and Oscar Franco tailgate for Odessa High.
A group of football players in black and white uniforms link arms on a field
Christ ChávezPermian seniors Victor Ramirez, Frank Alvarado, and Juzstyce Lara meet at midfield.

The rivalry dates to 1959, when the city of Odessa opened a second high school, Permian, on the east side. Over the ensuing decades, Odessa High and Permian remained in the same athletic district in a division denoting the state’s largest high schools—today recognized as 6A. The schools share Ratliff Stadium, built in 1982 for $5.6 million dollars. Every year, this football game buries long-simmering grudges while birthing new ones. Now it’s political, as a November bond proposal aims to upgrade Odessa High’s athletic facilities on par with Permian’s, leveling the playing field.

In his senior year, Zubiate got a look from Texas Tech. The university needed linemen, but he was deemed 2 inches too short. So, he studied radiology at St. Philip’s College in San Antonio, then worked in the medical industry for 10 years. But like a lot of West Texas kids, he returned home and built a life in the oil patch, out in the Chihuahuan Desert’s resource-rich Permian Basin. Zubiate eventually established his own trucking business, running time-sensitive loads for various oil companies. This evening, his son, Christian, a junior defensive end at Odessa High, will line up for the Bronchos—a bigger, stronger, faster version of his dad.

Three years prior, a new coach, Dusty Ortiz, arrived at Odessa High. He came from North Texas’ Keller Timber Creek in one of the state’s most athletically competitive districts. Zubiate wanted Ortiz to feel welcome. He created the Facebook alumni group Big Red Hoss, now with over 1,000 members. He also helped reestablish the team motorcade—a phalanx of locals riding choppers in leather jackets and red bandannas alongside classic and exotic cars, leading the Bronchos players the 3 miles from Odessa High to Ratliff Stadium.

Zubiate stokes a fire in the smoker. As dusk settles on the parking lot, a swelling crowd of Bronchos supporters gathers to eat discada tacos, ribs, and turkey legs. A DJ bumps dance club beats. A mob of kids, future Bronchos, plays a game of jackpot, jostling for a ball thrown high in the air. Odessa High’s football team has been mired in another long losing streak. For nine years, the Bronchos have failed to beat Permian. But this team, Zubiate says, “they’re resilient.” These players don’t let adversity bring them down. “They don’t give a f—.”

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An overhead shot of Ratliff Stadium during an Odessa High-Permian game reportedly inspired the producers of the 2004 Friday Night Lights movie to shoot the film in Odessa. The sight of one side of the steep bleachers bathed in red and the other black as an oil spill—both schools pulling from a student body of over 4,000—was a sight to behold. I failed to confirm this with the filmmakers, Brian Grazer and Peter Berg—Bissinger’s cousin. But true or not, for the players, cheerleaders, spirit squads, marching bands, and communities, this game is a cinematic experience.

The halogen bulbs inside the towering stadium lights, the tallest structures for miles, were recently replaced with LEDs. Eddie Sanchez, head of maintenance, is a Permian graduate who lives in a house adjacent to the field. He turns night to day, using a cellphone app to bring the Friday night lights to life. Tonight, Permian occupies the west side—the home team. It’s 58 degrees on the turf, a high-end synthetic imported from Italy that holds less heat during the blazing summers. Behind the press box, the darkening sky glows deep purple.

Permian kicks off.

On the game’s second play, an unblocked Permian defensive lineman rushes toward Odessa High’s junior quarterback, Mikey Cota, an elusive runner and prolific passer. Cota slings a quick slant to sophomore receiver Andrew Rodriguez, who cuts upfield and sprints for an 80-yard touchdown.

The Bronchos lead 7-0.

Permian head coach Jeff Ellison, tall and broad-shouldered, stands stoically on the Panthers’ sideline. His offense relies on the ground game and first team all-district senior running back Juzstyce Lara. The Panthers sophomore quarterback, Jakob Garcia, is just 15 years old, and he runs to the sideline between each play to get the call. A high-scoring game will not favor Ellison’s team, and he knows he must win games.

A day prior, I watched the junior varsity game with Ellison’s boss, Tracey Borchardt, who is athletic director for Ector County Independent School District. The daughter of an Odessa High coach, Borchardt graduated from Permian and says the boys on the ’88 Panthers team, depicted in Bissinger’s book, “basically grew up in my house.”

When she promoted Ellison to head coach five years ago, Borchardt told him a hard truth: “You have no friends.” Ellison’s record, fair or not, would be compared to Gary Gaines, who won the 1989 state title and was portrayed by Billy Bob Thornton on screen; or to John Wilkins, who was enshrined in the Texas High School Football Hall of Fame after coaching the Panthers from 1973 to 1985—and around Odessa is known as AG, or Almost God. “Winning is everything,” Borchardt explains. “They will come after him.”

But will fans really plant for-sale signs in Ellison’s yard, like on screen, if he loses to the Bronchos? “They will,” Borchardt says. “I’ll bet you money.”

A man in a red shirt and gray baseball cap looks at the camera
Christ ChávezOdessa High head coach Dusty Ortiz
A man in a black polo shirt and black ball cap looks at the camera
Christ ChávezPermian head coach Jeff Ellison

Ellison grew up in the West Texas town of Whiteface, population 423, and played football at McMurry University in Abilene. He was raised by a single mother and throughout his adolescence was drawn to coaches he saw as father figures. What drives Ellison, who is also Permian’s athletic coordinator, is instilling strong character, principles, and morals in young people. Permian is a predominantly Latino school but has a more racially diverse enrollment and fewer economically disadvantaged students than Odessa High. At Permian, Ellison says, a kid driving a $70,000 truck might line up on the field next to a kid who walks to school. He finds fulfillment in helping students, whether they need someone to talk with about an issue at home, tutoring, or a meal after a game. Athletics and extracurriculars, Ellison says, create a bridge between the students, coaches, and teachers. But, he concedes, “to be able to do all of that, you have to win.”

Ellison calls the game all gas, no brakes—the way a high schooler might play Madden, forgoing punting and employing trickery. With the game tied 7-7, and facing fourth down and four yards to go at the Bronchos’ 45-yard line, Garcia pitches to the Panthers’ slot back, senior Isaac Herrera, who runs toward the sideline. As the Bronchos’ defense converges on Herrera, he cocks his arm and launches a touchdown pass to a wide-open receiver, senior Gage Murphy.

Panthers 14, Bronchos 7.

More back-and-forth scoring ensues, and nearing halftime the Panthers lead 28-21. Desperate to tie the game, Cota drives the Bronchos down to the Panthers’ 7-yard line. Two seconds remain in the half as the Bronchos’ quarterback looks right, searching for senior wide receiver Ivan Carreon, a 6-foot-6-inch four-star college recruit. But a Permian defender bursts through the line and forces Cota to tuck the ball and run. The extended arm of a Permian linebacker catches Cota like a clothesline as he races toward the end zone, lifting the quarterback’s feet off the ground and slamming his back to the turf.

The half expires. Cota stays down.

At a Thursday morning practice on the day before the game, Permian’s head athletic trainer, Morris Williamson, receives a call on his cellphone. On each hand, Williamson proudly wears the two high school state championship rings he won while working as a trainer in the nearby Midland Independent School District. After hanging up, he appears exasperated. “These concussions are driving me nuts,” he says.

Williamson explains that in 2023, there were 21 reports of middle school head injuries from August to late October across three campuses with 150 to 200 kids at each school. That number isn’t abnormal—actually, it’s slightly below average, Williamson says. It seemed whenever a player complained about a headache, a concerned parent called the school. But sometimes the kid was just dehydrated. Out of all the head injury reports, less than 10 of the middle school students were medically diagnosed with concussions. At the varsity football level, the school district had two diagnosed concussions.

Prior to a 2011 Texas state law implementing concussion protocols across public school sports, a coach could put a student athlete back in a game after 15 symptom-free minutes. Today, every Texas school district must form a Concussion Oversight Team, athletic trainers must complete courses in the evaluation and treatment of concussions, and a physician must approve an athlete’s return to play.

Schools are encouraged—not required—to have a neuropsychologist on their oversight teams. But, as Williamson testified during debate of the bill at the Texas Capitol, in rural West Texas a neuropsychologist might live a couple hundred miles away. Borchardt says ECISD has implemented baseline testing for concussion symptoms. Williamson advocates for a commonsense approach: talking with athletes daily, monitoring for mood swings, and slowly reintroducing exercise before donning pads.

Still, some Odessa families have opted out of the district’s football programs in favor of other sports. One dad, Juan Sanchez, told me his son, a 6-foot-1-inch middle schooler, suffered a concussion after colliding with a teammate during a quarterback sack. When his son started seeing hues of red and blue, Sanchez took him to a specialist who diagnosed his son with color blindness. His son switched to cross-country and soccer.

Back at Ratliff, Cota lies on the ground. A Permian player reaches down and gently touches his shoulder pad. Slowly, Cota rises to his knees, stands up, and walks to the locker room on his own accord. Ellison ushers the Permian players off the field. The coach doesn’t necessarily view football as violent—instead, he says, it’s a contact sport in which athletes must learn to channel controlled aggression. Ellison says his program prioritizes player safety, proper technique, and quality equipment. When it comes to teaching teenagers about accountability, work ethic, and a common bond in pursuit of a team goal, he argues the rewards of high school football outweigh the well-documented risk of injury.

Ellison addresses his players inside the home team locker room beneath the stadium while the Panthers coaching staff huddles outside in a dimly lit concrete walkway. Wearing black pants and black polos, they draw X’s and O’s on a small dry-erase board and try to figure out how to beat the Bronchos.

The Star Players

The stats behind the score

Odessa Bronchos

Mikey Cota Junior, Quarterback

441 yards passing on 19 of 25 attempts for 5 touchdowns and no interceptions

Ivan Carreon Senior, Wide Receiver

4 receptions for 94 yards and 2 touchdowns

Dreshon Douglas Senior, Defensive Back

Forced fumble and 2 tackles

Dae Dae Green Senior, Running Back

16 carries for 62 yards; 1 reception for 25 yards; 2 touchdowns

Andrew Rodriguez Sophomore, Wide Receiver

6 receptions for 157 yards

Izek Lujan Senior, Wide Receiver

2 receptions for 13 yards and 1 touchdown

Daniel Garcia Junior, Defensive Line

Forced fumble and 1 tackle

Christian Zubiate Junior, Defensive End

3 tackles

Permian Panthers

Jakob Garcia Sophomore, Quarterback

105 yards on 5 of 9 attempts for 3 touchdowns and no interceptions

Isaac Herrera Senior, Slot

57-yard completion for a touchdown

Juzstyce Lara Senior, Running Back

22 carries for 246 yards and 2 touchdowns

Gage Murphy Senior, Wide Receiver

2 receptions for 89 yards and 2 touchdowns

* According to

A man in a red jacket talks to a group of football players on a field at sunset
Christ ChávezBronchos coach Dusty Ortiz gives a pep talk
A man wearing a shirt reading "Permian / 18" stands cheering with his fist in the air in a crowd
Christ ChávezJoe Robert Lara Jr. cheers on his son, running back Juzstyce Lara

The second half starts in a stalemate. A Panthers receiver breaks free on a 40-yard run and dives for the end zone, but Bronchos senior defensive back Dreshon Douglas catches the player from behind and punches the ball out of the end zone. The Panthers defense double- and sometimes triple-teams the Bronchos’ star player, Carreon, limiting the receiver to just two catches for 15 yards.

Carreon recently decommitted from Texas Tech to become an Oklahoma Sooner. He makes arguably his biggest contribution as the Bronchos punter. He says the coaches spotted him one day at practice just “messing around, kicking the ball” and assigned the punting position to him. He kicks two high-flying 50-yard punts that push the Panthers deep down the field.

The third quarter ends without any touchdowns. The Panthers still lead 28-21.

The drum pit bangs out a melodic rhythm while the dance teams maintain constant choreographed motion. In the boisterous student sections, shirtless Permian teenage boys line the front row, black panther paw prints painted across their chests. On the Odessa High side, students wave Mexican flags, an homage to much of the student body’s heritage, and scream support into the wide-angle lenses of sideline camera operators.

Tonight, it is personal. A Permian fan proudly displays a T-shirt that reads, “Beating Bronchos never gets old,” alongside the rivalry’s record, “54-9-1.” At one point, two belligerent Odessa High fans taunt the Permian bench from the front railing of the home team bleachers. Annoyed, a Panthers student trainer nonchalantly flips a cup of water into the stands, splashing the troublemakers in the face. A police officer soon leads the offending Bronchos fans away.

Such skirmishes date to at least 1976, when the teams faced off following a snowstorm and a snowball fight broke out between the fans. In 1980, when the Bronchos entered the Permian game on a 15-year losing streak, Panthers fans antagonized them with Sweet 16 buttons they wore to the stadium.

The hostility reached a crescendo in 1990, when Odessa High head coach Jerry Taylor turned Permian in to the University Interscholastic League for rules violations. He accused them of holding practices during the summer, which was prohibited. Two Permian coaches were suspended, and the football team was barred from the playoffs. Bissinger’s book came out in January 1991, painting a stark portrait of Permian’s football fanaticism. Though the school was unrivaled on the field during the ’80s, Bissinger, who moved from Philadelphia to Odessa to report his story, detailed a concerning lack of academic focus. Many Odessa residents who’d invited Bissinger into their lives and candidly shared their thoughts with him believed the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist was writing something akin to Hoosiers, a feel-good classic. Instead, Friday Night Lights quoted Panthers coaches using racial slurs and residents touting racist ideologies in the wake of Odessa’s court-ordered desegregation in 1982. Bissinger reportedly canceled a book tour stop in Odessa after receiving death threats.

For this story, I spoke with numerous current and former Odessa residents who played for the Panthers in the ’80s, served as counselors at Permian, or covered the team as members of the press. Even the Panthers supporters who felt somewhat betrayed by Bissinger’s book described the community’s portrayal in Friday Night Lights as an accurate reflection—albeit one that hurt.

By the time Berg came to Odessa to film Friday Night Lights, a new generation of Odessa residents seemed less concerned by the town’s portrayal in the book. Since Bissinger came to Odessa in 1988, the Latino population has nearly doubled, up to 56%, an increase largely driven by the oil industry. Though the industry declined precipitously in the late ’80s and ’90s, fracking brought an unprecedented boom and staggering growth to West Texas over the last decade. Today, the Permian Basin, an area roughly the size of Utah, is among the most productive oil fields in the world.

The book, movie, and eventual TV series made Permian cool—the American symbol of Texas high school football. But some old-timers bemoan the decline of high school football in Odessa. The Panthers haven’t won a state title since 1991, and all the diversions available to kids these days are probably to blame. Social media! Video games! And let’s not forget the gradual softening of society.

Another theory: According to Borchardt, the daughters of the two head coaches ended up at the same magnet elementary school, in the same grade, in the same class. The next thing you know, Ellison’s and Ortiz’s little girls are best friends.

“I was like, ‘Oh great, this is all I need.’ Jeez,” Borchardt says. “Never, ever have we had opposing coaches who have been friends.”

A group of football players attempt a tackle on a green field
Christ ChávezBronchos running back Dae Dae Green breaks free
Two young men shake hands on a football field, one wears a large red sombrero
Christ ChávezWide receiver Andrew Rodriguez, donning a sombrero, celebrates with defensive back Jayven Gonzalez.

The final quarter begins. The Panthers are on offense at the Bronchos’ 32-yard line, facing fourth down and 26 long yards for a first down. The Bronchos blitz their middle linebacker, who Lara blocks, giving Garcia time to heave a pass toward the end zone. Murphy catches the ball in stride.

The Panthers lead by two touchdowns: 35-21.

“We’ve been in worse situations,” a Bronchos coach encourages his players on the sideline. “We know their formations. We just need to execute and make plays.”

Another coach implores the Bronchos wide receivers: “When the safety holds on Ivan, stay vertical!” Carreon, who stands close to 6 feet, 9 inches in cleats and a helmet, started playing football in second grade. He’s always been one of the biggest and fastest kids. He even received mentorship from 1999 Permian graduate Roy Williams, who played wide receiver for the Texas Longhorns and Dallas Cowboys.

In elementary school, Carreon played on the Junior Bronchos youth football team and has always wanted to play for Odessa High. The Bronchos’ pass-oriented offense better suits him, but more importantly, he wants to help Odessa High break the current losing streak to Permian, which began when he was only 9 years old.

On the ensuing series, Cota finds Carreon on a slant pass. One Permian defender dives for Carreon’s legs, and two others grasp at his shoulder pads. Carreon tumbles on top of a Permian player—but he doesn’t appear to touch the ground. The Panthers seem confused that Carreon wasn’t called down, as he gets up and sprints 70 yards for a touchdown. The Bronchos pull within one touchdown: 35-28.

On the Bronchos’ next possession, Cota spots Carreon one-on-one against a defensive back in the corner of the end zone and throws a jump ball. Carreon reaches over the Permian defender’s helmet to make the catch. On the game’s broadcast, livestreamed by ECISD and replayed Sunday night on CBS7, the announcer says, “You just can’t teach height.” The Bronchos tie the game 35-35.

Carreon will be the first in his immediate family to attend college. Some of his friends have suggested he study business at the University of Oklahoma. He could come back to Odessa and start his own oil company. “The oil is always going to be there,” Carreon says. “And it’s always going to be doing good.”

Most of the men in Carreon’s family work as project managers in the oil patch, including his dad, who reminds his son that a degree could open many doors. He’s encouraged him to think beyond Odessa. Carreon recites his dad’s advice: “You don’t need to come back here and work in the oil field.”

With just over four minutes remaining in the game, Permian feeds Lara. The 5-foot-10-inch, 185-pound running back takes the ball at midfield and slices through the Bronchos’ defense for a 52-yard touchdown. Lara, who will finish the game with 248 yards on 22 carries, is an academic all-state selection who hasn’t attracted much Division I college attention. He’s committed to the University of Texas Permian Basin, a rising Division II program in Odessa. Permian leads 42-35.

The Bronchos get the ball and embark on a methodical drive that runs down the game clock. With 11 seconds left, senior receiver Izek Lujan makes a diving grab in the end zone.

Permian and Odessa High go to overtime: 42-42.

From West Texas to the NFL

Odessa Bronchos

Marcus Cannon, Tackle. New England, Houston, 2011-2022

Bradley Marquez, Wide Receiver. St. Louis, LA Rams, Detroit, 2015-2018

Derrick Shepard, Wide Receiver. Washington, New Orleans, Dallas, 1987-1991

Kelvin Clark, Tackle, Guard. Denver, New Orleans, 1979-1985

Ron Goodwin, Wide Receiver. Philadelphia, 1963-1968

Gene Babb, Linebacker, Fullback. San Francisco, Dallas, Houston, 1957-1963

Don Bingham, Halfback. Chicago, 1956

Steve Dowden, Tackle. Green Bay, 1952

Ray Evans, Guard, Tackle. San Francisco, 1949-1950

Permian Panthers

Bront Bird, Linebacker. San Diego, 2011-2013

Roy Williams, Wide Receiver. Detroit, Dallas, Chicago, 2004-2011

Stoney Case, Quarterback. Arizona, Baltimore, Detroit, 1995-2000

Malcolm Hamilton, Linebacker. Washington, 1998-1999

Britt Hager, Linebacker. Philadelphia, Denver, St. Louis, 1989-1997

Daryl Hunt, Linebacker. Houston, 1979-1984

Royce Berry, Defensive End. Cincinnati, Chicago, 1969-1976

* According to

Borchardt walks down onto the field, her wavy blond hair fluttering in the cool breeze. She cracks a wide smile. What a show! Hundreds of students have been involved in the production of the game—all of them, from the band conductors to the student newspaper reporters, gaining life and potential career experience.

Borchardt started as a Permian Pepette—a female spirit squad member elected by the student body to help summon the MOJO. But she began her professional career as a teacher and coach on the city’s west side, ultimately at Odessa High. “I thought, I’ll bring my MOJO over there,” she says. She applied for the district’s athletic director position 13 years prior and was told she had all the qualifications, except she’d never coached a football team. “Then give me a football team,” she responded. “I’ll guarantee I can go find 15 guy coaches who will work for me.”

Borchardt didn’t get the AD job then, and she didn’t think she’d ever want to consider the district’s top athletic position again. But during the pandemic, with Odessa schools facing a dire staffing shortage, a new superintendent, Scott Muri, took ECISD in a new direction. Muri made teacher salaries among the most competitive in the state, abating the staffing crisis and raising the district’s standardized test scores across almost every grade and subject. When the AD position opened up, Borchardt moved into the role.

Permian parents now embrace the slogan “MOJO makes all professions possible.” During a pregame tailgate for the school’s cheerleaders, Jaime Garza, an electrician for an oil company, wears a “Cheer Dad” T-shirt. His daughter, the captain of the cheer team, is second in her class. His son had been Permian’s valedictorian. “Those days of being state 6A champion are long gone,” Garza says. The last time the Panthers advanced to the top eight of the Texas high school football playoffs was 1998. Yet, Garza feels football still impacts academic decisions. Despite overcrowded AP classes, he says, “No one wants to pass a bond to build another high school because they want Permian to remain 6A.”

Throughout the game, a promotion for the upcoming bond election plays over the PA system. The district has backed away from building a new high school in east Odessa, where it would draw from Permian’s team while angering Odessa High parents who wondered why the wealthier part of town was getting a new school. Instead, the district is proposing a downtown career training and technical campus to serve both schools’ students, as well as provide night classes for adults.

A separate bond proposal asks voters to approve funding for an indoor sports facility at Odessa High. In 2006, the Panthers’ booster club used private donations to construct a 35,937-square-foot indoor practice field at Permian. Meanwhile, the Bronchos still hold almost all their practices outside. In the week leading up to the game, inclement weather forced the Bronchos to cancel two practices. Ortiz says his players are “treated like they’re second best.” (A month later, Oritz’s comments are underscored when the athletic bond fails while the new campus bond passes.)

Ortiz had long dreamed of serving a school like Odessa High, comprising children of working people. He understands what it would mean to the kids on the west side of town to go home tonight “knowing they’re the best high school football team in Odessa.”

The game’s overtime period begins with each team possessing the ball 25 yards out from the end zone. The first team to score, without being matched by the other, wins the game. Permian starts on offense. As the Odessa High defense prepares to take the field, Ortiz instructs them, “Take the ball away.”

On the Odessa High sideline, a student trainer scrubs at a bloodstain on a player’s white pant leg, trying to get him back in the game. On the Permian sideline, players wave their arms at the crowd, inciting cries of MOJO, MOJO to ear-ringing decibels. A helmetless player holds a bag of ice to his head and poses for a selfie with his teammates. A coach yells, “Stay locked in!”

The Panthers line up with two running backs, Herrera in the right slot and Lara in the backfield. Garcia fakes to Lara then pitches to Herrera, who cuts up the left hash. At the 20-yard line, Herrera, wearing bright pink gloves, crashes into a swarm of Bronchos. Defensive lineman Daniel Garcia grabs Herrera from behind and swings his arm at the ball, knocking it loose. Standing outside the scrum, Lara watches the ball bounce across the turf. He dives toward it, but the ball deflects off his hand—right into the chest of a Bronchos player.

Knowing a field goal will win the game, the Bronchos play it safe. Senior running back Dae Dae Green rushes left for 10 yards—then left again to the 8-yard line. For a third consecutive play, Cota hands off to Green. Again, Green sprints for the left corner. Three Panthers defenders pursue him. Green nears the goal line, extending the ball toward the orange pylon. The Panthers shove him out of bounds.

“He was out, right?” a Permian student trainer asks.

A referee raises both his arms. Touchdown. The Bronchos rush the field. Final score: 49-42. The upset is complete, and Christian Zubiate earns the bragging rights his dad, Evel, never did.

The Panthers solemnly walk toward the student section. A mass of swaying black jerseys, they link arms and stand in front of their peers as the band plays the school song.

In the field house at the Panthers’ school, the hallway leading to the practice field is a shrine. Team pictures from every class dating to 1959 adorn the walls. Dozens of names, All-Americans and NFL players, are listed in the Hall of Honor. Trophies line the shelves. Life-size images from the movie are painted onto the walls. The space often provides inspiration. But the success of previous generations can also feel like a ghost watching over each successive team.

The Bronchos players seek out their families, gathering in hugs. They recognize their teachers in the stands and wave proudly. Carreon finds his peewee coach and poses for a photo.

Eventually, the students on the best high school football team in Odessa, and the students on the most famous high school football team in the world, head home, reminiscing about a night they’ll never forget.

Above Ratliff Stadium, in the blink of an eye, the bright lights switch off.

From the July/August 2024 issue

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