An Unprecedented Look at the High-School Football Team That Inspired “Friday Night Lights”

·9 min read

Sports

An Unprecedented Look at the High-School Football Team That Inspired “Friday Night Lights”

In 1988, photographer Robert Clark went to Odessa, Texas, to document the life of a town and its beloved football team

Nearly two decades before America met Coach Taylor, Tyra Collette and Tim Riggins thanks to a TV series on NBC, author Buzz Bissinger shone a spotlight on the world of Texas high school football in Friday Night Lights: A Town, a Team, and a Dream. The photography for the book, which chronicles the 1988 season of the Permian High School Panthers football team in Odessa, Texas, was shot by Robert Clark, then in his early 20s.

Although Bissinger only published about 20 of the photos, Clark shot 137 rolls of film while he was in Texas, and has used some of those photographs in his book Friday Night Lives, a collection of never-before-seen images from his time embedded with the Panthers. “Looking back at these kids, I wasn’t that much older than them at the time. And I remembered my time as a high school athlete and things,” Clark tells InsideHook. “I think I drew upon those experiences to help me shoot this successfully.”

After catching up with Clark last year, we asked him to fill us in on the back-stories that attend a dozen pictures from the book. Here’s what he told us.

Coach Gaines giving his pregame speech to the team before a crucial game against Midland Lee.

“You can see that I don’t think any of the kids are looking at me,” Clark says. “They all took this pretty seriously and didn’t want to miss anything Coach Gaines was going to say. It’s kind of nice the way they honored and respected him. Same with all the coaches. There was definitely a hierarchy though and Coach Gaines was the top.”

Ivory Christian was a linebacker for the Panthers. He was the most physical player on a team that was known for its speed and strength.

“Ivory was their star linebacker,” Clark says. “He went on to play, I think, two years at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth. He was the only player from that team who went to Division 1. He was no joke. He was a pretty serious guy.”

Permian football was a big enough draw that the University of Texas band made an appearance at Ratliff Stadium.

“Ratliff Stadium was built in 1982 and it holds just over 19,000 people. For a high school football stadium, that’s pretty amazing,” Clark says. “I think it was built for $6 million — and that’s in 1982 money. There’s a college team, University of Texas at Permian Basin, that actually played there on Saturdays. That night, the University of Texas band came to play at halftime of the high school football game. It shows the power of the program, that they could pull in a group as impressive as that to come play at a high school. That’s just not normal.”

Pepettes Robbie Freeman (left) and March Bryant (right) pray for a touchdown in the final seconds.

“The hair was crazy out there then,” Clark says. “This was against Midland Lee. They lost and Midland Lee was their arch-rival. There’s Odessa and Midland. They’re both kind of oil towns, but they always said that Odessa is where you went to raise hell and Midland is where you went to raise a family.”

Running back Chris Comer rushes for a first down against the arch-rival Midland Lee Rebels.

“Comer really became quite the star for them that year,” Clark says. “The next season, he did an amazing job and Permian were state champions. He was a great kid and almost had 4,000 yards rushing in his career. Comer is Permian’s third all-time leading rusher with 3,724 yards in two seasons as starter. That’s pretty amazing. He was so good. The really sad thing is, Chris died when he was 46 years old. He went in for an operation and didn’t come out. It was a very sad turn of events.”

At home, Bobbie Miles watches a VHS highlight reel that his Uncle L.V. put together to send to an assortment of colleges.

“Bobbie was the star running back, but his career basically ended on kind of a nothing play in spring football during a scrimmage,” Clark says. “This is after he got hurt. He was watching a highlight film of himself. It’s kind of glory days — thinking about what might’ve been. In a lot of ways, when he got hurt and his time was over, he hadn’t been prepared for anything else in his life. The school passed him and gave him good grades as long he was a good football player. After that, they didn’t didn’t help him out much. They kind of used him up and spit him out.”

An unidentified fan exemplifies the spirit of Mojo. The origin of “Mojo” supposedly dates to 1967, when a group of Permian alumni met in Abilene for a Panther game against Cooper. Legend has it that the Permian fans began chanting “Go, Joe” in support of a Panther player. Other fans thought they heard “Mojo,” and the rest is history.

“That’s a guy just watching the game. It’s pretty serious football down there and the town comes out and really supports the guys,” Clark says. “Mojo refers to black magic or something like that, but they have no real concept of where it came from. There’s no definitive reason. Some people said it was the shortening of a guy’s name. It’s the rallying cry of the Panthers and it has come to be like a mascot.”

Mike Winchell (20) and Chris Comer (45) sit in stunned silence as they realize a game against Midland Lee is lost and there will be no heroic comeback. Permian entered the night as a 21-point favorite.

“This was fairly late in the game. Winchell was the quarterback and Comer was the running back,” Clark says. “There’s a whole series of them looking around and then their mouths are kind of agape because of a play they just watched. I wouldn’t say they were dejected, but they were a little concerned about where the game was going.”

Coach Gary Gaines sits alone in silence following the unexpected loss to Midland Lee.

“The pressure on the coach, let alone the pressure on the kids, is intense,” Clark says. “I think they lost two games that season. The day after this picture was shot, people put ‘For Sale’ signs in the front yard of his house. So it’s like, ‘If you don’t win, you’re going to move.’ The next year they won a national championship and were undefeated, 16-0. He actually went on to Texas A&M and I think was a backfield coach or something.”

Brian Chavez (center) with his MP15, is flanked by his nine-year-old godson and nephew, Fernando Chavez (left), and his 15-year-old stepson, Kade Ramos (right).

“I went out to see Brian and he was getting ready to go out hunting,” Clark says. “He went to Harvard and then University of Texas Law School and he’s a super smart guy. I would say he’s probably a good Democrat, but he’s out there in the part of the world where, Democrat or not, you go hunting.”

Ivory Christian (left) and Chad Payne (right) read a Bible verse in the locker room before a game. “Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified because of them, for the Lord your God goes with you: he will never leave you nor forsake you.” (Deuteronomy 31:6)

“They called Ivory preacher because he was a religious kid and went to church on Sundays,” Clark says. “He also took part in the services. I think he may have been a deacon or something at his church. They’re reading scripture to try to find strength. This was in the locker room before they changed into their uniforms about three hours before a game.”

Jerrod McDougal embraces Greg Sweatt and punches the wall in the locker room following the loss to Midland Lee.

“Jerrod was smashing the wall and crying after the loss,” Clark says. “He was very emotional and really one of my favorite players. I just always liked him. He wasn’t the most talented player, but he played with a lot of heart. You have to realize that it was a national program in a lot of ways. There was a lot of pressure on these kids. The town depended on them, the school depended on them. It’s kind of where they got a positive sense of their identity.”

Sports

An Unprecedented Look at the High-School Football Team That Inspired “Friday Night Lights”

Nearly two decades before America met Coach Taylor, Tyra Collette and Tim Riggins thanks to a TV series on NBC, author Buzz Bissinger shone a spotlight on the world of Texas high school football in Friday Night Lights: A Town, a Team, and a Dream. The photography for the book, which chronicles the 1988 season of the Permian High School Panthers football team in Odessa, Texas, was shot by Robert Clark, then in his early 20s.

Although Bissinger only published about 20 of the photos, Clark shot 137 rolls of film while he was in Texas, and has used some of those photographs in his book Friday Night Lives, a collection of never-before-seen images from his time embedded with the Panthers. “Looking back at these kids, I wasn’t that much older than them at the time. And I remembered my time as a high school athlete and things,” Clark tells InsideHook. “I think I drew upon those experiences to help me shoot this successfully.”

After catching up with Clark last year, we asked him to fill us in on the back-stories that attend a dozen pictures from the book. Here’s what he told us.

This article was featured in the InsideHook Texas newsletter. Sign up now for more from the Lone Star State.

The post An Unprecedented Look at the High-School Football Team That Inspired “Friday Night Lights” appeared first on InsideHook.

The article An Unprecedented Look at the High-School Football Team That Inspired “Friday Night Lights” by Evan Bleier was originally published on InsideHook.