By Joel Weckerly, Sports Editor
If he could go back in time, Gary Gaines would have said no to that nice man from Philadelphia.
He would have calmly listened to Mr. H.G. “Buzz” Bissinger’s pitch about covering his high school football team for one season, about how this book would be a positive reflection of a sports-crazed town reminiscent of Hoosiers. And then, in his polite fashion, Gaines would decline.
But now, nearly 16 years since the fateful 1988 season in which the Philadelphia Inquirer journalist followed Gaines’ Odessa Permian football team everywhere it went, Gaines’ “yes” answer has led to the production of the book-inspired feature film Friday Night Lights, set to hit theatres Oct. 15.
“I said what’s the purpose of the book,” recalls Gaines, now the head football coach at ACU. “He said how football bound a community together.”
Instead, Buzz’s account did little to unite a community and more to tear it down, using race, politics and a win-at-all-costs mentality to do it.
Even Buzz acknowledges his about-face, in the afterword to the 10th anniversary edition of Lights in 1991:
“When I first got to Odessa, I anticipated a book very much in the tradition of Hoosiers,” he said. “But along the way some other things happened-the most ugly racism I have ever encountered, utterly misplaced educational priorities, a town that had lost any ability to judge itself.”
By the time the book was published in 1991, Gaines was an assistant coach at Texas Tech. Bissinger called Gaines and said he was going to enjoy the book, and that he would send a copy to his wife, Sharon, who was still living in Odessa with their two kids.
Gaines was pleased-until Sharon called him, sobbing.
“It was very difficult for me,” she said. “I think he was a wolf in sheep’s clothing because he said it was going to be positive.”
Buzz dropped the race card, and he dropped it hard. He dissects Odessa as if it were a racial pie, then uses an array of N-words to somehow prove that this town is more racist than the next country community.
Then, he links those prejudiced sentiments to the Permian coaching staff, noting that they don’t care about injured running back Boobie Miles any longer because he is black. He even quotes one of them as saying, “When a horse pulls up lame, you don’t waste a bullet on him.”
Although he doesn’t show it today, Gaines was distressed by the association of his program with racism.
“Oh my gosh I could tell you some stories,” says Sharon. “But I’ll just say it bothered him a lot. He was very upset.”
Curious, Gaines called Lloyd Hill-who had played on his ’88 team and followed him to Tech-into his office.
“I asked him if he ever heard any racial slurs from me or my staff when he was at Permian,” Gaines said. “He said, ‘Coach, we wouldn’t have played for you if it had been like that.’ I knew how our program was run and how we treated our players, but I just felt better hearing it from him.”
Indeed, Bissinger’s account reeked strongly of embellishment.
“He admitted to our Booster Club president that his publisher sent the book back three times because it wasn’t controversial enough,” Sharon said.
Sharon still remembers walking out the door of her Odessa house one day and hearing Buzz’s unmistakeable voice on the radio, telling his interviewer that Gaines had received thousands of dollars off his house and free furniture as part of the package deal of Permian High coach.
“That made me so mad,” she said. “I’ve even thought about contacting him, but I don’t know what I would say.”
Sharon says that only recently has she been able to talk about the book and not cry. One unfortunate young man made the mistake of asking about it at a barbeque during Gaines’ stint in San Angelo, and she burst into tears.
“He started looking for another seat,” she laughs.
A couple months ago Universal Pictures had the Gaines’s sign a release to use their names in the movie.
They signed it, said Gaines, because “that was the only bit of control we could have over it. We made some stipulations [for our characters] with profanity, drinking and drugs.”
He shakes his head.
“I mean, in one scene they had Sharon buying a six-pack of beer.”
“I’ve never even been in a beer store,” she attests.
Gaines shrugs at the thought of the less-than-dashing Billy Bob Thornton portraying his likeness, then smiles at the irony.
“Well that part’s probably fitting,” he says. “Nobody’s ever accused me of being handsome.”
He has, however, been accused of racism, and Buzz’s diatribe continues on. In an address to the National Association of Independent Schools three years ago, Bissinger again tries to prove it through Boobie Miles:
“I keep in touch with Boobie regularly today,” he said. “He asks me for money, a hundred here, a thousand there, and I give it to him. I give it to him because I love him, because I saw what happened to him when he was no longer a football star, the scorn they heaped upon him, the racist abuse.”
But those who know Gaines know he is a good man, and a colorblind one at that. They know he doesn’t create the same kinds of racial boundaries that Buzz was quick to draw, and that he cares about each athlete as much off the field as on it.
Buzz was quick to throw out the word “abuse,” but it comes in many forms. The kind the Gaines’s have been dealing with because of his assumptions is enough to make anyone outraged, but for 13 years they’ve remained quiet.
Now, with Oct. 15 looming in the distance, they can only wish things don’t get worse.
“I just hope it turns out better than the book,” says Sharon.