MAYBE IT WAS A SUDDENLY ACUTE AWARENESS OF BEING "thirtysomething." Maybe it was where I lived, in a suburb of Philadelphia, in a house that looked like all the other ones on the block. Or maybe it was my own past as an addicted sports fan who had spent a shamelessly large part of life watching football and basketball and baseball. I just felt something pulling at me, nagging at me, a soft voice telling me to do it, to see for myself what was out there and make the journey before self-satisfaction crept in for good.
The idea had been rattling in my head since I was thirteen years old, the idea of high school sports keeping a town together, keeping it alive. So I went in search of the Friday night lights, to find a town where they brightly blazed that lay beyond the East Coast and the grip of the big cities, a place that people had to pull out an atlas to find and had seen better times, a real America.
A variety of names came up, but all roads led to West Texas, to a town called Odessa.
It was in the severely depressed belly of the Texas oil patch, with a team in town called the Permian Panthers that played to as many as twenty thousand fans on a Friday night.
Twenty thowand . . .
I knew I had to go there.
You drive into Odessa the first time and become immersed in a land so vast, so relentless, that something swells up inside, something that makes you feel powerless and insignificant. Pulling onto Highway 80, there is row after row of oil field machinery that no one has use for anymore. Farther on down comes a series of grimy motels that don't have a single car parked in front of them.
You come to the downtown, and even though it is the middle