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The Mojo of High School Football : FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS: A Town, a Team and a Dream By H. G. Bissinger photographs by Rob Clark Jr. (Addison, Wesley: $19.95; 355 pp.; O-201-19677-8) : DOWN AND DIRTY: The Life & Crimes of Oklahoma Football By Charles Thompson and Allan Sonnenschein (Carroll & Graf: $18.95; 288 pp.; O-88184-626-6)

October 21, 1990|Heywood Hale Broun | Once a sportswriter for the newspaper PM, Broun was for 10 years sports essayist for the CBS Saturday News.

Like any conscientious anthropologist, H. G. Bissinger soaked himself lengthily in the folkways of his subject's society, moving his whole family from Philadelphia to Odessa, Tex., in order to observe the rituals that accompany the high school football season there.

His were the eyes of a Philadelphia newspaperman, and he was aware that he would have to refocus them to get inside Odessan society, rather as if he were sent from Harvard to live among Basque villagers in the Pyrenees.

He came to have a non-anthropological fondness for his subjects and probably joined them in shouting the mystically talismanic "Mojo!, Mojo!," a chant deriving from the creole word for magic that has proved inspirational to the wearers of the Black and White.

Joseph Conrad wrote that his job was "by the power of the written word to make you hear, to make you feel--it is before all, to make you see . That and no more, and it is everything."

Bissinger is no Conrad, but in "Friday Night Lights" he succeeds admirably in putting us in the middle of the Friday night fever in Odessa, game nights when a partisanship worthy of some larger cause invades the otherwise rational minds and hearts of the town's fans. Apparently willing to do anything to get to what is simply and reverently called "State," the Texas high school football tournament, Permian High smooths the road by spending large sums on the team, sums that otherwise might have bought computers, books, and other educational tools.

One chapter details the hours school officials spend adjusting a Dallas player's chemistry grade so he will be eligible to play against Permian; richly evoking the drama and dementia that are part of the shared delusion of sports, the only thing it does not discuss is the player's actual knowledge of chemistry.

Why Odessa abandoned the standards by which sport used to live, Bissinger never explains. Why the town is so hooked on high school football, however, becomes clear in his discussion of its history. Created by 19th-Century developers who sold a desolate plain as a combination of Athens, Eden, and the Nile Valley, Odessa's population began rapidly to shrink when it was revealed in all its awesome and sterile monotony, only to grow again when oil turned up under the wasteland.

So the town that wasn't Eden or Athens got into the oil-rig business and looked around for something of which to be proud.

"There are so few other things we can look at with pride," said booster Brad Allen of Permian's football team. "You take it away and it's almost like you strip the identity of the people."

So there it is, another version of the great American "Who-Am-I?" game, a game whose final answer appears to be going to the stadium in black clothes to assure that you are enlisted under the banner of Mojo. If you are a Permian girl, "Who-Am-I?" is answered "Not Much." Feminism is still somewhere over the horizon. Your highest rank in the hierarchy of Mojo is to be chosen as a Pepette and assigned to make laudatory lawn signs to grace the front lawns of the players.

Bissinger tried hard to empathize with Odessa and its preoccupation, but the least hint of objectivity was seen as heresy. He was told that a book publicity tour appearance in Odessa might result in ugly reaction. He was told that his attention to the town had roused jealousy and that this was the reason that Odessa's other high school had complained about Permian's illegally early start of practice, a complaint that led to the Mojo's being banned from this year's state tournament. The coach who was as close to a hero as could be found in Bissinger's book was not around to speak in his defense. He wasn't there anymore.

Most of Odessa's players got no closer to immortality than the school's Wall of Fame, which held small photographs of those who had been chosen all-state, but those who went on to play in college would have found the "winning-is-the-only-thing" idea twisted up a nasty notch, if we are to believe "Down and Dirty: The Life and Crimes of Oklahoma Football."

This is the story of Charles Thompson's life from Oklahoma quarterback to prison, where he is serving a sentence for drug dealing, a sentence he says was due to his being drawn into an entrapment.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of Thompson's drug troubles, some sort of dire problem seemed imminent from the moment he got the impression, and it seems a reasonable one, that there was one law for football players and another for those whose sins were not covered by the team jersey.

One cannot blame the book's style, that of a not very well educated teen-ager, on co-author Allan Sonnenschein, for "as-told- to" books all suffer from the fact that the actual writer must speak with the voice of another. But even if Thompson was, in fact, all that free with four-letter words, they begin, like rain drops on a chilly Sunday, to be pretty wearisome.

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