The dominance of football in Texas high schools had become the focus of raging debate all over the state in 1983. The governor of Texas, Mark White, appointed Ross Perot to head a committee on educational reform. In pointing to school systems he thought were skewed in favor of extracurricular activities, Perot took particular aim at Odessa.
On ABC’s Nightline, he called Permian fans “football crazy,” and during the show it was pointed out that a $5.6 million high school football stadium had been built in Odessa in 1982. The stadium included a sunken artificial-surface field eighteen feet below ground level, a two-story press box with VIP seating for school board members and other dignitaries, poured concrete seating for 19,032, and a full-time caretaker who lived in a house on the premises.
“He made it look like we were a bunch of West Texas hicks, fanatics,” said Brad Allen, president of the Permian booster club in the early eighties, of Perot. The stadium “was something the community took a lot of pride in and he went on television and said you’re a bunch of idiots for building it.” Most of the money for the stadium had come from a voter-approved bond issue.
The war against Perot escalated quickly. The booster club geared up a letter-writing campaign to him, state legislators, and the governor. Nearly a thousand letters were sent in protest of Perot’s condemnation of Odessa. Some of the ones to him were addressed “Dear Idiot,” or something worse than that, and they not so gently told him to mind his own damn business and not disturb a way of life that had worked and thrived for years and brought the town a joy it could never have experienced anywhere else.
“It’s our money,” said Allen of the funds that were used to build the stadium. “If we choose to put it into a football program, and the graduates from our high schools are at or above the state level of standards, then screw you, leave us alone.” At one point Perot, believing his motives had been misinterpreted and hoping to convince people that improving education in Texas was not a mortal sin, contemplated coming to Odessa to speak. But he decided against it, to the relief of some who thought he might be physically harmed if he did.
“There are so few other things we can look at with pride,” said Allen. “We don’t have a large university that has thirty or forty thousand students in it. We don’t have the art museum that some communities have and are world-renowned. When somebody talks about West Texas, they talk about football. There is nothing to replace it. It’s an integral part of what made the community strong. You take it away and it’s almost like you strip the identity of the people.”
The pull of it seemed irresistible. Allen’s stepson, Phillip, had been a fullback on the 1980 Permian team that won the state championship. Allen readily admitted that Phillip was not a gifted athlete, but he had the fire and desire that came innately in a town that drank as deeply from the chalice of high school football as Odessa.
Allen knew Phillip was something special in eighth grade, when he had broken his arm during the first defensive series of a game. Rather than come out, he managed to set it in the defensive huddle and played both ways the entire first half. By that time the arm had swelled up considerably, to the point that the forearm pads he wore had to be cut off, and unwillingly he went to the hospital. Allen said he was not proud of the incident, but he told the story freely, for it showed that his son had the ingredients to wear the black and white.
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