These Poignant Photos Show The Real Football Team Behind “Friday Night Lights”

“It’s like having your senior yearbook memorialized as a New York Times bestselling book, a celebrated movie, and an award-winning TV show.”

Black-and-white photo of three people walking hand in hand
Robert Clark

Left to right: Team captains Mike Winchell, Ivory Christian, and Brian Chavez walk onto the field for the pregame coin toss versus Midland Lee. This now-iconic image was the cover of the original Friday Night Lights.

In 1988, photojournalist Robert Clark joined writer Buzz Bissinger in the West Texas town of Odessa with one mission in mind: to chronicle a season of high school football with the Permian Panthers. Bissinger's book Friday Night Lights later became a Hollywood movie and inspired the TV show of the same name.

Clark shot over 80 rolls of film for the original book, but only a few images were included in it. He has revisited Texas a few times over the years to photograph a handful of the players and coaches, eventually building his photo book Friday Night Lives, which was released in 2020. In black-and-white photos, Clark presents an intimate body of work that captures the innocence of life before the 21st century, as well as what came after. His shots from the ’80s show the highs and the lows of the student-athletes, many of whom had professional hopes that were dependent on the Friday night scoreboard. Among the seniors Clark captured, only one went on to play for a major college football team.

Fast-forward to 2021, and the once-young men have now reached middle age and are working in a range of fields, including trucking, oil, and law. A few have had substance abuse issues and been incarcerated. Gary Gaines, the team's beloved coach, saw signs of early-onset Alzheimer’s during his last season leading the football program for Permian High School in 2012.

We spoke with Clark about what drew him to the subject of high school football back then and what it feels like to reflect on his historic images today.

Black-and-white photo, with older sitting man laughing and player in uniform and another young man behind him
Robert Clark

James “Boobie” Miles has his shoulder pads tightened by Corey Williams, student manager, during an afternoon practice. Sitting nearby is Marion “Kiwi” Kwiatkowski, watching the proceedings. He had three sons who played for the Panthers during the 1980s.

Did it feel special to be shooting in Odessa in 1988? What is it about Texas football that makes it a great subject?

I think it was the cultural moment as well as the place. Buzz looked at Pennsylvania, Ohio, and a few others, but Texas was perfect. The experience was special because at that time, the kids had very few distractions, and the game and the team were the focus of pretty much everything for these kids.

The game is a tough game, and that works well with what I call "a fistfighting town," which Odessa is. Odessa is a boomtown in a lot of ways. As they say, "Midland is where you raise a family, and Odessa is where you raise hell."

The economy is connected to oil; the boom-and-bust cycle of that oil-based economy brings in workers of a transient nature: "roughnecks" — a lot of single men who stay as long as a job lasts in the oil fields. Odessa is also a great-size city and has a racial makeup that makes the town more interesting. The spectacle of it all was, and still is, amazing to me — the ritual of the pep rally, the crisp air of the fall nights, the lights of the stadium. I love it.

One thing that I feel is very interesting, the title Friday Night Lights has become part of the lexicon, much the same way as “the greatest generation” has; it is about a very certain segment of our society, and all that goes with those words. I do not know how many times I have seen the term “Friday night lights” used, or silhouetted players holding hands, shot from behind. They both are iconic, which I think is pretty cool.

Robert Clark

Permian supporters (left to right) Bridgette Vandeventer, Kerri Edwards, and Jennifer Connelly talk before hopping on the bus for the trip to Abilene and the game against Cooper High School.

A man and a woman stand next to lettering: "Todd Allen Mojo's Brightest Star"
Robert Clark

Coach Gary Gaines and his wife, Sharon, at the Midland Lee pep rally

Do you think the passage of time and evolution of technology have changed the culture of the sport or the nature of the athletes?

The sport has not changed; the ethos, the pathos of it all, is the same, but the advent of social media would make it impossible to do this "under the radar." The fact that Buzz was doing the book, the fact that I was shooting pictures — it all would have been different with Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. The players have been trapped in my negatives as these young, strong kids, and now to meet them as 50-year-old men has been interesting to photograph.

Did any of the young players wonder why there were two journalists following them around in that time period?

The players were so focused on winning and succeeding that I don't think they ever gave much thought to the project when we were in town — but after the season, the book, the movie, and the show, they understood that it was a pretty damn good piece of journalism, and they are happy that they were part of it.

Visiting Odessa in more recent years, what was it like going back to this town? What has changed?

Coming back into Odessa is bittersweet for me. I've had such a good time whenever I come to town. Plus, the work I have produced in Odessa has been rewarded with attention and success, but it also makes me feel old. [laughs] It was a long time ago that I shot these images. A lot has changed in my life, the country, and the world.

The city, for the most part, looks the same. The team has changed, and the pressure that is placed on the players has changed. I have been to a few games since the ’88 season, and the size of the crowd has dropped; kids have so many other distractions and activities grabbing at their time. I just don't know how important football is to the students compared to what it was in 1988.

Robert Clark

Ivory Christian (left) and Chad Payne 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).

Robert Clark

Mike Winchell looking alone amid a crowd of balloons at a pep rally

Can you tell me about this moment you captured of Mike Winchell surrounded by balloons at the pep rally? What was it like seeing him again to photograph him in 2019?

Mike was a shy guy. He had a lot of pressure on him, but he was smart and competitive, so he was the best choice as the QB for the Panthers. The picture is one of my favorites that I have ever shot. Not that it is so good; it just reminds me of a time that has passed, not unlike a song from your high school days that transports you, takes you to a place other than where you are. I love the composition, the look on his face, pretty much everything about the picture. Mike was always trying to hide when I was shooting photos — but at the rally, it was very loud, and he had the balloon in front of his face. When he pulled it down, I shot it as we made eye contact. Seeing him again was really nice. We had a pretty long breakfast; he still said, “Yes, sir,” “No, sir,” which is funny for a guy who has turned 50, but that is how he was raised.

How do you know when you get the shot?

For me, it is a feeling in my stomach, like I had just eaten something good. When that happens, I start thinking about the next photo and move on. Regarding sports photography, I was always more interested in winning and losing images, tragedy or triumph, the more emotional response to a game's results rather than the action pictures. The thrill of victory versus the agony of defeat.

A person wearing a "Mojo" cap looks through a pair of binoculars
Robert Clark

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 the 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.

Man sits with his chin resting on his folded hands
Robert Clark

Mike Winchell now works for an oil field services company near Denton, Texas. He spoke about the book and its impact: “People are interested in it when they find out I was in the book. I rarely think about it, but when I do, with some distance, [I think] it is a great document of the season we had.”

Robert Clark

Mike Winchell calls a play during afternoon practice.

Black-and-white photo of a crowd and several cheerleaders in the foreground
Robert Clark

Pepettes Robbie Freeman (left) and March Bryant (right) pray for a touchdown in the final seconds during the loss to Midland Lee.

Robert Clark

Stacy Martin horses around with Boobie Miles in the Panthers locker room.

Players dry their hair
Robert Clark

Players crowd around the mirror to get ready for school after an early-morning practice.

Black-and-white stadium scene with players on the field and an audience
Robert Clark

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

Black-and-white photo showing man's legs with socks and knee braces and his shoes next to him
Robert Clark

Jonathan Golden wears knee braces for all the practices and games.

Two players sit on the bench as a number of other players stand on the field
Robert Clark

Chad Payne (31) and Billy Steen (63) take a break during the Cooper High game.

Young man lies on his side on the rug and watches TV with trophies, LP records, and family photos visible
Robert Clark

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

Man with his arms folded in black-and-white photo
Robert Clark

Don Billingsley, the ladies’ man of the team, in the rearview mirror of his 1967 Ford Mustang

Man looks up in black-and-white photo
Robert Clark

Since graduating from Texas Christian University, Ivory Christian has worked at the same trucking firm in Odessa. He is married with one daughter, Ivy.

A row of cheerleaders sit on a bench with a crowd behind them
Robert Clark

Pepettes at a Permian junior varsity game

Young man and older man stand looking at each other
Robert Clark

Brian Chavez and his father, Tony, seemed to me to be very close. Brian was among the best students in the school and graduated as class salutatorian. That he wound up at Harvard was in part thanks to the advice and guidance of Buzz Bissinger. Chavez earned his law degree nearby, at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, before joining his father’s law firm in Odessa.

Black-and-white photo with three people wearing clothing with matching fatigue-type print
Robert Clark

Brian Chavez (center), with his M&P15, is flanked by his 9-year-old godson and nephew, Fernando Chavez, and his 15-year-old stepson, Kade Ramos. “I always say our 15 minutes of fame have lasted 30 years,” Chavez explained. “It’s like having your senior yearbook memorialized as a New York Times bestselling book, a celebrated movie, and an award-winning TV show.”

Robert Clark

Almost always quiet and reserved, Ivory Christian (far left) was his own person even among a crowd, as seen during this team meeting.

Man wearing a cap walks on the field in an empty stadium with sign "Shotwell Stadium" in background
Robert Clark

Coach Gary Gaines enjoys a moment of solitude as he walks the field before a road game against Abilene Cooper High School at Shotwell Stadium in Abilene, Texas.