Bissinger followed the team for the entire 1988 season, which culminated in a loss in the State semi-finals against Carter High School from Dallas, who eventually went on to win the championship game but would have their title stripped for playing an ineligible player. However, the book also deals with or alludes to a number of secondary political and social issues existing in Odessa, all of which share ties to the Permian Panthers football team. These include socioeconomic disparity; racism; segregation (and desegregation); and poverty.
The coach, Gary Gaines, is constantly on the hot seat. After a loss, he comes back to see "For Sale" signs on his lawn. Tied into the successes and failure of the coach and the team in general are the conflicts the players struggle with on and off the gridiron. The coach overuses his star player, running back James "Boobie" Miles, who gets seriously injured (Miles tore his ACL, missed the playoffs, and had a limp for the rest of his life). When this happens, sports radios are flooded with calls for his resignation. Miles' once-arrogant attitude vanishes as he sees his once promising chance of playing big-time college football disappear and starts to question his future after he notices his not-so promising academic standing. Quarterback Mike Winchell struggles with being able to play consistently, and his inability to make decisions for himself. Fullback Don Billingsley has a rocky relationship with his father, who won a state championship at Permian and carries on a feud with his son for not performing on the level he'd like to see, despite the fact that Don doesn't do anything to light his father's temper. Third-string running back Chris Comer, who takes the spot of Miles after his injury, attempts to get rid of his fear of being hit and getting injured, especially when the player who last occupied his spot suffered a season ending injury. His obsession with fame and recognition also comes at a high price that he is at first not ready to pay. Safety Brian Chavez is harassed by his teammates for being the "black sheep" of the team due to his lack of pure football instinct, although he is easily the smartest player on the team, and the most confident in his future after high school football.
Coach Gaines triumphs and struggles with winning football games and connecting with his players a number of times during their tremulous season. His job depends on the Panthers making the playoffs, and his team is in a three-way tie with two other teams at the end of the regular season. Under Texas rules for ties, the tiebreaker is a coin-toss. In an effort to prevent a riot, the location of the coin-toss is kept under wraps, and the Texas TV stations air it live at an unearthly hour. Permian gets a spot. They make it to the finals, where they narrowly lose to a powerhouse Dallas high school team. The players are in tears as the game ends, but unite when they finally see the amount of success they had over their season given their situation, and how unmeasurable it all was, by a championship ring or anything else. The movie ends with the coach removing the departing seniors from the depth chart on his wall. Notably, the depth chart has "Case" at quarterback. This refers to Permian's real-life backup quarterback in 1988, Stoney Case, who would go on to lead Permian to the 5A state title the following year, and still later made it to the NFL. The final scene consists of Winchell throwing a football to a bunch of pee-wees playing pick-up football before leaving with Billingsley and Chavez.