Midland Lee, Odessa Permian ready to battle in perhaps the state's most recognizable game

Four syllables. Two chants. One iconic Texas high school football rivalry.

Mo-Jo. Reb-els. The chants will resonate through the West Texas night Friday when bitter rivals Midland Lee and Odessa Permian renew what might be the state’s most recognized football game.

“This is one of those weeks you really don’t have to give a great pregame speech,” Midland Lee coach Clint Hartman said. “You just tell everyone that, you know, all over the state, people are keeping count of this game. If you’re going to make a memory in this game, you better make it a good one.”

In Midland and Odessa, despite the fact that both Lee and Permian have their own city rivals in Midland High and Odessa High, this is the game people want to talk about. The only game.

“When we play Odessa High, at the end of the day we’re both about Odessa,” Permian coach Jeff Ellison said. “But when it is Odessa and Midland, those are different cities, and now it’s about repping our city against Midland.”

H.G. Bissinger brought the rivalry to light in his best-selling “Friday Night Lights,” defining the lay of the land in West Texas at the time. Oil production had slowed, and with it the region’s economy. Banks failed. Office buildings stood vacant. Once-flourishing oil rigs went unused and unsold. The single constant, Bissinger wrote, was the rivalry.

“About the only thing in the two towns that had maintained its frenzied tempo was the rivalry between Permian and Midland Lee,” he wrote in 1988.

Hartman, a San Antonio native, recalls with great detail the first time he witnessed a Midland Lee-Permian game. A student at Sul Ross State in 1993, Hartman and a friend headed west to take in the game. On the way, Hartman bragged on the football he grew up with – how Converse Judson ruled the region. His friend, however, wasn’t impressed.

“He just laughed at me and said you’ve never seen anything like this,” Hartman said. “We get to the stadium – it was at Ratliff in Odessa – and the stands are so full that we have to stand behind the end zone.”

Then Hartman heard the cheering. Constant. Back-and-forth. Louder and louder.

“The first thing you notice is you hear both sides chanting,” he said. “You hear the ‘Reb-els’ from the Lee side and ‘Mo-Jo’ from the Permian side, and you hear it all night. I didn’t know that high school football could be like that.”

Leaving the stadium, Hartman knew he was going to coach in west Texas, and he knew exactly where he wanted to end up.

“When I decided I wanted to become a coach, I knew I wanted to come out and be a coach in the Little Southwest Conference,” he said. “When I got this job, it really was a dream come true. Midland Lee is the main reason you come to be a head coach in this part of the state.”

The rivalry grabbed Hartman by his soul, just like it has most anyone with a tie to either school or city. Pride for your team – and your community – starts young.

“We did a football camp in the summer for second and third graders,” Hartman said. “At the end of the camp, we huddled up and we were going to break it out by yelling ‘Rebels.’ Well, one of the boys says, ‘wait, my parents went to Permian.’ And the rest of the boys kicked him out of the huddle.”

First played in 1961, Permian leads the series 39-21-1. Thanks to each team’s on-field success – Permian claims six state titles in its history; Midland Lee claims three – and the notoriety each school gained from the book and subsequent movie, people all over are interested in this game.

“Friday Night Stripes by Adidas broadcast the game [live-streamed on Twitter] last year and I think we had something like 11 million views,” Ellison said. The broadcast drew 10.7 million views. “This game is a big deal to a lot of people.”

Big deal doesn’t begin to cover it. This year’s meeting has plenty beyond important bragging rights at stake. The winner claims the Little Southwest Conference championship. Lee wants to wrap up a perfect regular season. Permian wants to regain, well, its mojo and head into the playoffs on the right foot. Both coaches agree – playing with so much on the line is exactly what this game is about.

“This game has come back in a big way,” Ellison said. “Last year’s game had a lot on the line, just like this year: the district title, home field advantage.”

When Hartman arrived at Midland Lee, the only thing the teams played for was bragging rights. Important still, but a Permian-Lee game without playoff implications left an empty feeling as well.

“I think we’ve got it back where it needs to be right now,” he said. “When I got here, we weren’t very good. That first year, neither of us made the playoffs, and before we played I was talking with their coach and I said, ‘well, we really messed this up.’ Now, we’re back playing with a lot at stake, and that’s how this game should be.”

More than 20,000 will witness the game in all its glory, and the rest the state takes more than a passing interest in the game. Both schools will be ready to give everything they’ve got for their teams and towns.

“It’s embedded in you,” Ellison said. “You don’t have a choice. You have to give everything you’ve got. You can’t realize just how big of a deal this is until you get here. There are about 15 miles between us. The buzz starts very early in the week. No matter what your records are, when this game comes around, everyone is ready.”

 “In all of West Texas, this game has some of the hardest hits and the most physical play that you will see,” Hartman said.

Hard-hitting, toe-to-toe games with a season’s worth of honors and bragging rights. Just the way West Texas prefers its football, especially its showcase rivalry.

“I pinch myself every time we start this week,” Hartman said. “It’s really hard to explain unless you’re here and in it.”

“I grew up in West Texas,” Ellison said. “I knew of the rivalry, but to be part of it is very special. You grow up hearing about it, reading about it and now you are a part of it. It’s a great honor, really.”

And an even bigger one if you can come out on top Friday night.

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