In Odessa, Texas in August of 1988, the Permian High School Panthers football team, headed by Coach Gary Gaines, is under intense pressure to reach and win the state championship. All of Odessa is focused on high school football, showering the team with money, attention, devotion and the concurrent obligation to win at all costs. As pre-season begins, the team is confident, despite the players’ overall small size, because of the skill of their star tailback, James “Boobie” Miles. Boobie, arrogant and charismatic, sees football as his ticket out of small-town Texas, and basks in his many college scholarship offers. Even the team's practices are crowded with talent scouts and fans, including Boobie’s adoring uncle L. V. and Charles Billingsley, the father of starting tailback Don. Charlie is a former champion Panther who is disappointed in what he sees as his son’s inability to stand up to pressure. After one uninspired practice, Don brings a girl home, where his drunken father duct-tapes a football to his hands and beats him. The team’s talented quarterback, Mike Winchell, is shy and insecure despite his skill, and is further hampered by his dedication to his chronically ill mother. The man under the most scrutiny, however, is Gaines, who knows he will be forced to move out of town if the team does not succeed, and who stoically accepts the “advice” and vague threats of the town’s rabid fans. The whole town attends the first Friday night game, during which Boobie dominates. When they have a comfortable lead, Gaines replaces Boobie with second-string, junior tailback Chris Comer, but the rookie cannot find his helmet and so Gaines returns Boobie to the field. When Boobie is hit, he crumbles, and although the doctor fears he has torn a ligament, an injury that would keep him from playing and possibly ruin his entire future in football, Gaines tells the team not to worry. Without Boobie, the team loses the next game 49-6, and the fans, who blame the coach for Boobie’s injury, admonish him to come up with a new plan to win. Gaines exhorts Mike, who feels acutely the burden of fame, to put aside the anxiety of caring for his mother and “get the job done,” promising him that if he accepts the challenge, he can be exceptional. The team next plays Cooper, and although at first the rival team advances, when Comer gets the ball, he proves to be a lightning-fast runner and invigorates his teammates. After the win, Boobie goes to the Midland hospital, where he refuses to accept the doctor’s recommendation that he recuperate further, and instead lies to Gaines that he is capable of playing. The next game is against arch-rival Midland Lee, and if the Panthers win, they will go on to the state championship playoffs. When Midland is winning by seven with only minutes to go, Gaines bows to coercion and puts Boobie in the game, but the boy is immediately tackled and collapses in pain, his knee crushed. The team rallies under Mike’s direction, but they lose in the last seconds. On the way home, Charlie drunkenly kicks out the car windows, excoriates his son and tosses his championship ring out of the car. At the same time, Mike tells Gaines that he feels cursed, and the coach replies that all curses are self-imposed. Because there is a three-way tie for first place, Permian, Cooper and Midland hold a tense coin toss to determine which two teams will go on the playoffs, and Cooper loses. The next morning, Charlie apologizes to Don, explaining that he knows firsthand that this year of glory is all there is to life. Don hands his father his ring and walks away in silence. Soon after, Boobie collects his gear from the locker room, and although he affects his customary cocky attitude, in the car with L. V. he breaks down, sobbing that football is all he has. Permian enters the playoffs, and as they win each game on their roster, so does Dallas-Carter, an all-black, powerhouse of a team. When the two teams are ready to compete for the championship, the coaches gather to discuss the logistics, and the Dallas managers, concerned about racial tension, insist on a neutral stadium and a mixed-race referee staff. They agree to play in the Houston Astrodome, and as the bus leaves to drive there, Boobie arrives, on crutches, and asks to accompany them. The game, which for most of the players marks the climax and conclusion of their football careers, begins, with Dallas taking an early lead. The burly players dominate the Panthers, who return to the locker room for halftime. There, Ivory Christian, typically a quiet, religious boy, delivers a rousing speech, after which Gaines announces that his constant admonition to be “perfect” refers not to whether or not they win but whether or not they extend their strongest effort. Entreating them to think of Boobie, Gaines tells the boys that they are in his heart. The team returns to the field with renewed vigor, lead by a dynamic Mike. A series of spectacular plays put the winning touchdown in their grasp, and with two minutes to go, they move the ball to a mere four inches from the end zone. Gaines calls a special play and Mike, who has been hit repeatedly by Dallas’ defense, struggles to maintain his strength. The entire audience rises to their feet when Mike takes control of the ball and scrambles down the field. As the bell signals the end of the game, he lunges for the end zone, missing by inches. The team, as well as the town, is devastated. On the field, Charlie embraces his son, slipping his championship ring onto Don’s finger. The next day, as the boys gather their gear and take their final leave of the Permian locker room, Gaines begins to prepare the next year’s football roster, unaware that the 1989 team, led by Comer, will have an undefeated season and take the state championship trophy.