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BY JOEL ERICKSON- ODESSA AMERICAN
For the first time that season, John Wilkins walked into the locker room at halftime on a cold and clear day at Texas Stadium calm and collected.
Wilkins had no reason to be composed.
Trailing 19-7 in the state championship game to Port Arthur Jefferson, the most explosive offense in the state, the Panthers had precious little to build on during the break.
A Permian defense that hadn't given up more than 14 points in a game all season had yielded three Jefferson touchdowns in the first half. An early touchdown run by quarterback Jerry Hix was all the Panthers could muster in return.
And to make matters worse, the Panthers had started to realize the gravity of the situation.
"It wasn't a sense of panic," Hix said. "But guys were kind of bickering back and forth. We were kind of shocked that we were down that much. We couldn't get anything going".
Halftime speeches from Wilkins were legendary. Fiery, to the point, Wilkins could stand in the locker room and bring thunder down from the heavens to jolt a sleeping team awake.
Not this time. Trailing 19-7, Wilkins was calm.
"I thought we were beat," running back Kent Sager said. "I will confess that. There was a lot of grumbling, and out of nowhere, in walks Wilkins. And he says, with complete conviction, 'We're going to win this game.' "
John Wilkins coached Permian to the first Class 5A championship in 1980.
Before the season began, nobody thought the 1980 edition of the Permian Panthers had a chance to meet a team like Port Arthur Jefferson in the first Class 5A title game in state history.
MOJO was picked to finish third in District 5-5A. Returning almost no starters- Hix had been a starter at safety, but he hadn't played a down at quarterback- the Panthers weren't supposed to have the size or the talent to win a Little Southwest Conference that was tough from top to bottom.
"We played Midland High our first district game, and they had a quarterback named Michael Feldt, a blue chipper, had all this talent," cornerback Jack Kenner said. "Seemed like every week we were going up against this team that was so much better."
Early in the game, Wilkins and the coaching staff dialed up a play that sent Kenner smashing into the backfield to obliterate Feldt. The Bulldogs only gained 94 total yards in a 31-0 Permian blowout.
Four games into the season, Permian's defense still hadn't given up any points.
"Everybody just discounted us all year long," defensive end Brett Barham said. "Three, four games into the season, Wilkins is telling us that at some point, somebody is going to score, and we have to be prepared for it, and we were like, 'Why?' "
That Panthers defense only gave up 4.3 points per game and posted an unthinkable nine shutouts.
And still, Permian was constantly the underdog.
Following a 14-14 tie against Odessa High in the regular-season finale and a rain-soaked, mud-ridden 0-0 tie against Sherman in the bi-district round that Permian escaped by advancing on penetrations, the Panthers fell out of the Associated Press Top 10.
"People don't realize how good Odessa High was that year," Wilkins said. "They had a heck of a football team. And the second game, the bi-district game, was a complete fiasco. From then on, Permian never played another playoff game in Abilene for many, many years, until they got turf."
Port Arthur Jefferson was the No. 1 team in the state. A juggernaught built on the foundation of the state's record-setting passing tandem, Todd Dodge and Brett Duhon.
Dodge- who later built his own dynasty as the head coach at Southlake Carroll- was the first Texas schoolboy passer to break the 3,000-yard barrier. Duhon set a state record with 89 catches.
"At that time, they were setting all the records, individual passing, individual receiving, the dynamic duo," Wilkins said. "We weren't sure how we would match up with them."
On the second play of the game, Dodge feathered in a sideline fade to Duhon in the middle of double coverage, and Duhon exploded up the sideline for a 78-yard touchdown.
Except that he stepped out of bounds at the Permian 44-yard line. It was a temporary setback. By the time the first half ended, Duhon already had eight catches and two touchdowns.
But Wilkins and his staff were masters at making second-half adjustments.
"John was the best I've ever seen at going in at halftime, making adjustments, then coming back out and beating people," Barham said. "And we did some things in that game that were a little bit unsound. We didn't even cover the tight end in the second half."
The adjustments worked.
Double-teaming Duhon early in the second half, Mark Glasscock intercepted Dodge, and the Panthers' offense responded with a 32-yard burst from Dale Carr out to midfield.
Then Hix worked his magic.
"Jerry was a little quick guy, had great feet, and a better arm than people gave him credit for," said Wilkins. "He rolled out- I wanted him to hit the flanker in the flat- but Hix hits our tight end."
Hix's toss settled into the arms of Jimmy Morris for a 39-yard touchdown pass. When Dean Gibson recovered a Port Arthur Jefferson muffed punt early in the fourth quarter, the Panthers had the big play they needed.
"That punt was the turning point," Kenner said.
Carr capitalized with a six-yard touchdown run.
And then Wilkins- affectionately nicknamed A.G., or Almost God, by the Permian faithful- made a coaching mistake.
"It was so loud, so crazy, that I made a coaching mistake," Wilkins said. "We should have gone for two, but in all the chaos, we went ahead and kicked it."
Trailing 21-19, Jefferson only needed a field goal to win it.
But the Panthers' defense held.
"That last time they had the ball, Duhon ran a quick slant, and I hit him real hard in the ribs," said Kenner. "Broke the screws loose on my face mask with like a minute left. When I came off the field, I took it and threw it to a manager."
Kenner had to go get that helmet, dangling facemask and all, a moment later.
Taking an 18 Pitch to the right side with 1:13 left, Sager ripped off a 40-yard touchdown run that sealed the unthinkable. Permian had beaten Port Arthur Jefferson 28-19.
"We were just trying to make a first down, the coaches called the right play, and Sager busted it," Hix said. "I knew, at that point in time, it was over with."
By the time Permian got back to the locker room, Barham was too tired to take off his pads. Too exhausted.
And then his dad came walking through the door. Barham's father played on the 1953 Odessa High squad, the last Bronchos team to reach the state final before losing to Houston Lamar.
"He had gotten a sideline pass, and he came in, his face was blue, it was so cold," Barham said. "He came up and hugged me, then said 'You guys pulled it off.' "
"It was an overachieving team," Wilkins said. "We had some big-time playmakers. Jerry Hix at quarterback, Mike Williams at middle linebacker. But we had quick, smart kids with an innate desire to want to achieve."
Picked to finish third in district, the Panthers instead pulled off an upset that Dave Campbell's Texas Football Magazine called the second-biggest upset in 25 years.
"After the game, my sister told me that my mom was crying at halftime, because she thought we were going to get beat," Kenner said. "And it seemed so strange to me, because it never occurred to me that we could get beat."
By the time they played Port Arthur Jefferson, the Panthers had gotten used to playing teams that had a lot of hype.
Permian simply kept winning.
"We were always playing somebody who was supposed to be statistically superior to us," Sager said. "I never thought of it as an upset."