Just read: 'Friday Night Lights' by H. G. Bissinger

Just read is a blog where I blog about something I just read. Here are all of the entries. And here are all of the entries that are specifically about books (i.e. IRL books, not like comic books, you know?).

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The position Friday Night Lights has assumed in the general pantheon of pop culture is pretty remarkable considering it started out as a simple inspiration to write about high school football. H.G. "Buzz" Bissinger's best-seller, which follows the 1988 Permian Panthers football team and the town in which it plays, seems like a far-fetched project in retrospect. Bissinger, a reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer, was granted a leave from his day job only about a year after winning a Pulitzer Prize there for investigative reporting, with a goal to find a small town and write about big football.

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Bissinger wound up in Odessa, TX, which he describes as being somewhere along the lines of "350 miles east of Dallas, 300 miles west of El Paso, and at least 300 miles away from the rest of the world." The isolated location of Odessa makes it the perfect setting for Bissinger's book, as most of the town's residents have come to value only a handful of things in their lives: As a Permian High School English teacher tells Bissinger, "Football reigns, football is king. In Odessa, it’s God, country, and Mojo football."

The book has spawned a good movie adaptation and inspired an even better (IMO) television series. The series in particular has built a cult following, though it doesn't capture the essence of the book as well as the 2004 movie does. These adaptations, along with the critical and financial success of the book on its own, are sparked by the core tenet that Friday Night Lights is as much a book about football in a small town as it is a book about a small town with a football team.

During a thoroughly engrossing first read, the book holistically transported me into life in Odessa in the late 1980s. The town popped up where a town shouldn't have existed, then enjoyed lengthy spans of booming business as the oil fields upon which it was built produced untold dollars for the local economy and its everyman residents. If you didn't work in the oil fields, you probably made a good chunk of money selling field equipment or something else involved in the industry. As a widely uneducated population made and spent more money than it knew what to do with, it was brought to its knees by the inevitable busts that came along with flat-lining oil prices. Nearby Midland, which Bissinger describes as Odessa’s “sister city,” goes through similar booms and busts with even greater extremes; the ups and downs were a central fact of life for Texas oilmen after World War II.

Life in Odessa in the late ‘80s is decidedly bleak. With a terrible economy, residents of the town focus their interests on Sunday church (where they see their pastors), and Friday night church (where they see their football team). A direct quote from a Permian supporter in the weeks leading up to the ‘88 season: "It’s just like going to church or something like that. It’s just what you do.” The Permian High School football program enjoyed regular success in its first few decades, especially in the 1960s and 1970s, winning a lot of games (and state championships in 1965, 1972, 1980 and 1984) with undersized players who share the common bond of reaching a lifetime dream at the age of 18. Every young boy in Odessa wants to grow up to be a Permian Panther, and that drive results in countless tales of the team beating down much more talented squads with superior effort and discipline. It also results in countless tales of high school state champions who don't have anywhere to go upon graduating: "In the history of the program, only two players had gone on to extended careers in the pros."

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This backdrop makes Friday Night Lights a decidedly tragic story. The most evident tragedy is in the life of Boobie Miles (and more generally to the Permian senior football players as a group), but for me that sentiment of tragedy applies to the entire crux of the book's arc. Bissinger follows seven main figures throughout the season (halfback / fullback James "Boobie" Miles, quarterback Mike Winchell, tight end Brian Chavez, linebacker Ivory Christian, halfback / fullback Don Billingsley, offensive tackle Jerrod McDougal, and head coach Gary Gaines), but takes frequent and lengthy asides to tell the story of Odessa as a town, and stories about its residents.

Bissinger is not shy about criticizing many aspects of the town, from its culture of racism and violence ("[In 1988], Psychology Today, in a ranking of the most stressful cities in the country based on rates of alcoholism, crime, suicide, and divorce, placed Odessa seventh out of 286 metropolitan areas, worse than New York and Detroit and Philadelphia and Houston") to its tendencies to ignore or minimize real-life issues in favor of focusing on high school football. He ultimately makes the case that Odessans are responsible for building young men up into gladiators for a single year of their lives at a young age, only to toss them aside once their high school football eligibility is up, all the while never encouraging them to learn anything that would benefit them in their adult lives.

Of the main characters Bissinger follows, only Christian receives a major college football scholarship. Only Chavez winds up attending a good school -- as class valedictorian, he goes to Harvard and establishes a successful law practice later in life, though he was more recently in the news for a bad incident with the law. Billingsley, Winchell and McDougal ultimately lead perfectly fine if not somewhat underwhelming lives around the area. Miles is the worst off in present day; at the time of the 25th anniversary of the book's publication, when Bissinger went around Texas catching up with these men, Miles was in jail serving a sentence that can only be pointed to as the depressing culmination of the way he was treated as a young man. Overall, the impression is that most Permian football players will struggle to get into a good college once they graduate, then struggle through the rest of their lives as adults living in mostly dull places with "war stories" about the year they either won state, went to state, or nearly died trying.

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From the football side of the coin, Bissinger writes like a poet. The "action sequences," as you might describe them, when the Panthers are on the field and it's a tight game, or when he describes the running ability of Chris Comer (Boobie Miles' back-up, who has a stellar season after Miles is injured for the year), are regularly exciting and beautiful at the same time. There are many quotable moments, but this passage from the first chapter ties in Bissinger's prose with the town's overdependence on football:

"The faces of the players were young, but the perfection of their equipment, the gleaming shoes and helmets and the immaculate pants and jerseys, the solemn ritual that was attached to almost everything, made them seem like boys going off to fight a war for the benefit of someone else, unwitting sacrifices to a strange and powerful god. [...]
The people in the stands lost all sight of who they were and what they were supposed to be like, all dignity and restraint thrown aside because of these high school boys in front of them, their boys, their heroes, upon whom they rested all their vicarious thrills, all their dreams. No connection in all of sports was more intimate than this one, the one between town and high school."

"Unwitting sacrifices to a strange and powerful god." By the time a Permian Panther is a senior in high school, his whole life has been spent working as hard as he can to earn a starting spot at his position of choice. He is celebrated by the town for performing admirably in the important role he fills. He contributes to a great season, and if he's an important player on a team that wins a state title, he will be remembered forever.

But as Permian's athletic trainer Trapper O'Connell says, the seniors don't have anything to look forward to once the season ends and they graduate. The fans in Odessa always have the next season to get excited about; the coaches have the next season to prepare for; even O'Connell himself has another crop of boys to take care of next year. But for graduating seniors, a Permian High School degree is often meaningless because the discipline and effort demanded of them on the football field never extends into the classroom; football players are often either babied along in classes or altogether excused from doing the work that other students must do, and this is on top of already lackadaisical teaching standards.

"As he put it, 'Public schools reflect a community’s desires, feelings, dreams,' and nowhere did those dreams unfold more powerfully than they did on a football field. 'It has put Odessa on the map. It has given them a sense of pride I’m not sure could be achieved any other way. It has created a sense of expectation for the kids that is admirable. I think it has instilled in these kids that go through Permian a real sense of confidence.
'If that sort of confidence and attitude could be transferred into the academic arena, that would be wonderful. I don’t see that transfer.'"

The end result, for the players, is a life that peaks at age 18 without a clear path forward into adulthood. Boobie Miles, who is expected to be Permian's star halfback and earn a scholarship to a major college football program, gets injured in a meaningless preseason scrimmage. Since his back-up, Chris Comer, performs so well filling in for Boobie (and does so without the ego that Boobie was known for on and off the field), the coaches never dedicate themselves to ensuring Boobie properly recovers from his injury. He attempts to come back too soon and re-injures his knee. This results in a loss of interest from college recruiters, and Boobie never plays high-level football again.

The fans of the team didn't care about him, either -- because Permian was still capable of winning games without Boobie, Boobie became expendable. Here's a quote from Permian fans watching the team practice during the midst of a lost season for Boobie:

"On the practice field, a trio of men gathered one afternoon to joke about his plight. One of them suggested that maybe it was best for Boobie just to kill himself since he didn’t have football anymore. 'No,' one of them objected. 'When a horse pulls up lame, you don’t waste a bullet on him.'
There was unrestrained laughter and the three enjoyed the analogy of comparing Boobie to an animal. It was repeated. 'You don’t waste a bullet on a horse.'"
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This quote reflects the worst in Permian fans; aside from the overt and obvious racism, they don't actually care about the kids behind the helmets. The same teens who they’ll scream their heads off supporting on Friday night are called morons on Saturday morning if they fumble the ball, or dismissed as pansies if they sustain an injury and miss playing time as a result. For every emotionally positive aspect of the relationship between town and team, there seems to be a negative one that outweighs it. Even as the town cheers the team on through the state playoffs, which they reached as the result of winning a coin flip after tying for the lead in their division, the bond seems fraught -- Gary Gaines' future as Permian's head coach is constantly threatened unless he manages to win the state championship. Permian ends up advancing to the semifinals, where they fall to the eventual champion Dallas Carter Cowboys. The Cowboys had a roster littered with elite major college football talent -- the type of talent Permian had virtually none of -- yet the team almost pulls the upset. Gaines keeps his job and Permian wins the state title in the following season. They would win again in 1991 with a different coach.

I think the reason Friday Night Lights has struck such a chord is that it paints such a vivid picture of American living, and doesn't shy from exploring the bad with the good. It takes place in a small town that heavily supports George H.W. Bush's run for president, even though his term as Ronald Reagan's vice president coincided with the instability in oil markets that lead to the economic collapse in Odessa. It shows a town that survives on its own without anyone watching or caring. "Across the country there were thousands of places just like it, places that were not only isolated but insulated, places that had gone through the growing pains of America without anyone paying attention, places that existed as islands unto themselves with no link to the great cities except that they all sang the same national anthem to the same flag at sporting events. They were the kind of places that you saw from a plane on a clear night if you happened to look out the window, a concentration of little beaded dots breaking up the empty landscape with several veins leading in and out, and then bleak emptiness once again."

This macro vantage point is expertly written into the micro look at the football season. The detail surrounding the team, with so many individual stories of triumph and failure, is what made a film adaptation possible -- I actually re-watched the film in the middle of reading the book, and it's admirable how closely it follows some of the players' storylines. Football's glory and drama make it feasible to romanticize this story, even while it's so sad at its core. But the larger themes are what make the book have so much lasting value. The end result is a beautiful portrait of an often dark space, one I'll re-read perhaps multiple times in the future.

Friday Night Lights is available as an IRL book and an e-book on Amazon. It's also available on Audible; if you click this link, you can get a free trial of Audible that includes two free audiobooks. Even if you cancel your trial, you'll get to keep these two books. Also: clicking on any of the Amazon links in this post, and purchasing something from them, provides a small percentage kickback to the author of the blog you just read.