On the Truth and Lies of Friday Night Football
Buzz Bissinger’s Friday Night Lights Turns 25
Every time one of my friends—usually an English professor, like me, told me I needed to watch Friday Night Lights, I said the same thing: “No thanks, I lived it.” They laughed but I’m not sure many of them understood just how much my own Friday Night Lights had affected me. Even though we were in Kentucky (a basketball state) and 1,200 miles away from Texas, to this day some of my strongest memories are of my high school football field in late autumn when a November wind caused steam to rise from the shoulder pads of my teammates and myself. We stood in our huddle holding hands underneath towering light stanchions whose white-hot bulbs obscured the stars and three thousand fans filled the stands with more spilling out into the stadium grounds. On the far side of the field, behind the visiting team’s sideline and metal bleachers, was a large, often sparsely populated press box painted steel gray with red lettering—the same color as our helmets—with these words written above the large Plexiglas windows: Redhound Football: A Matter of Pride and Tradition. Those words, since the age of thirteen when I played my first game, had always resonated with me. They linked me to a past I had not known (but would research during study hall in the library) and filled me with a sense that what we did on that field, who we were as boys playing on that field, was bigger than us, bigger than any one person. I knew and felt this then as a high school football player. I internalized it and tried to push myself to be the very best my limited abilities would let me be. I knew the feeling wouldn’t last past high school and that is why it was all the more important then.
Before games a Spirit Line comprised of cheerleaders, parents, former players, and small children formed on both sides of us in the endzone. After the public address announcer introduced us and his voice echoed over the field and through the middle of town—where the stadium prominently sat—we sprinted onto the grass, fireworks blasting overhead and the swell of emotion sent chills through my body, raised the hair on the back of my neck.
The fence surrounding the field was draped with large paper banners our cheerleaders had spent the week decorating, red paint telling us to Beat Rockcastle County or to Take the Sting out of the Yellow Jackets of Middlesboro. Also on that fence line were the younger alums, the ones who had gone off to college and come home for the weekend, alongside those who’d never left. They leaned forward and slammed open palms into the chain link and cried out, “Go Big Red!” cheering us on as they had once been cheered themselves in a bittersweet collision of the past and present.
My favorite moment, often, was not this frenzied run through the gauntlet of fans, though. It was the quiet seconds after our coach had led us in prayer and we lined up single file to make our way out to the field. We had to cross a blacktop concourse and there were always people milling about, grabbing a last minute drink or bag of popcorn before kickoff. Sometimes they were expressly there to watch us snake through the crowd, seeking high fives or clapping us hard on our shoulders pads with shouted words of encouragement. My junior year a large rock was placed on a pedestal steps from the locker room entrance, commemorating the 1969 undefeated team. Wending our way through the crowd, I was always aware of how our metal tipped cleats made hollow clops as we touched the rock like a rosary as we passed. For me, this was a quiet, reverent moment before the frenzy and I made the mistake once of admitting to a girl I wanted to date that I felt special on this short walk to the field, that it made me feel gifted and important. I enjoyed the feeling that all eyes were on me. I did not admit to her, or anyone, how much I loved playing football and how quickly I saw all my athletic dreams dying as a seventeen-year old boy. I still remember the night she caught my eye before a game and teased me by saying, “Do you feel special, Croley?” I smirked, put off by her using my own words to break that solemn spell and because I had sensed—always—how strange and silly a feeling it was.
At fifteen, when I first read Friday Night Lights, H.G. Bissinger’s magna-ethnography about the 1988 Permian High School Panthers of Odessa, Texas I was fascinated with how these experiences of mine matched many of those in the book. I rushed through its pages only concerned with whether or not the magic of Mojo Football would win the Texas AAAAA State Championship. I was not concerned with the book’s socioeconomic component nor its lament of a school and town’s misaligned priorities. I knew race had been an important factor in the book, but I didn’t know how important until I read it again this summer, 22 years after I had first picked it up, on the occasion of the book’s 25th anniversary.
The oversight is glaring given my town’s history. For much of the 20th century, Corbin, Kentucky was closed off to African-Americans. In the spring of 2007, as part of an NPR series on sun-down towns, Corbin was the subject of one feature, which chronicled that “Between the Civil War and the 1920s, in Corbin and many other American towns, whites forcefully expelled virtually all blacks from their communities.” The legacy of what occurred in my hometown, and the attitude that blacks were not welcome hung over Corbin. Teams with black players from around the state taunted and goaded us with it during away games. And though I sometimes defended my team and my town, I also understood how it felt to be pushed to the outside, that my town’s reputation had some merit.
I am half-Asian, the son of a Korean mother. When I became an adult and moved away, started telling stories about my Appalachian roots, a common question people wanted answered was what my childhood had been like in a town such as mine. The question was based on stereotypes—backward hillbillies and all that. The truth was most of my childhood was fine but I have always believed I was spared a lot of bullying and teasing because I was an athlete—but I wasn’t always spared. Teammates, when angry, turned my ethnicity into a weapon, calling me a Japanese motherfucker or a Chinese piece of shit, never able to pin down the correct country. A cheerleader once said to me,“Why don’t you go back to where you came from?”
She was only 16 and I can give her a pass for immaturity but those kinds of memories mar my childhood and have left scars, few but painful nonetheless. Revisiting Friday Night Lights helped me, in part, remember the emotions I had the first time through it but it also allowed me to examine and reevaluate those emotions. Back then I connected more with my white side than my Asian side and I think that often made it easy, or easier, to look past my town’s racial history and my own confusing sense of difference.
To read Friday Night Lights merely as a football book, as I did at 15, is a mistake. It is a seminal piece of American reportage that uses the lens of football to examine the larger political and philosophical divides that still fracture our country. Our most important books are timeless and Friday Night Lights feels as alive and relevant today, if not more so, than when it was first published. In passage after passage, Bissinger describes a world turned on its head over a child’s game. Grown men reduced to tears and fanaticism. Adult overseers recklessly using young men for their own advancement. Men on the verge of middle age with broken bodies and a gnawing recognition their best days occurred half a lifetime ago. We see that the same arguments and fears Texans expressed about Michael Dukakis in 1988 regarding guns, Civil Rights, and the United States military taking over Texas are the same ones we hear today about Barack Obama. Bissinger pulls back the veil on high school sports, still the heart and soul of far too many American lives, and shows us the cost—the psychic, moral, and financial—when we invest our well-being and identity around the performance of very willful, well-coached, and driven boys to deliver us from evil and into salvation every Friday night.
His most damning indictment (and evidence) is in the case of Boobie Miles, the team’s lone Division I prospect who is injured during a preseason scrimmage. When Bissinger asks a coach what Boobie would be without football the reply he gets is, “A big ol’ dumb nigger.” Then later, when it becomes clear Boobie won’t come back to the team due to the injury, the coaches 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 [coaches] enjoyed the analogy of comparing Boobie to an animal.”
Once Boobie leaves the team, the easy grades he received from his teachers stop. He falls behind in his classes and begins to fail because there is no reason to make sure he is eligible to play football anymore. Abandoned by his coaches and his teachers, he drifts off like a tumbleweed when only months before he was in charge of the brightest future in all of Odessa.
Bissinger captures perfectly how a town can become obsessed with its high school football team:
All the reasons for phenomenal support had been embodied by [the]1980 varsity team. They were a classic bunch of overachievers who had become living proof of all the perceived values of white-working class and middle-class America—desire, self-sacrifice, pushing oneself beyond the expected limit. They were the kind of values that the Permian fans harbored about themselves. What made those boys great on the football field made them great fans as well.
I winced with recognition at that, recalling my senior year when before our first playoff game, which we had no chance of winning, our coach gathered us on the field and rallied us by saying, “Let’s go out there and show them what a bunch of white boys can do.” We showed ‘em all right. We got drubbed by 40 points. We had indeed prided ourselves on being scrappy and tough and strong, but during my four years of high school I played on some of the worst teams in school history. My junior year we went 6-6, the first non-winning season in some twenty odd years, and our coach resigned at the end of the year, though there speculation he was fired.
At 15 the differences between Odessa and Corbin weren’t apparent. I could only see the corollaries between those two towns, finding the doppelgangers on my own team for those on Permian’s and taking comfort in how their traditions matched our own. On this reading of Friday Night Lights I didn’t see those similarities as clearly as I once had. Instead, clarity came in the form of our differences, the town of Odessa’s boom and bust cycles, its complex racial politics played out in school board redistricting battles, even its mall. In comparison to Corbin, Odessa was cosmopolitan, filled with sit-down restaurants and an airport(!), and it occurred to me that the young reader looks for sameness. The older reader looks for incongruities to teach himself something he doesn’t know.
Bissinger’s prose is affecting without ever slipping into sentimentality but his eye is so keen that even when walks up to the line it still works.
Describing Odessa through the eyes of a newcomer he says,
[He] knew where he was from the antiquated and dilapidated houses with peeling layers of paint, like a set of yellowing teeth falling from the gums because of rot, exuding the stench of decay. He could tell from the yards, which were infested with weeds and litter and looked like tufts of greasy hair on an old man too weak to comb it. He could tell from the vacant lots and the lack of new businesses. He could tell from the whole feel of the place, which simply seemed to sag, as if all hope had been given up long ago—if there had ever been any to begin with. Yes, he had been here before.
The intimacy in this passage is Bissinger’s most telling trait, his main strength. By book’s end it is clear how much loves the town, Mojo Football, and the boys who let him into their lives. Though twice their age, the boys confide in him and he becomes their priest, listening without judgment and presenting their stories. He resists editorializing (except in the afterword to the new edition) and the book is made all the more powerful for it. He is more than a mere chronicler and the story’s power lies in how deeply he embedded himself into the life of Odessa. In interviews Bissinger has noted the irony that this was his first book and the one he is most known for and always will be. Like his subjects, his early success has overshadowed nearly everything else he has done in this life—sometimes to his chagrin.
I admit to sometimes taking a peek on the Internet to see how the Redhounds are doing from time to time. When I’m home, visiting my parents, I’ll look at the paper and check their record. In dreams sometimes I’m still on the field, running routes, catching passes and then I’ll awake in the darkness and feel my wife beside me. I don’t miss the crowds and the cheers or the walk to the field. I miss the action and competition, the black and white clarity of wins and losses. I miss the practices in the hot sun and the future that stretched before us into forever. Bissinger’s book is classic 25 years on because he understood so well how fleeting such a feeling is and how it burns brightest just before it is extinguished.