23 January 2020

Friday Night Lights: A Town, A Team and A Dream by H. G. Bissinger



If you keep up with this blog you'll already know that I loved this book so much I included it on my list of top 3 reads of 2019. I didn't even know about its existence until we made our list of books we were inspired to read from television series, but I am a big Friday Night Lights girl (the show) and immediately added it to my list. I was lucky enough to find it at a Value Village not too long ago and finally finished it after a full month of reading.

Bissinger is a cool story in himself. He was a journalist for the Philadelphia Inquirer for a number of years prior to writing this book where he actually won a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting on corruption in the Philadelphia court system. Local sports had been an interest of his since childhood and at some point he got the itch to move his family to Odessa, Texas to do this big story on a town built on high school football. He now writes for Vanity Fair and has an HBO doc about him which I'll need to watch at some point. I'm always in awe of people who uproot their lives for their passions because I've never been that passionate about anything.

There seemed to be an opportunity in Odessa to observe not simply the enormous effect of sports on American life, but other notions, for the values of Odessa were ones that firmly belonged to a certain kind of American, an America that existed beyond the borders of the Steinberg cartoon, an American of factory towns and farm towns and steel towns and single-economy towns all trying to survive."

Bissinger spent 4 months in Odessa with the Permian Panthers, the town's high school football team. He went to every game, every practice, and every football related event to really observe how the players and the town interacted and get an understanding of what their life was like. What resulted is one of the most dense, detailed books I've ever read. Despite loving it and wanting to suck it all up at once I had to consistently take breaks in reading to just step away from it. This is maybe the first time I've ever felt that way about a book that I didn't hate.

game photo by Robert Clark for Sports Illustrated's 25th anniversary tribute to the book


Even though the book is largely about football, Bissinger is really focused on the way the high school team drives the culture in Odessa, and in Texas as a whole really. There's so much here and each area is so detailed. Sometimes the chapters focus on a single player, such as Boobie Miles - the team's fullback and arguably one of the best fullbacks in the state until his knee injury, or sometimes they focus on a massive town event like the watermelon feed, but in each case it's a holistic picture of how football has made it's mark.

It was in Odessa that I found those Friday night lights, and they burned with more intensity than I had ever imagined. Like thousands of others, I got caught up in them. So did my wife. So did my children. As someone later described it, those lights become an addiction if you live in a place like Odessa, the Friday night fix."

Bissinger goes into a lot of necessary detail about the history of Odessa, which really sets the tone for the 1980's, the football team and the book. He discusses the impact President Bush had on the people there, as well as the rise and fall of the oil industry which really gutted rural Texas. It was these kind of details that really make the book the success it is, Bissinger makes every attempt to bring you right there and understanding the mindset of the people.

coach Gary Gaines - photo by Robert Clark from the same Sports Illustrated collection


The most interesting part for me was definitely the battle between sports and academics. Athletes' futures are so vulnerable to injuries that it's basically just one big game of roulette out there. Even if you're trained to do things properly, you can't help the loser who comes crashing into you, and football is undoubtedly one of the worst sports for injuries. Bissinger makes a point to show how invincible and cocky the Permian football players were, never questioning their future careers in the sport. It seems the town is split entirely between people who understand that not everybody is going to the NFL, and those who think those people are dumb. Teachers tended to fall on the wrong side of this dichotomy for even suggesting the players take school seriously... just in case.

He was diagnosed with a herniated disc, and the TCU coaches told him not to come to school until January, after he had had a chance to rehabilitate. There was no point in coming to school just to go to class."

This is a tale as old as time- people blame the teachers for making the athletes fill their time with work, thinking they should be above it and allowed to pass and focus on sports. Unfortunately in Texas where the football players were basically celebrities, this whole phenomenon was severely exaggerated.

They would still be gladiators, the ones who were envied by everyone else, the ones who knew about the best parties and got the best girls and laughed the loudest and strutted so proudly through the halls of school as if it was their own wonderful, private kingdom."

Bissinger goes into specific details of one instance where an algebra teacher failed a key player of the Dallas Carter football team, which was quickly heading to the state championship. The failure meant that not only was the player not allowed to play, but all of the games played since he didn't hand in his assignment would be forfeited, and the team would certainly not make state. This case actually went to COURT. It became a massive race issue, and school 'experts' were suggesting not handing in assignments was actually only a 50% grade, not a 0 as the teacher had originally graded it.

To whites across the state of Texas, Dallas Carter was a no-good bunch of cheaters who didn't deserve the honour of playing for a state championship. What else could you expect from a bunch of n--gers whose idea of passing a course was showing up for a class? To blacks, Dallas Carter was being persecuted by whites who did not want to witness a black school with black players and black fans go to State and win it. What else could you expect from a bunch of racist rednecks who couldn't stand the fact that the best damn team in the state of Texas didn't have a white starter on it?"

The saddest part is that in the end it was the teacher who was punished. It speaks to the way the entire academic system was (is?) slanted towards football, even though these teachers were just trying to prepare them for some kind of reasonable life in the chance that football didn't pan out as a career... which for most of them it didn't.

Will Bates was drummed out of Carter and reassigned to teach industrial arts in a middle school. He was given an unsatisfactory evaluation rating, placed on probation for a year, and had his salary frozen. And, of course, he was forbidden to teach math to prevent further threats to the sanctity of football."

As mentioned, I am a very big fan of the TV adaptation, which I would say having now read the book, is very loose. But only just after finishing this did I watch the movie adaptation and it's a lot more closely connected to the characters and plot line of this book than the show. I was really interested in how writers would cobble a screenplay together based on the format of the book, but they did a really good job. I love Peter Berg movies and it's so classically his style. I'd highly recommend both the movie and TV show, but neither fully do the book justice.

Billy Bob Thornton as Gary Gaines in the 2004 movie adaptation


My copy of the book had an interesting afterword from Bissinger reflecting on the reception of the book 10 years after it's publication. Most of Odessa hated the book, which I was initially surprised by until I really thought about it. It does have a tone that makes the people seem simple and single-minded. Bissinger's writing is objective but it's always hard to look in the mirror at yourself. Something I thought was funny is that one of the team coaches was unhappy about how he was portrayed and called the book a "novel full of spectacle". Bissinger responds in the afterword:

But I could still imagine what he was going through in 1999 as the legend of Permian turned into a bitter memory. I could imagine the pressure and hurt and scornful ridicule heaped on him. Because once upon a time I myself had witnessed the mercilessness of it, not with the clever eyes of a novelist, but the clear eyes of a journalist."

I really loved this book and feel like I got so much out of reading it but it was definitely one of the more challenging books I've read. It's not boring but it's super detailed and jumps around a lot. It doesn't tell a traditional story over time. It would be a great gift for anyone who is very into both reading AND football/sports/history, but I would never buy this for my husband or dad who, despite liking sports, struggle to read even a single book each year.

The season had ended, but another one had begun. People everywhere, young and old, were already dreaming of heroes."


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