There are people out there who don’t know that Friday Night Lights began as a non-fiction book. Before the TV series, which ran for five seasons between 2006 and 2011, and before the 2004 movie, there was the book, by H.G. ‘Buzz’ Bissinger. While the TV series was fictional and “inspired by” the book, the movie was a relatively accurate adaptiation of the story of the 1988 Permian High School Panthers, from Odessa, Texas.
Bissinger, a journalist for The Philadelphia Inquirer, was interested in the central role that high school football plays in parts of America, particularly rural, small-town America. He and his family moved to Odessa and spent a year there following the football season but also getting to know the community and its attitudes to issues such as race and politics.
Odessa, a city of around 100,000 people today, grew along with a series of oil booms throughout the 20th century. During the subsequent busts, the city suffered. When Bissinger arrived, the city was going through a bust and by 1989 it would be voted the second-worst place to live in America. It was also a city riven with racism, having only desegregated in the early 1980s.
Against this backdrop, Bissinger follows the Panthers as they chase the Texas state championship. The team plays in a stadium that holds 19,000 and its young players are local celebrities. Running back James ‘Boobie’ Miles, is a poor student but grades are not a concern because he is a star player who is expected to go on to a major college and perhaps even to the NFL.
During a pre-season scrimmage Boobie injures his knee. The outcome is uncertain but it will ultimately end his chances for a scholarship and a career as a professional player. This is one of the most poignant parts of the book: many of these players have such high hopes but sheer law of averages dictates that they will not realise their dreams. For most, high school football will be the pinnacle of their career and they have little else to look forward to afterwards.
Bissinger’s book angered many in Odessa who resented the critical portrait of their home. In his afterword to the 2000 re-print of the book Bissinger stands by everything he wrote, saying that the “ugly racism” and “utterly misplaced educational priorities” that he witnessed couldn’t be ignored.
He’s right, and it’s those elements of the story that make the book so compelling. Friday Night Lights was voted the greatest American football book ever written by Sports Illustrated and it’s easy to see why. It captures the fragility and fleetingness of sporting glory, it examines the social bond that high school football plays in small communities and it stands as a vivid illustration of a struggling part of America.
Since the book was published several other books have been published about high school football in small communities – many of them very good. Friday Night Lights created that niche, however, and it remains an essential read.
Photo: Jeff Turner