Last week I rode home from work with my friend Jaime. As we weaved through traffic on the crowded George Washington Bridge, discussion turned to the series finale of Friday Night Lights, the revered drama about a high school football team in Texas.
Jaime is female. Mid-30s. Probably never been to Texas. Never played football. Doesn’t watch football on television or in person. Has no interest in football, whether it’s high school, college or the NFL. But Friday Night Lights became one of her all-time favorite television shows, a series she obsesses over and tweets about. She spoke in reverent tones about the series as a whole and the finale in particular, stumbling only occasionally when she tried to put into words the wonder that was Friday Night Lights. She talked about plot points, characters and tears, specifically the ones she shed during the finale. A girl remembering her wedding day wouldn’t have been as sentimental.
She knows everything about the show, every plot twist and every character’s background. She knows all about the fictional games and the details around every victory, loss and breakup. If she confessed to strapping on a replica Dillon Panthers helmet while watching the show, I would be mildly disturbed, but not totally surprised.
Yet she’s never read the book.
The book is, of course, Friday Night Lights, Buzz Bissinger’s groundbreaking, best-selling classic that gave a name and inspiration to the classic TV show, if not many other details. Before the book came to the small screen, it hit the big screen in 2004. In the movie, which starred Billy Bob Thornton and Tim McGraw’s chest hair, the characters carried over from the book. An entertaining flick, the movie received good reviews but not quite the universal praise accorded the TV show. As Jaime proved, you didn’t have to read the book to appreciate the show. The show had a similar setting, but the characters weren’t from the book and the series’ originality was all its own.
Jaime isn’t alone. There are surely countless fans of the show who never picked up the book and don’t know anything about the story that would, eventually, provide inspiration for a show many critics call one of the best to ever appear on TV. And no matter how good the show was, those people are missing out.
Every few years I pick up the book and read it again. Sometimes I read the whole thing, other times just a few chapters.
The book, which came out in 1990, documented the 1988 season of perennial Texas power Permian, a school in the town of Odessa. Bissinger’s work proved to be a sensation when it came out, although the reception from the people in Odessa was slightly less enthusiastic and actually included threats against the author. Fans of the TV show say the series isn’t really about football – or that it’s about so much more – and that’s certainly an accurate description of the book. Bissinger examines sports, racism, the heartland, economics, education, crime, dashed dreams, youth and so much more.
I remember buying the book when it first came out. The original hardcover resides in a box in my parents’ basement, while I now own a paperback copy. It only took me about a week to finish. Readers of different ages will take away different things from the book. As a 15-year-old, I was most fascinated by the on-the-field action. I didn’t know how Permian’s 1988 season concluded, so I had no idea how the book ended.
Perhaps the most amazing scene in the book – which was put into the movie with only a few tweaks – came when a coin flip decided Permian’s fate. Permian tied two other teams but only two out of the three went to the playoffs. Instead of tiebreakers, the coaches met at 1 a.m. at a truck stop for a three-way coin flip. Permian survived and advanced to the playoffs. Bissinger later talked about how crucial the coin flip was – not just to Permian, but for him. If the school had lost that flip and lost any opportunity to advance, Bissinger would have lost a crucial part of his story. Friday Night Lights doesn’t have the same impact if Permian’s season had ended at that truck stop. It’s not a best-seller, isn’t turned into a movie and doesn’t become a beloved TV show. All of that, riding on a coin flip.
When Permian came up short in the state semifinals, I felt devastated when I finished the chapter, even though it involved a team thousands miles away and two years in the past.
Reading it as an adult, you begin to appreciate Bissinger’s effort even more. He spent months in Odessa, immersing himself in the town and culture. He exposed racism and fanaticism. He wrote about high school sports in a way many have tried to duplicate since, perfectly describing how a group of teenagers can carry the hopes and dreams of thousands of people, whether they’re family members or strangers. The book tears at your heart, occasionally lifts it and ultimately breaks it. Boobie Miles’ injury, estrangement and sad saga still resonate 21 years later.
Friday Night Lights also changed sports book publishing. From 1990 on, the most common blurb on the back of a sports book has probably started with the words “It’s the Friday Night Lights of…” And then insert the relevant passage. The Friday Night Lights of volleyball. The Friday Night Lights of basketball. The Friday Night Lights of water polo. The Friday Night Lights of chess. It became shorthand for any book that followed a team through a season or tried to go beyond the games and into the lives of the performers, coaches and fans. My own humble offering, Keeping the Faith, didn’t get that for a blurb but someone at my publisher did bring up the hallowed book in comparison. Although I’m not sure what the description could have been:
It’s like Friday Night Lights, except on Saturday afternoons, and it’s a college instead of high school, and instead of rabid fans they have almost none, and instead of unmatched success they never win.
The book’s legacy endures and not just in moving pictures. Nine years ago, Sports Illustrated listed Friday Night Lights as the fourth-best sports book of all-time and the only thing people might argue about the ranking is that it’s too low. Bissinger went on to write several more books and writes for numerous magazines. In the last year or so, he’s earned a reputation for being one of the premier Twitter ranters in all the land. But FNL follows him everywhere.
In February, after watching an advanced copy, Bissinger reflected on the finale for Sports Illustrated. He’s occasionally chafed at the FNL legacy, referring to it as a “prison.” He’ll always be best-known for the book, in the same way Truman Capote could never escape the shadow of In Cold Blood. But ultimately the book – and the movie and series it helped spawn – remain an accomplishment worth bragging about. When it came to the end of the series, he wrote: “But then I felt a sense of relief and knew that with clear eyes and a full heart I could say goodbye to Friday Night Lights. Because it was time.”
Of course, this being Hollywood, where even bad ideas and shows become remakes, a great show and idea like Friday Night Lights might still have life. Peter Berg, Bissinger’s cousin, who directed the 2004 movie, has talked about turning the TV show into another film.
So there’s still hope for devotees of the show, folks like Jaime, who stayed with it through long absences and numerous time-slot changes. But for fans of the series who haven’t read Bissinger’s famous work, maybe now – when there are no more episodes to look forward to – would be a good time to pick up a copy. Read about Boobie and Ivory, Chavez and Winchell, coach Gaines and Billinsgley. Read about boosters and bums, heroes and even villains. It’s the book that led to the movie, which led to the TV show.
It’s a classic nonfiction piece. And, as hard as it is to believe – it might just be better than the show.