- What: Friday Night Lights: A Town, a Team, and a Dream
- Who: H.G. Bissinger
- Pages: 357, soft cover
- Genre: Nonfiction
- Published: 1990
- The lit: of 5 flames
I very distinctly remember a Friday night when I was 11 years old like it was yesterday. The cross-town rival was playing my sister’s high school’s football team on a rainy, dreary, and cold night in late fall. I went to the game with my dad and brother, and we along with my sister had been talking up this game all week. This was the year Herculaneum High School was going to beat the Festus Tigers under those Friday night lights.
Due to the nasty weather, the game was delayed. My father, trying to be a responsible parent, said we should leave after waiting for what felt like hours for it to begin. Dressed in ponchos yet still drenched, we reached the parking lot when we heard buzzers and beeps announcing that play would begin. The three of us looked at each other, smiled, and said, “Let’s do it!” We ran back to the bleachers to watch the Blackcats pounce the Tigers. I didn’t go to either school but could still feel the excitement wash over me as the rain poured down and the ‘cats clenched the W.
The year was 2003, and I was obsessed with Blackcat football and all of the “hot” players on the team that year. I seriously wrote their names on my notebook as if someday I would have a chance with one of them. (Trust me, I too laugh at this now.) But these types of memories are the ones that build up football programs with an urgency, power, and nostalgia that other sports and other aspects of small-time life just cannot compete with. And this was with small schools in the Midwest. Can you imagine the fervor if it belonged in a West Texas community? You don’t have to because H.G. Bissinger gives us exactly that in one of the best sports books ever written: Friday Night Lights.
Permian High School in Odessa, Texas has the honor of having the winningest high school football team in the state’s history. Backed by its rallying cry of “Mojo,” the team has the full support and gusto from every single citizen, allowing its players to skirt their responsibilities everywhere outside of the gridiron. And in the fall of 1988, going to the state championship game isn’t even a question; it’s a must plus a guarantee when you consider its star senior leadership of Mike Winchell, Ivory Christian, Jerrod McDougal, Brian Chavez, Don Billingsley, and “Boobie” Miles, the star running back who’s been touted as one of the best recruits in the country.
That is until he tears up his knee in a meaningless preseason game.
Will the the team survive without its star player? Of course, this is Mojo football in West Texas after all. Boobie becomes merely an afterthought; the other players might not have the size or the speed to intimidate every opponent, but they have the drive, fight, and determination to go to “state in ’88” as the fans proclaim — just like every team before this one.
On this journey to state, Bissinger uncovers how so many hopes and dreams have died in the town of Odessa with its economy that has suffered from the boom and bust of the oil industry and what some may call backward priorities. See, here, it’s all about football. Rising crime rates; a poor economy and high unemployment; low test scores and false grades; and atrocious race relations don’t even matter. As long as Mojo is winning, life is good.
“Instead of understanding that they were the beneficiaries of history, they began to believe that they were the creators of it.” — Friday Night Lights
And that’s exactly why I see this book more as a social commentary rather than one solely about football. And that’s why Bissinger excels as both a writer and journalist: He uncovers troubling themes bubbling below the surface that say more than the actual sport. The Odessa school and community clearly care more about winning football games than they do about graduation and drop-out rates, and the town pours more money into the football program than anything else that could help the town recover from an economic crisis. These are the main tenets of Friday Night Lights. These make the book so fascinating.
Don’t be fooled into thinking this is a one-off story. Bissinger states many times throughout the book that what happens in Odessa on Friday nights could happen in any town across Texas and honestly across America. Don’t also be fooled into thinking this is a book of the late 80s. No, things like this still happen in 2019. The fervor that supports high school sports has forever been controversial, and while our culture has made some improvements to reprioritize, don’t we still hold so much value in the sports our kids play and the success that stems from it? This August 2019 article about the money schools in Texas have spent to construct football stadiums proves it.
I’d also argue that the same fervor has extended beyond football. It no longer matters what activity kids are involved in. If they have some level of skill, it’s amazing how much time, effort, and money are dedicated by the individual and their families for them to see success — though very seldom does that equate to professional achievements and fame.
“Athletics lasts for such a short period of time. It ends for people. But while it lasts, it creates this make-believe world where normal rules don’t apply. We build this false atmosphere. When it’s over and the harsh reality sets in, that’s the real joke we play on people.” — Friday Night Lights
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the acute and gross racism and prejudice that doesn’t boil beneath the surface but rather overflows. The way Boobie Miles is thrown to the curb after his injury illustrates this point. A star white kid would never receive that treatment, would never be blamed for not working hard enough. The offensive language spoken by so many in the community seal the small-town and small-minded proverbial fate for the large group of Hispanics and blacks in the area. They’re needed for one thing and one thing only: their football skills. If they can’t provide that, then be done with them. Even if they can, keep them on their own side of town regardless.
On top of the sociological insights Bissinger provides and the questions he raises, his writing reads like a pick-six, especially in the final moments of the book when Permian has only seconds on the clock to win a game. He knows how to get your adrenaline pumping, to make you feel like you’re a fan on the sideline who is biting her fingernails and holding her breath.
You can feel the anxiety and intensity. It takes you back to your own gridiron from your own high school days. It makes you feel like the former player who yearns for the yesteryear and who is the heart of Friday nights and central to Bissinger’s themes and book.
The feelings his words evoke make you understand just how easy it is to get caught up in the excitement under the lights of a field and the prowess of a team. They connect you to the characters — both players and fans — and make you reminisce about your own memories from long ago. And even though you might not fully understand the values portrayed in this book, you get a glimpse into how they began. That’s where writing and reading come full circle and can be so powerful. You have all of the facts to make a judgment but also the feeling, emotion, and scene to have empathy too. That’s what good writing is all about.
“He saw the irresistible allure of high school sports, but he also saw an inevitable danger in adults’ living vicariously through their young. And he knew of no candle that burned out more quickly than that of the high school athlete.” — Friday Night Lights
*If you’re like me and love a good “where are they now,” check out this article in which Bissinger catches up with the six main players in Friday Night Lights 25 years after this magical book came into being. And if you want even more, then listen to me discuss both the book and movie on The Biblio Files (available in the link or on your favorite podcast platform) with the stud below aka my dad.