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

October 19, 2011

“One of the most enduring and attractive characteristics of West Texans is their utter contempt for moderation,” Bissinger says in the afterword, written in 2000, ten years after the initial publication of Friday Night Lights. He says this when discussing reactions to the book by the people of Odessa, Texas, where it takes place. Bissinger has been accused of betrayal, sensationalism, and every other journalistic slander. In 1990, he had to cancel readings in several Odessa bookstores due to threats of violence. But this quote also provides some insight into why a small town in the middle of nowhere might be so passionate (some might say crazy) about their high school football.

Odessa is a town that was punched in the gut in the 1980s. The geopolitics of the oil industry sent the value of the area through the roof, then brought it crashing down so hard that it faced a depression that was both economic and spiritual. This town needed high school football. And in a country that is football crazy, you might put Odessa, Texas up there with Green Bay, Wisconsin or Lincoln, Nebraska for towns that live for the sport.

Bissinger moved to Texas for this project, specifically so he could experience a place that was held together by their high school football team. A place where 20,000 fans packed the stadium on Friday nights to watch their beloved Permian Panthers take on whomever their competition might be. And Odessa is as much a character in this story as any of the players or coaches. Bissinger captures the spirit of this lonely, isolated town in a way that brings Larry McMurtry to mind. But he does not romanticize. He shows the warts with the glory. The amazing spirit that can give a struggling town an identity as well as the racism in a town that fought integration of its schools well into the 1980s (until it realized that its football program might benefit from allowing black students to attend). He shows the great, life-changing, character-building effect that high school sports can have on a young man who, under all the pressure in the world, rises to the occasion. It also shows the soul crushing that can happen when a kid who builds his life around football is injured or fails or just plain isn’t good enough.

Friday Night Lights is an incredible piece of journalism and anthropology. It’s about a town, a way of life, and an obsession. It focuses on a specific topic (high school football) at a specific time (the 1988 season) in a specific place (Odessa, Texas). But it transcends high school football. It is an examination of the modern rituals through which we create meaning, community and identity. At its heart, it is about the best and worst of who we are as Americans.

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