My first exposure to Friday Night Lights (movie, book, and TV show) was through the responses from others who had seen the film or show (not many, if any, had read the book) and were heavily involved in football (some in Texas). Unexpectedly, this offered me a unique vantage point on the impact of the story, which I finally got around to reading and watching (still haven’t seen the TV show) this month.
Based on public opinion alone, over the long time this movie was out and this story was around, I thought Friday Night Lights was about the power of football to help youth overcome challenges in life, an ode to the toughness instilled under the blare of those halogen lamps, and the forging of boys into young men on the gridiron and through sheer force of will. You know… the standard mantra of any ex-football player or coach. A narrative I hear often as an avid football fan in a football-crazy town.
I watch high school football under the lights on Fridays. The sounds of college bands blares from my TV on Saturdays, and I watch NFL football (and only NFL Football) all day Sunday and on Monday night (cue the damn music!). However, I have always been disillusioned with the bull-ish tactics of old school coaches who train athletes by figuring out the most brutal ways to torture them, the misnomers of ‘hell’ week, constant metaphors of players as soldiers going to war, and the emphasis on motivation over learning, hype over growth, toughness and desire over intelligence and application. Not all football programs are this way, and yet there are certainly some coaches who would read my words as the soft musings of a snowflake and go back to spitting their chew and telling high school kids that they ‘don’t want it enough,’ that they have to ‘find a way,’ that ‘this is war,’ and then send them out to do some gassers with no water break until someone vomits.
And even if those types of football nuts are getting fewer and farther between, the story of Friday Night Lights,which is about a football team from a high school in Odessa Texas in the ‘80s, is definitely going to be about this type of football mentality. So when my football friends gave me the impression that the film was a positive portrayal of football, a representation of its positive attributes and its ability to help high school boys rise above the troubles inherent in living in a town like Odessa, *switches to Billy Bob Thorton twang* well I didn’t know if I much wanted to see that.
So register my surprise when I read the book a couple weeks ago, to find it a scathing rebuke of the impact of high school football on small town living. How it divided races, ruined school systems, broke families, and sidetracked young men from a more attainable and livable future. It didn’t dawn on me at first, the implications of my misunderstanding of the point of Friday Night Lights. I chalked it up to a false assumption. Yet about halfway through the book I realized that my understanding of what this story was about, before having read it, didn’t come from nowhere. I had received it from those who had experienced it first. Which meant that my football friends who ingested the story of Friday Night Lights were so enamored with their sport they were unable to see the criticism the story told.
I laughed with delight. How so very… football of them. But I had to be fair, most of them had seen the movie, not read the book. And if there is something everyone in this divided nation can agree on, a movie and book are rarely the same. So, I went to HBO Max and hit play to see if their interpretation of the story was warranted based on the movies portrayal of it.
I was more understanding… but not by much. I hate to break it to you football fans. But Friday Night Lights is not about football helping high schoolers rise above the problems in their small town lives, it’s about the problems football creates in small town lives.
Take Don Billingsly for example. A troubled party animal who got all the girls and skated through school as a member of the Permian Panther football team. However, behind the scenes, he was tormented by a haunted relationship with his father (played by Tim McGraw…no shit…). The end of the movie has Don and his father hugging on the football field followed by a post-script that states they still have a close relationship to this day, hinting that their resolution was because of the toughness Don showed at the end of the movie by running the football (and holding onto it… dude usually held the ball like a loaf of bread) with a dislocated shoulder late in the state championship game. The message could easily be taken as, football brought these two together. But rewind the tape for me please.
The reason for the troubled and abusive relationship of father and son? Football. Don’s dad was an ex-football player trying to relieve his glory days through Don, never having recovered from the high that football gave him during his state title run because of the town’s totally unhealthy obsession for the sport and complete lack of desire to support people outside of its purview. Don’s father’s life sucked, and football was the escape that he kept going back to to avoid the reality of his life. That’s not a statement that portrays football positively. It’s a problem caused by football. And Don needed to figure out how to play the game in a way that didn’t damage his relationship to his father, and he couldn’t even think about not playing the game at all. Football was the obstacle in his life from which he needed saving, not the salvation.
This is the narrative of each of the young men on which the book and movie focus.
Boobie Miles was heralded as the next great running back in Texas football and was only as good to the town as his ability to run the ball. Racism and a lack of caring about schooling left him totally ill-equipped to deal with life after a career-altering knee injury. He was not a celebration of what football gave him, but a criticism of the structures that made him dependent on the game and the racism of a town that only saw minorities as useful as their benefit to the team.
Ivory Christian, Mike Winchell, Brian Chavez, Jerrod McDougal, all had demons they fought because of football, everyone in the town did. But the fact that these were ignored for a come together moment at the end of the season seems like a perfect representation of how a place like Odessa becomes so dependent on the sport in the first place.
The conclusion of the season also appears to be why (in my world at least) people were unable to decipher between criticism of their sport, and an endorsement of it. In the last game of the movie, where they fought so hard as one family, where Billy Bob Thorton tells his players that his heart is full before they mount a furious underdog comeback in the second half, when he tells them to think of Boobie who would kill to be on that field, when these rough and tough high school boys get on their knees and recite the Lord’s Prayer as one, it is so easy to see these moments as the opportunities for growth that football provides rather than the culmination of a thousand hits the players took, on and off the field, playing the game. But if you watch closely (and read the book) that halftime moment is a casting off of the terrible impact football had on them and a decision to play their last half as an act of self-indulgence. Football kicked their ass in the first half, they were going to get theirs in the second.
I love football. I really do. But let’s never forget, it’s not perfect. Friday Night Lights shows us the conflict in the pageantry and those who get left behind in the midst of being raised so high. The Friday night lights burn bright. So bright…
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