Monday, September 6, 2010

Don't mess with (football in) Texas

When I talk with friends about Friday Night Lights (TV version), their reaction is always the same, to the tune of "why would you want to watch a show about high school football in Texas?"  I have no particular affinity for high school, football, or Texas, but the series, based on H.G. Bissinger's book, is outstanding.  It's shot in a gritty way that feels almost like a documentary.  The acting is top-notch.

Being a huge fan of the show, I was curious about the book.  Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist H.G. Bissinger spent 1998 immersed in the football season at Permian High School in Odessa, Texas.  His book follows the team through the tremendous ups and downs of that year.  While I didn't think Bissinger's writing was as dynamic as I had hoped, he does go beyond writing about the players and the focus on "going to State," and in doing so, paints a picture of life in a small town affected by the boom and bust of the oil industry.  Bissinger focuses on tense race relations and school integration in Texas, as well as the way in which football was much more of a focus than academics at the school.  Both of these topics were ones he was later criticized for exposing in his book.  

What Bissinger does best is convey how football affects all parts of life in Odessa - politics, home life, career choices, and local tradition and how this all-encompassing love for and loyalty to football makes a group of teenage boys godlike for a season or two, and then become largely forgotten once they are injured or graduate.  Friday Night Lights offers a glimpse into what it would mean to grow up in a town defined by one thing.  I'll admit that after reading the book, it did have me curious about what it would have been like to be under those Friday night lights, cheering for those seemingly invincible kids that had the weight of the whole town on their shoulders.

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