Book06: "Friday Night Lights" by H. G. Bissinger
“Friday Night Lights” by Harry Gerard Bissinger is the story of the 1988 Permian Panther High School football team from Odessa, Texas. In order to write the novel, Bissinger quit his sports writing job in Philadelphia to move to Odessa so that he could accurately follow the Permian Panthers throughout their season as they strove for the highest honor of all: winning the state championship.
Being a sports writer, it comes as no surprise that Bissinger perfectly chronicles the highlights and the edge-of-your-seat plays throughout each of Permian’s games. However, “Friday Night Lights” is much more than a simple book about a great high school football team. The true strength of Bissinger’s novel is how he perfectly captures the relationship between Odessa and the Permian football team. The town of Odessa, once a gold rush of oil fields but lately a community in the dumps, rests its every last hope, its every happiness in life, and the town’s entire identity on the Permian Panthers. Since its inception in 1959, the Permian Panther varsity football team has always been a force to be reckoned with in the arena of Texas high school football. Over the years, they’ve won a number of district, regional, and state championships, and as such, the people of Odessa have come to expect no less than a championship team every year. Living in a town riddled with poverty, crime, and no way out of their abysmal lives, there literally is nothing else the people can take pride in other than this team. As such, the town gives everything to these young “gods”. The starters get a free pass in class, whether it’s in attendance or a passing grade, alcohol and drugs are provided to them like candy, and they are absolved of any and every transgression. The players happily accept their status above the rules, and many live for it. It is a fair trade when all they need to do is provide the town a championship team. However, when games result in losses and winning a championship becomes questionable, the town easily turns on their heroes. The pressure of this highest of highs and lowest of lows relationship with the town takes its toll on the players.
Bissinger closely covers the top starters of the Permian Panthers team: Boobie Miles, the senior star fullback who is more than ready to accept his role in the spotlight; Mike Winchell, the under-sized QB1 who must lead this team to a championship despite his own insecurities; Ivory Christian, the middle linebacker and probably best player on the team, who fights a love-hate battle over football within himself; Don Billingsley, a halfback, known more for causing trouble in town than playing on the field as his father had done twenty years ago, a former star of the Permian Panthers; and Brian Chavez, an outlier in Odessa who dreams of attending Harvard after graduation. From day one, these players, along with all others on the team, sacrifice every part of their being for the sake of football, whether it be playing through injuries and refusing medical treatment so that they can continue to play, or the emotional and psychological stress that comes with feeling the weight of an entire town on your shoulders. Despite all these unrelenting troubles, and the treatment they receive when things take a turn for the worse, these teenagers press on all for one reason: this is what they’ve wanted to do since they were mere children who could barely understand the game of football. Their entire lives have been tailored so that they could one day be the heroes of this broken town, and they will not give it up. It’s not just a dream; it’s their sole reason for being. The relationship with football is intoxicating, a drug with the highest of highs and the lowest of lows, one that the players refuse to give up, and one the town will ride with them hand-in-hand.
“Friday Night Lights” completely captures the culture of Odessa, a culture that can no doubt be found in various other small towns across the country. There’s both good and bad in the culture of these towns. On one hand, it’s a time capsule of old America, where people left their doors unlocked in case a neighbor needs to use their stove, where kids waved American flags, where the townspeople prayed in church together on Sundays, and where the people believed in hard work. On the other hand, it has the worst aspects, where the word “nigger” is openly used without hesitation, where people vandalize the head coach’s car and home just because they lost, and where you were useless and less than nothing if you could not perform for the team. “Friday Night Lights” is a great story of hope and struggle and determination and, for good or bad, believing wholeheartedly in something as small and as big as high school football.