Book Review: “Friday Night Lights,” by H.G. Bissinger

Friday Night Lights is H.G. Bissinger’s chronicle of the Permian Panther (located in Odessa, Texas) 1988 season and quest for the state championship. It begins with the preseason and moves all of the way to the playoffs (I won’t give away how far they get). It was later made into a movie starring Billy Bob Thorton and directed by Bissinger’s cousin Peter Berg. It was also adapted (loosely) into an NBC drama that has gone on to critical acclaim but little viewership.

Friday Night Lights is perhaps the most comprehensive work of sports journalism I have ever read. Bissinger leaves no stone unturned (he devotes an entire chapter to the courtroom drama surrounding Gary Edwards, corner back and running back for the Dallas-Carter Cowboys, the last team the Panthers play, and his questionable grade in Algebra II). Focusing on five primary players- quarterback Mike Winchell, fullback Boobie Miles, tight end Brian Chavez, linebacker Ivory Christian, and tailback Don Billingsley- Bissinger provides a wonderfully in-depth analysis of the relationship between the town of Odessa and its high school football squad and the effect such a relationship has on those who play the game. But he goes deeper than that. If there is a story to tell, Bissinger finds it and tells it. Not only does he introduce each character, their origins, their goals, their dreams, their strengths, their weaknesses, but in most cases he goes at least a generation back, discussing how each character’s family wound up in Odessa and the relationship they have with their athlete sons. He tells the entire history of Odessa, from inception to the modern day. He creates a town that is deeply committed to high school football, but at great cost. Racism runs rampant though the town, as no one has qualms about using the n-word and black athletes are viewed as interchangeable parts that can be used until they’re used up and then replaced (the story of Boobie Miles and junior Chris Comer illustrates this). The education system is pathetic, as most of the budget goes to the football program (the head coach makes more than the principal), test scores are well below average, and few teachers even try to relate to their students anymore. And the town is economically stagnant, purely reliant on a dying American oil industry. While Bissinger doesn’t condemn Odessa for this, he in no way shies away from the dark side of the city.

Not to be outdone by his research abilities are his descriptions of the games themselves. A gifted storyteller, he describes each game with detail and emotion. As the team struggles or succeeds, the reader feels the emotions of the players and coaches. When the Panthers win, we soar. When the Panthers fail, we sob along with the players (and they sob a lot in this novel, for one reason or another). My one critique of this book is that there is so much background that sometimes it feels like it takes forever to get to the next game. But because Bissinger’s focus is not on the season itself but rather the town, this is to be expected.

Friday Night Lights is not a happy story. The pressure the players feel takes an incredible toll on them, and many of them crack under the pressure of it. Not to give away the ending, but there is a reason none of these players are house-hold names: none of them go the pros. Most of them either fail at the college level or never even bother to try. Bissinger’s point may be that all of this is wrong. It’s too much football, not enough schooling. It hurts the students far more than it helps them. And it builds up such a short period of their lives (just their senior year) that afterwards can’t be anything but disappointing.

Comparison with the Film

The television program is so loosely based off the book that I don’t feel a comparison is necessary. The series could’ve had another name and taken place at another school (it does- Dillon- although both teams call themselves the Panthers).

As for the film, Wikipedia has a solid enough description of the technical differences between the book and the movie. However, there are larger differences that need to be discussed. The first is their treatment of quarterback Mike Winchell. The movie portrays him as nervous, weak, filled with heart but not necessarily talent. It also portrays him as scared to leave Odessa. In reality, Winchell harbored dreams much of his life of playing for the University of Texas and leaving Odessa. He also had a brilliant season in 1988, breaking several school records. And while in the movie he performs incredibly well in the last game, in reality he actually had his worst game of the season, thanks in part to the rainy conditions of the University of Texas stadium (in the movie it takes place at the Houston AstroDome, an indoor facility). As the character I most related to, I felt the movie treated Winchell unfairly, presenting him as a caricature of his real self, not properly reflective of his attitude, dreams, or abilities. This happens to all of the characters (Billingsley, in particular, was not as bad a fumbler as the movie portrays and had a less-strained relationship with his father), but Winchell gets it the worst.

My other critique of the film is that it may have missed the point of Bissinger’s novel. Yes, it captures the pressure of the season very well, with many comments about how you work incredibly hard for so long for something that’s so fleeting. But in doing so it avoids the larger issues that Bissinger presents in his novel. And the aftermath of the movie suggests that they went on to have happy lives. Many of them in reality did not. The final scene of the film is Winchell throwing a ball to a group of eight-year-olds playing football, then turning around smiling. The symbolism here is that even as he graduates, Permian football will continue, and that’s a positive. I’m not so sure Bissinger would agree. The novel suggests that breaking the cycle might be in the best interest of the town, as a refocusing on education might improve the town more than any football championship ever could. Perpetuating this obsession only holds the town back, dooming it to continued racial segregation and economic stagnation. The film is exciting, but is nowhere near as poignant as the novel is. I recommend the book for sports fan and sports journalist alike, but don’t go into the film expecting a documentary.

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