Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Friday Night Lights

In the past few weeks, an old friend, with whom I have lost touch, launched numerous rants on Twitter about the utter ridiculousness of sports. He criticized athletes, questioning the purity of their ambition; he also criticized sports fans, doubting their intelligence and openly ridiculing their passion. Yet, what my old friend does not understand, is that allure of sports goes far beyond who can run the fastest or throw the farthest or jump the highest. We are drawn to tracks, fields, arenas, and televisions around the country because of the great personal sacrifice that is required, the unforeseen excellence that can be achieved, and the profound community that can be experienced in the context of sports. It is by demonstrating these truths that Friday Night Lights ranks as one of the most compelling books I have read in quite some time.
To be certain, FNL is not a book about the blessings of high school football. Odessa, Texas is a rough, blue collar, racist town that treats its Permian Panther team as if they are gods...unless they lose. Still, the author, H.G. Bissinger, highlights everything that is good about sports. The players, at no small sacrifice to themselves, devote their lives to be a part of the Mojo magic. The Panthers bring life and a sense of community to citizens worn ragged by the boom-bust rollercoaster that is a subsistence supported by the oil industry. The team, full of scrawny, undersized West Texans, consistently wins in a state where everything is bigger and better, football maybe most of all.
Yet, when a sport and a team becomes the totality of an individual's identity and a community's only hope, the story never has a happy ending. Sports are meant to be enjoyed but they are not meant to be a mode of survival. Therein lies the problem for Odessa. The town feeds on wins. The boys who put food on the table are worshipped, and everyone else is ignored. It is a recipe for disaster, one which occurs frequently in the lives of the Permian players and their faithful fans. Rules are broken and lives are mangled in pursuit of the almighty win. Still, in spite of the wake of destruction left at the end of every season, as the scorching summer heat gives way to cool autumn evenings, hope springs anew in West Texas. This is the season Permian is going to state!
Beyond the dysfunction of a town whose hope is in football, Friday Night Lights is about one team and one season. Bissinger rides shotgun on a year long journey everyone hopes will end in a Texas AAAAA state title. And it is this aspect of the book - the punishing trap plays, the perfect spirals, the bruising blocks, and the last minute heroics - that I found most enjoyable. His fortuitous decision to follow the 1988 Permian Panthers pays off as the team enjoys a magical ride deep into the postseason. I'll let you figure out the ending for yourself, or maybe you cheated and watched the movie. Even so, this book is worth the read.

- Joel

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