I don’t regularly listen to NPR (National Public Radio) but this past Monday, as I was driving, I got a tip that something of interest to me was being discussed. I tuned in to the program FRESH AIR to hear a discussion on the award-winning book Friday Night Lights by H.G. “Buzz” Bissinger, a book that ESPN referred to as the “Best sports book of the last quarter-century.” The story really took off in the early 2000s when a film was produced followed by a hit television series.
The book tells the true story of 1988 Odessa, Texas High School football team. High School football is huge down in the Lone Star State, so a book on that level of the sport is the equivalent of professional football here in Boston.
[Listen to the NPR Radio segment here]
I read the book a few years ago, and as I listened to the program it brought back the emotions that most readers of the book would feel as they are carried on the turbulent and magical ride of the town of Odessa and the Permian Panther team.
Bissinger was a newspaper reporter with the Philadelphia Inquirer but was drawn to the stories he had heard or read about of the life of high school football players in the South, particularly in the state of Texas. As a teenager, Bissinger had read a Sports Illustrated article and was star-struck by the story of a quarterback on the Abilene, Texas squad. Bissinger remembered thinking that the player was not that much older than him, and yet he was a god in a town that seemed to Bissinger to be on another planet. Bissinger decided he would take some time off from his regular beat and travel with his family to that far-away world. As Bissinger made his trek towards Texas, he passed towns that appeared to be deserted and forgotten, yet as the infrastructure of downtown and the homes was deteriorating, each town had top-of-the line stadiums that could seat as many as 15-20,000. “The stadiums were immaculate, the groundskeepers would water the grass of the football fields even during times when the area was going through severe drought conditions. These were not football stadiums; these were shrines.”
For his research, Bissinger decided on the city of Odessa, Texas mainly on a tip from a college recruiter who would boast stories about the over-capacity crowds, at times reaching over 20,000, which would fill Ratliff Stadium, the home of the Panthers. Upon hearing of this football factory in Western Texas, Bissinger found that a major league baseball game had once been preempted, forced to change it’s start time due to a Panther game with its rival the Midland Lee Rebels. Yes, that’s how big the sport is in Texas. Hard to imagine a Red Sox game being rescheduled even for a Patriots contest let alone a high school football contest.
As he began covering the team in August of 1988, Bissinger found that all he had heard had not been folklore, but in fact a reality. For away games in close proximity to Odessa, the team would travel by bus accompanied by police cruisers as well as motorcycled officers while fans and family took up the rear. “It felt like you were in a presidential motorcade” recalls Bissinger. However on many occassions, scheduling would force the team to travel by chartered airplane, costing somewhere in the ballpark of $60,000.
To this day, Friday Night Lights is a controversial subject in the city of Odessa, Texas as many felt betrayed by Bissinger’s portrayal of the team and the city as a whole. “There’s total truth in my book, and I’ve made my peace with Odessa. Frankly, I don’t think they’ve made their peace with me.”
Friday Night Lights is an excellent read which demonstrates the importance the sport of football plays in the fabric of our American society.
Christian A. Guarino, a Boston North End resident, writes about football and soccer for the Boston Post Gazette.