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Legacies of 'Friday Night Lights'

football fieldUSA Today ran a recent article about how Gary Gaines, the coach of the Permian High School Panthers featured in Buzz Bissinger’s book Friday Nigh Lights, is returning to the high school in the fall to coach again at the age of 60.

It’s no secret I’m a fan of Buzz Bissinger, and an even bigger fan of Friday Night Lights in both book and television format. I’m also a journalist, so what interested me about this article wasn’t so much Gary Gaines, but the bigger questions the article posed about the long-term impacts the book has had on the town and the people who live there.

For Gaines, it’s apparently not that much. Although the article says Gaines regrets letting Bissinger write the book, Gaines also says he’s never actually read it:

If Gaines had it to do over, he never would have allowed Bissinger the access to write the book that became the movie that became the TV show that collectively follow Gaines wherever he goes, like a tin can tied to his tailpipe.

He says the book painted Odessa unfairly as a city of rednecks and racists, where winning mattered more than learning. But Brian Chavez, one of the players on that team and now a lawyer in Odessa, says Bissinger’s book is dead-on accurate, painfully so.

“A lot of the people who say the book got it wrong,” Chavez says, “didn’t read it.”

Gaines maintains he has not; that he paged through it briefly at a bookstore once, is all. So how does he know it’s wrong?

“I know everything that’s in it,” he says flatly. “My wife has (read it), and I talked to other people who have. It’s no big deal.”

That’s not the case for the generations of Panthers that came after the 1988 team. Current players say they’ve watched the movie and television show repeatedly. From the article, it sounds like the story has become sort of a cult classic in the town and the book still has the power to stir controversy from locals.

From a journalist’s perspective, I think this is a wonderful article. It takes the news hook (Gary Gaines returning) and then moves the article to deal with some more complicated issues including perception, recognition, and the impacts a journalist can have on his or her subjects. One of the final paragraphs in the article is just fantastic, and sums up so much of what the story of Odessa, Texas and what high school football is really about:

The movie streamlined the story, meaning it mostly left out themes Odessans found troubling, such as race and academics. The TV show tackles tough issues, but in Dillon, not Odessa — fictional characters in a fictional place. What remains are the archetypes, the mythic mood, an acute sense of place and the fleeting glory of Friday nights.

That last sentence — that’s why I love this article and this bigger story so much. It’s a well-written article, and certainly one that would be interesting for anyone familiar with the stories in Friday Night Lights — whatever format you know it from.

Thanks to The New Yorker’s Book Bench Blog for linking to this story. Photo by nightthree via flickr.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Tracie August 12, 2009, 5:03 am

    What I found so interesting about this story is that Gaines hasn’t even read the book, yet has such animosity towards it. I’m wondering if he is just resentful that the book was written in the first place and wants nothing to do with it.

    I’ve seen the movie and have watched some of the shows, and I think out of all the football movies that I have seen, this one is actually pretty good and shows well-rounded characters that you would think would be rednecks…and then turn out to be more than that.

    Great post 🙂

  • Amy @ My Friend Amy August 12, 2009, 1:41 pm

    Very interesting! haven’t read the book or seen the movie but I have the first two seasons of the TV show on DVD for when I have time to watch it.

  • Ali (Worducopia) August 12, 2009, 6:54 pm

    That is a good article, and I enjoyed reading it more than I would have, thanks to your analysis.

    But, good Lord. Schools in Odessa weren’t integrated until 1983??? I can’t even fathom that. I can’t.

    We’ve been getting the DVDs of the TV series out of the library, we’re still only in the middle of season 2 because we keep having to return it and get back in the hold queue. It’s a great show and I’m glad you inspired me to tune in.

  • Lisa August 12, 2009, 11:14 pm

    Very interesting. I’m forwarding this on to my parents who are huge fans of the tv series.

  • Suey August 13, 2009, 8:32 am

    Interesting article. I love the TV show and have the book here in my stacks to get to someday. I really need to bump it closer to the top.

  • Sherry September 10, 2009, 6:07 pm

    I grew up in San Angelo, Texas, and Permian was our arch-rival. I was in high school before 1983, and I haven’t read Friday Night Lights. I did watch part of the movie, and it seemed sensationalized to me. For instance, the claim that Odessa schools weren’t integrated until 1983? I’m don’t remember for sure, but I think I remember black players on the Permian team in the 70’s. I certainly know that San Angelo schools were integrated in the 60’s.I guess I never read the book because I am afraid that the information may be slanted to give a picture of a West Texas consumed with football, one that is somewhat true, but not complete.