USA 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.