to the National Association of Independent Schools
by H.G. Bissinger
[March 1, 2001]
It was thirteen years ago that I, without consciously knowing
about it, set off on the journey of a lifetime.
That journey was called Friday
And it began the way most journeys began—innocently, a
little bit wild-eyed, reckless, maybe even stupid.
Had I been smarter, I would have listened to those who looked
at me with such aching sadness, convinced that I was ruining my
professional life by quitting and moving with my family to Odessa.
At first, when some people thought maybe I
was going to the Odessa in Russia, they were more willing to
forgive. At the very least, what the hell, I’ll taste new
foods, maybe learn a new language. When I told them that it was
actually the Odessa in Texas, their pity only multiplied.
Even I wondered what the hell I was doing….
but a writer never listens to his head. He listens to the poundings
of his heart, the fantasy and dream of finding the perfect story,
the one worth telling. And my heart told me that in those West
Texas plains lay a remarkable tale about school sports and the
ways in which it shapes us and informs us and molds us, the awesome
way in which it can bring a community together, and yet at the
same time, split it apart.
I come to you today as a proud product of all that you stand for
and believe in as educators. I went to the Dalton school in New
York City. Then to Andover. Then to Penn. I grew up in an atmosphere
of privilege that looking back on it was almost embarrassing.
So for me, the journey to Odessa represented something deeply
personal, the idea of going to a place in the middle of nowhere
and not treating it as nowhere but to listen to it, observe it,
to not treat it with elitism and condescension.
How little I knew then what it meant. How little
I was prepared for those Friday Night Lights and the way in which
they lit up every facet of Odessa. And not just Odessa I have
since learned, but a thousand, no, ten thousand places like it—a
way of life, a way of American life that somehow, someway I was
able to capture.
Initially at first, the basic intent was to write a book about
sports, high school football to be exact, and the way in which
it impacted on a community. But along the way it became a book
about so much more.
Race. Attitudes about education. Fathers and mothers living through
their sons. The institutionalized inferiority of daughters. The
power of hope, the spellbinding brilliance of it as well as the
danger of it. The need to believe in something, to cling to something,
even if the ends could never justify the means.
Dedication and duty. Sacrifice and sorrow. Heroism and heartache
and horror. It all came to play under the intoxicating shield of
those Friday Night-Lights, in that so noble and so conflicted a
place called Odessa.
I saw moments of performance and sacrifice in the high school
boys of Permian High that I will never forget. I will never forget
the silence in that locker room before a playoff game, a silence
as great in its own way as the roar of the ocean. I will never
forget the feeling of being in that stadium that felt like a rocket
ship in the desert, pulsating, rocking, alive with 20,000 fans
under the power of those Friday Night Lights.
Could anything be more beautiful? I am not sure. Could anything
be more exciting? I am not sure. In communities across this vast
and great nation of ours starving for hope and joy and the very
essence of what makes them a community, is there anything more
powerful than sports, more able to bind young and strong, weak
and powerful, black and white. I am not sure.
But as an observer on those moonswept plains, as someone, who
at a certain point could detach himself from the community and
must detach himself, I also saw the other side.
I saw the way in which kids, high school kids, were being sacrificed
in the name and hope of going to state. I saw the way in which
they were discarded once their athletic powers dried up. I saw
the way in which one of them was called a nigger because he could
no longer perform on the football field. I saw the way in which
educating these boys, because they were still boys, of preparing
them for life after football, was considered as little more than
Ten years later after its publication, Friday
Night Lights still
endures as a book. I am humbled to say that it has sold over half
a million copies and it sells tens of thousands a copies a year.
Ten years later, I still get half a dozen comments about it a
month. All the comments are gratifying and flattering, but the
comments that touch me the most, mean the most to me in some way,
are the ones that come from kids, high school kids from private
schools and public ones and parochial ones, kids who have told
me that this book has touched them and transformed and made them
think about things, many many things, in a way that no book has
ever moved them before.
Given that I have a teenage son, a 17 year-old
junior who is about to take his SAT’s later this month
and for whom the very concept of reading means glancing at the
thumbnail reviews in TV Guide, the idea of creating something
that teenagers respond to does seem like self-serving hyperbole.
But it has happened. Not just with boys but with girls. And as
I sift through the ability of Friday Night Lights to make a connection
like that, I think so much of it has to do with the blazing and
blinding power of sports in our country, the way it can fashion
everything, make everything revolve around it. If I was smart about
anything, it was in the ability to make those themes accessible,
to get at them by writing about kids that other kids all over the
country were able to identify with.
Ten years later, there is no way to overestimate
the power of sports in our schools. Ten years later, the issues
that this book raised, of warped priorities in which more money
was spent on athletic tape than on English books, in which the
high school football players of Permian High School flew to away
games on chartered jets costing $70,000, in which kids were discouraged
from taking the SAT’s
because it interfered with the Saturday morning film breakdown
of the game the night before—ten years later I am more convinced
that what happened in Odessa was by no means unexceptional.
I pick up a copy of the most recent Sports
Illustrated, and I read that in Southern California, elite schoolboy
basketball players are being routinely paid by a coterie of coaches
and agents, leading lives, as the writers of the article put
it, “of bizarre
itinerancy, relocating from far-flung towns and far-off states
to showcase themselves at high-profile hoop schools.”
I pick up the Boston Globe and read about a father killing a father
after a PeeWee hockey game. And I wonder about the kids who witnessed
that, and how we all know their lives, whatever they do, will never
be the same. I pick up the Philadelphia Inquirer, and I read about
a group of football players who given their exalted status as athletes,
went on an illegal spree of drinking and carousing, only to be
sentenced by a judge who among other punishments, actually ordered
them to read Friday Night Lights.
The misdeeds are everywhere. The imbalance
is everywhere, and please let’s not kid ourselves if we
think it’s only
confined to big public institutions. Just recently, William G.
Bowen, the former president of Princeton, and James L. Shulman,
the financial and administrative officer of the Andrew W. Mellon
Foundation, wrote an op-ed piece in the New
York Times in which
they exposed once and for all the dirty little secret that the
so-called elite colleges, the Ivies and the Williams’s and
the Bowdoins’ — colleges that many of your students
aspire to and will matriculate at — give more preferential
treatment to athletes than the Michigan’s and the Ohio State’s.
“What does distinguish campus life for
these athletes is their membership in what might be called the
It is a culture that exists everywhere, including
your own schools I’m willing to bet. To deny the presence of it would be dishonest.
And in ten minutes, we could come up with a list a hundred feet
long of all that is wrong with it, because there is so much wrong
with it, the way in which works against the very theme of this
conference—equity and justice, an atmosphere in which students,
all students, walk freely and proudly in the comfort of their own
identity whatever that identity is.
But to deny the pleasure of sports, what it can bring to a community,
would be dishonest as well. It is a push and pull I grappled with
all the time across those West Texas Plains. I saw horror, real
horror, boys being catapulted into men, boys somehow becoming responsible
for the hopes and dreams of the community in which they lived.
I saw boys playing with broken ankles that were purposely never
x-rayed. I saw boys vomit in the locker room before each game out
of fear of failing. I saw smear campaigns to run a coaching staff
out of town because they had lost two games, two games, each by
a single point. I saw high school women afraid to be smart, afraid
to be assertive, afraid to say much of anything because of the
legitimate fear that it went against the athletic culture.
But also saw wonder. I saw the wonder of a
group of boys coming together with little more than a dream in
their heads and somehow getting an inch away from that dream,
the dream of a state championship. I saw the miracles that can
happen when a community puts all its resources behind something,
and I began to wonder what would have happened if the value of
that community wasn’t a state championship
but something different — something that lasted, something
that had value beyond the grainy image of a video tape of that
And watching those boys pour their hearts out, the way they sacrificed
and were sacrificed, the way they believed, I knew they could have
been propelled to do anything. Not just football.
A dozen years after I was in Odessa, it is still all so vivid
to me in a series of images, so many strands of what I remember
and will never forget.
It comes to me in the looks of those faces in a silent locker
room. It comes to me in the joyful sway of those fans, twenty thousand
strong, in the balmy beauty of a West Texas night. It comes to
me in hands grappling to touch a gleaming playoff trophy.
But most of all, it comes to me in the form of a player I wrote
about called Boobie Miles. There was no running back in Texas that
year as good as Boobie Miles. He knew it, and so did the school.
The plans for him were grand, as they are for many high school
athletes who are big and strong and run like the wind. The idea
of supplying him with an education was an afterthought, incidental
to the experience of being a football star, a high school football
star. That was his role, his reason to be.
I will never forget the sight of Boobie sitting
at the back of English class one day, opening his recruiting
letters to the vast amusement of the teacher who was supposed
to be teaching him. I am not sure why, but I can still hear the
sound of him tearing those envelopes, followed by the sweet coo
of him as he read yet another whisper in his ear from Texas and
Texas A & M.
I heard something tragic in that sound, something
fatal. And just as I can still see that glowing face of Boobie,
I can also see the face of that teacher — amused, smirking,
making no attempt to teach Boobie because she had come to the
conclusion, as had everyone else at the school, that this was
a kid not worth teaching.
What happened with Boobie was all too familiar — he
blew out his knee and he never recovered. Robbed of his dreams
of football glory, he had no underpinnings, nothing to fall back
on. He had no identity left, and he also had no education.
I keep in touch with Boobie regularly today.
We talk on the phone as much as once a month. We make small talk.
He tells me about his life — how his wife has left him,
how he is somehow someway trying to take care of his twins who
just turned one, how he wants to hold a job but cannot hold a
job, how he is lonely and how he is scared and how, the minute
he gets a rung up the ladder, there is always something to knock
He asks me for money, a hundred here, a thousand there, and I
give it to him. I give it to him because I love him, because I
saw what happened to him when he was no longer a football star,
the scorn they heaped upon him, the racist abuse.
I know that he was never meant to be a rocket scientist. I know
that academics never came easily to him. But everytime I wonder,
I wonder what would have become of Boobie if someone, someone at
that school, would have given him the minimum he was entitled to,
which was an education.
Such speculation doesn’t matter of course.
What’s done is done and nothing can change
it. But when I get those phone calls from Boobie, when I hear
his pain and panic and desperation, I also realize that it is
these feelings and emotions, his ceaseless and eternal struggle,
that will be the permanent legacy of what it meant to play under
the Friday night lights.