Friday Night Lights. Perfect, the word will have profound importance for the team later, but at this beginning of the football season, at the beginning of every football season like this week, perfect beckons players to a faultless season of wins and a state championship. To garner the championship the team must surmount the favorite Dallas-Carter, an all black power house with eight D-1A scholarship players. As the ubiquitous overlapping radio announces “It’s football time in Texas.” And this movie presents one of the finest portrayals around of the relation between football and identity by focusing upon high school football in Texas where the lineaments are inscribed with crystalline clarity.
Friday Night Lights is one of the best American sports movies and the second best football movie. The rise of fine football movies reflects the cultural shift to football as the axis of national sports consciousness. The movie later morphed into a critically acclaimed soap opera on TV. For two generations, however, the best movies and books on American sports focused on baseball, but as the center of sport gravity moved, art has caught up and FNL epitomizes this new generation of books and movies.
H. G. Bissinger’s book Friday Night Lights: a Town, a Team, and a Dream is a modern American sports classic. It reveals an intimate painful look, almost anthropological in its intuitions, of the 1988 quest of the Odessa-Permian football team to win a state championship. The huge sign before the school and stadium announces the four prior state 5A championships as a warning and challenge to every player on the team. The community expects this team to win the championship for the town and the book, and movie etch an unforgettable portrayal of football as a way of life that still resonates today
The movie pans over the dry flat arid plains surrounding Odessa,Texas. An oil town surrounded by brown plains and monotonously pumping rigs, it lies in the heart of the Permian basin, old oil country and in the shadow of Midland. This is East Texas where football grows from the soil and players, like the warriors of Thebes, grow from the dragon teeth planted by parents and culture. Forgotten and feeling forsaken, the town defiantly proclaims its identity and worth through its team.
The movie engraves the deep-rooted relation between the town, forgotten and barren, and the team, its crowning glory. The coach challenges his team “can you accept the responsibility to protect this town.” In the final showdown, he demands, “show them who we are.” The team represents the towns avatar, and generations of people haunt the players from trophies to the sheriff with his state championship ring to the disturbed alcoholic father of Don Bllingsly who tortures his son over his own failures. The team offers redemption and purpose to a town simmering with resentment and little hope.
Rooted in the soil and town, the team must be carried by its players and above all by its coach. The first glimpse of Gary Gaines frames him sitting watching film with laser intensity. Behind him stands the totem of all coaches, the depth chart with 2 deep names attached. It provides the first glimpse of the names that will be so familiar by the end of the movie.
Mike Winchell plays quarterback. His leg pumps constantly as he sits across from his mother reciting plays and responses as she shoots football situations at him as unerringly as a linebacker breaking through. Her medicines lay on the table nearby. Some families might use flash cards for French; she uses them for plays. Mike never smiles and carries the weight of the team, town and caring alone for a very ill mother on his frail shoulders. He feels cursed, and only trusts Coach Gaines who recognizes in Mike the courage and resilience to take control of his own life. Mike’s perplexed resignation leads a recruiter to ask him, “is it fun for you?” It is “supposed to be fun.” Football should be fun, but for the players of Odessa it feels like a burden. After one critical loss, Mike Winchell bangs his head against the concrete wall groaning, “I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”
James “Boobie” Miles stands as the polar opposite. Arrogant, self-absorbed and abundantly talented Miles is destined for greatness. He is the star and the reason for the team’s high rating. Letters from schools such as USC and UCLA rain down on him offering scholarships, although he can barely read the letters they send him. Brian Chavez, linebacker, Harvard bound and the emotional center of the team, helps him read them. But Boobie does not believe he needs to know how to read since he proclaims he will be a star and all Winchell has to do is hand off the ball to him. Boobie skips on weight training and succeeds through sheer bravado and athleticism. He represents the ideal and temptation of sport. A young man raised by his beloved uncle and whose life depends upon the dream of getting to the professional ranks. After he is hurt in an utterly senseless play, the team falls apart and loses a game. Their offense and morale collapse. He and his uncle travel to Midland hospital where the doctor tries to inform him that he needs surgery and cannot play.
Boobie and his Uncle ignore the doctor; lie to the coach, and Boobie gets into the last regional game when Permian must win. In the game he destroys his knee and leaves in pain. The coach walks over to him and turns away expressionless, “he’s gone.” No room to mourn or miss, the coach has to send in a play, find a new back and somehow hold a shattered team together. They lose for the second time and only get into the playoffs on a coin toss. Later Boobie, now diminished from the extravagant personality he had adopted, watches a garbage man pick up trash seeing his own future. After collecting his gear for the last time, he breaks down with his uncle “I can’t do nothing else but play football.”
The movie does not flinch from nor romanticize the physical violence of football. The day-to-day brutality of practice, the tortured drills in 102-degree heat unfold as normal for these kids. They have played in the Odessa leagues since 8 years old, rising up through the ranks culled and groomed to participate on the team. The movie relentlessly reminds us how much sheer pain a football player must endure. Chris Comer remains on the sidelines from his fear of being hit. Even when Boobie Miles goes down, he must grapple with the reasonable fear of being hit by multiple G forces. Boobie Miles ends his career in pain and despair as two players on the side slap each other “job well done.” Players stumble out unable to figure out where they are. Harried trainers send injured players back into the chaos of the field to plug holes. Don Billingsley has his dislocated shoulder popped into place on the sideline so he can play the last series in excruciating pain. Mike Winchell, the QB, faces dislocated fingers, punched faces, bleeding scars when someone kicks him and plays on with a scary resigned stoicism. Anyone who has played or been close to football knows the sheer physical assault and pain experienced by the players. A stoic courage drives the players to stay in when most of us would quit.
That courage plays out in another way. Not only must they overcome their fears like Chris Comer but also discipline their demons. Don Billingsley wrestles with his father’s endless abuse and periodically erupts on the field causing penalties or blown chances. Like so many young men who channel their barely controlled anger, he can lose it and in the final game gets a penalty for a late hit. Coach Gaines tells his team, “We are small” and the only way they will win is with “heart,” “mind,” and “discipline.” The movie makes clear how discipline, focus and courage must exist on the football field.
Part II examines the movie's insights on race, class and community.
As Friday Night Lights unfolds, we realize that for many of the players, football provides the only order in a chaotic life. Mike Winchell escapes his mentally ill mother who quizzes him on plays. Don Billingsley gets away from the mental and physical beatings of his father. Others do the same, and the coach becomes their surrogate father as much as coach. The coach also has to bench them, corral them, encourage or scream at them sometimes in the same game to move them beyond their fears and personal devils. When it is over, the three seniors who have played together for a decade walk away. “I will miss the heat.” “I will miss the lights,” say Chavez and Billingsley. But Mike Winchell was never sure he liked the game and not sure he’ll miss the game, for him it comes as a relief.
In this the players join with the community which anchors so much of its identity with the team and the narrative of victory that the football team provides. But for the town and the players, each game, each season ends; the evanescence of glory only remains as a haunting memory. The town and the players forge their narrative from the team, but the narrative lingers as fragile as fleeting radiance of victory.
At the drive-in an old state champion quarterback prophetically tells Winchell, “Make memories.” Don Billingsley’s father, in a moment of lucidity, begs his son, “you just ain’t getting it…you got one year, one stinkin’ year to make yourself some memories, son. That’s all. It’s gone after that.” For most of the kids who will never play football again, not only did the game give order but meaning and worth, these are their “glory days.” No wonder the town and the older players vest so much in it, because the life awaiting them on the streets of Odessa, forgotten by the American dream, offer little.
To portray football in America also is to portray class and race. The Permian team is working class or poor. The player’s homes have large signs with their names, but no one is wealthy and most barely get by. A few rely upon free meals from local businesses a sort of natural perk for members of the team. But the Permian Odessa team is integrated-white, black, Hispanic-reflecting the diverse groups that work the oil fields. They share a deep blue color ethic and resentment. They fear and distrust the big cities. When Boobie Miles hears from the Midland doctor that he cannot play, he almost assaults the doctor and accuses him of trying to hurt Boobie's team to help Midland. The focus upon the dream and team enabled the players to deal with the racist tensions that bubble up.
Coach Gary Gaines has to deal with the casual racism of the “boosters” of the program. They carelessly throw out the N word referring to their stars and treat them as meat for the grinder. When the championship game is set up, a startling meeting occurs where the Dallas-Carter representatives, all black, face off against the all white state and Permian representatives. They haggle over sites—neutral Astrodome and who will be the refs. The Dallas-Carter representatives want an equal race balanced crew, the state officials expect to use an experienced crew who have worked together. Race chafes the entire meeting.
During the game, one egregious call on a bounced pass reception comes from the sole black referee and goes in the favor of all black Carter. Permian knows it has been shafted but must keep discipline and go on. On the other side, the Dallas-Carter school epitomizes a street swagger and intensity, even arrogance, when they strut past the smaller Permian team. The usually unflappable “Preacher” Ivory Christian tells Gaines, “They’re fast, they’re big, they’re dirty…plus they’re fast.” The dirty play feels race based but it’s as much about urban versus rural and as another voice over announcer broadcasts “East Texas” versus “West Texas” which might as well be a civil war. Remember the late eighties glorified the rogue Miami teams, and dirty play just fed intimidation. The race, geographic and class conflicts spill over into the game, but the rules and demands of the sport channel it and harness it as long as the refs keep it together.
The class pervades in another way. You sense it from the hanger-ons from Dallas-Carter, but Coach Gaines has to entertain or be entertained by the well off boosters of Odessa. They visit his office unannounced with ideas for formation and package sets and demands to play Boobie Miles both ways. Every compliment to the coach is tinged by “when we win the state championship.” In the end the boosters threaten his job, and his first loss produces a yard full of for sale signs placed there by thoughtful boosters. The money speaks but only to victory, the rest, players and coaches, are expendable.
In the movie at half time, the Permian Panthers are been battered. They verge on losing their coherence and will. Suddenly the Preacher, strong and silent and aloof, explodes in outrage at how they are playing and being treated. He demands better of his team and himself and shocks everyone even himself out of their lethargy.
Before they return to the field, Coach Gary Gaines talks one last time. He reminds them that the vast majority of them will never play football again; this is it. He again reminds them to be “perfect.“ But this time it is different and he captures the essence of athletic competition:
“Being perfect is not about that scoreboard out there. It's not about winning. It's about you and your relationship with yourself, your family and your friends. Being perfect is about being able to look your friends in the eye and know that you didn’t let them down because you told them the truth. And that truth is you did everything you could. There wasn’t one more thing you could've done. Can you live in that moment as best you can, with clear eyes, and love in your heart, with joy in your heart? If you can do that gentleman - you're perfect! “
Gaines touches upon the fundamental moral moment for a competitor—being present to self, game, team and excellence. The rest is dross.
The movie ends with Mike Winchell saying goodbye to his friends and tossing a spiral to young kids playing football in the shadow of Odessa-Permian’s huge stadium. It feels like handing on the legacy to the next generation.
But the real end is less theatrical and more real. Coach Gary Gaines is in his office and gazing at the 2 deep chart. One by one he removes the names of the seniors from chart and drops them into a drawer. One by one the players we have come to know and watch fight through games and lives drop off. Coach Gaines places a new name at the top of the depth chart. At last he comes to Mike Winchell’s name. He pulls it off with ritual care, stares at it for a moment and gently drops it into the drawer.
The season is over. The memories made. The glory passed. The players departed. But the coach and town continue the narrative with a new cast and new dreams the next day.