H. G. (“Buzz”) Bissinger’s Friday Nights Lights is an examination of football in one especially football-mad part of the country: the small town of Odessa, in West Texas. Football is the most popular sport in the region, and high-school football games dominate the cultures of the region’s communities. Some games draw 15,000-20,000 fans—large percentages of the population. The Permian stadium is a sea of black during games. Bissinger explores the influence of football in Odessa, and the performance of one team, the Permian High School Panthers (also nicknamed “Mojo”), who have been successful since the 1960s. Bissinger tracks six important players on that team, all seniors: Boobie Miles, Brian Chavez, Jerrod McDougal, Don Billingsley, Mike Winchell, and Ivory Christian. Bissinger also follows the life of the coach—Gary Gaines—and interviews other educational, sports, and political figures in the region, who relate in some way to the Permian Panthers.
Bissinger finds that, in Odessa, football also serves as a metaphor for the way people live their lives and for what they value. Odessa is oil country, a tough patch of desert—not an easy place to raise a family or earn a steady living. The economy, toward the end of the 1980s, has been floundering. Football is not just a game the community can rally around, but a sign of resolve and strength, including: one’s ability to endure through pain; one’s ability to master self-doubt, despite physical disadvantage; and one’s faith-system and ethics. Coaches fault Boobie, for example—despite an unlucky knee injury—because they feel he has not practiced hard enough, and does not put the team’s achievements before his own. The town of Odessa sees its own values reflected in the grit and hard work of the Permian Panthers football team, and judges the team and the players on that basis.
Bissinger demonstrates that football is not simply entertainment, but a way for Odessans to salve the pain of a life that is, outside the confines of the stadium, complex, confusing, and often disheartening. Indeed, many citizens of Odessa, quoted throughout the book, argue that, without Permian football, their lives in West Texas would be almost meaningless. Although Bissinger quotes these men and women without much comment, it is clear that he wonders, throughout the book, whether the football successes and failures of 17- and 18-year-olds are important enough to warrant such devotion. Bissinger also demonstrates the attention that could be paid to other aspects of these Texas communities that suffer, even as the football teams succeed.
Bissinger concludes on a mixed note. For him, football is still an exciting game, one of passion and athletic excellence. But Bissinger also notes the toll the game takes on the players and fans: physical, economic, even moral.
Football Quotes in Friday Night Lights
The tingling sensation stayed with him, and he knew that when he stepped on that field tonight he wouldn’t feel like a football player at all but like someone . . . entering a glittering, barbaric arena.
The fans clutched in their hands the 1988 Permian football yearbook, published annually by the booster club . . . It ran 224 pages, had 513 individual advertisements, and raised $20,000.
The standing ovation that he received at the Watermelon Feed wasn’t particularly surprising. Just as he was used to football injuries, he was also used to lavish attention, as was every former Permian player who had once been ordained a star. So many people had come up to him when he was a senior that he couldn’t keep track of their names . . . .
My last year . . . I want to win State. You get your picture took and a lot of college people look at you. When you get old, you say, you know, I went to State in nineteen eighty-eight.
After Billy died, Mike’s life didn’t get any easier. He had a brother who was sent to prison for stealing. At home he lived with his mother, who worked at a service station convenience store as a clerk. They didn’t have much money. . . . His mother was enormously quiet and reserved, almost like a phantom. Coach Gaines, who spent almost as much time dealing with parents as he did with the players, had never met her.
It wasn’t necessary to live in Odessa for long to realize that the Permian football team wasn’t just a high school team but a sacrosanct white institution. “Mojo seemed to have a mystical charm to it,” Hurd said.
Pastor Hanson welcomed Ivory’s conversion. He knew that Ivory was an influential kid whose actions made a tremendous impression on his peers. But there was something worrisome about it, and he didn’t want Ivory moving from one world of isolation into another where the only difference was the level of standards.
They would still be gladiators, the ones who were envied by everyone else . . . who got the best girls and laughed the loudest and strutted so proudly through the halls of school as if it was their own wonderful, private kingdom.
We know that OHS is going to be fired to the hilt and I want to match them emotion for emotion . . . It’s gonna be a big crowd. It’s an exciting game. I wish everybody that has an opportunity to play the gam of football all over the United States had an opportunity to play in a game like this. You’re part of a select group.
The Mojo mystique was purely an east-side creation, and Permian supporters would almost certainly put up a hellacious fight if they were suddenly told they had to share it with people who didn’t act like them or think like them.
For LV, watching Boobie play against Abilene had been harrowing. On every play he couldn’t help but worry that his nephew would do further damage to his knee, even though the brace did provide good protection. He saw the emotional effect the injury was having on Boobie—the prolonged periods of depression as one Friday night after another just came and went.
His ear had been throbbing for about two months, and it was just one of several ailments that had come up during the course of the season. He was glassy-eyed and barely able to say a word, his thoughts still fixed on what had happened on the field . . . .
How could he have called the plays he did? What had happened to him in the second half, going time and time again with those plodding, thudding sweeps? Didn’t he remember the gorgeous bomb Winchell had thrown in the second quarter, so perfect it was like something in a dream? . . . .
As he tried to console them, there came a sound of high school football as familiar as the cheering, as familiar as the unabashed blare of the band . . . it was the sound of teenage boys weeping uncontrollably over a segment of their lives that they knew had just ended forever.
Dear God, we’re thankful for this day, we’re thankful for this opportunity you’ve given us to display the talent that you’ve blessed us with. Heavenly Father, we thank you for these men and these black jersies, tank you for the ability that you’ve given ‘em and the character that you’ve given ‘em.
Will Bates was drummed out of Carter and reassigned to teach industrial arts in a middle school. He was given an unsatisfactory evaluation rating, placed on probation for a year, and had his salary frozen. And, of course, he was forbidden to teach and to prevent further threats to the sanctity of football.