Friday Night Lightweights

Football ain’t my sport. I don’t understand the game’s rules and I certainly don’t count myself among its fans. So when the film Friday Night Lights was released this year, I zoned it out with the casual indifference that I reserve for tampon, adult diaper and yeast infection commercials.

Enter the review of the film, which I read simply because I’m an internet junkie. I was intrigued when I learned that the movie was actually based on real life— Pulitzer Prize winning author H.G. Bissinger had stalked the Permian Panther High School football team on their quest for “State in ‘88″.

“It was in the severely depressed belly of the Texas oil patch, with a team in town called the Permian Panthers that played to as many as twenty thousand fans on a Friday night. Twenty thousand…I knew I had to go there”, writes Bissinger as he begins his epic journey through the blood and guts of the team’s world. You’d be lucky to find 20 friends and parents at my old High School’s football games.

Men with names like Brian Chavez, Mike Winchell, and Boobie Miles began to resonate inside my head on the same level that Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods or Michael Phelps were noted at. Not because the players on the Permian squad received massive sponsorship deals, or because they were punching their tickets to the big time of College and Pro Football (indeed, only a handful of players from Permian history ever ended up as successful pros). It was the incredible pressure that the town of Odessa placed upon their boys to bring the state championship hope that transformed them from a few guys on a field fucking around into an ill-fated crew bound for glory, but cruelly subject to the whims of fate.

“Boobie” is the key character in the film version. He’s a young, black man from the poor side of town. In the most cynical fashion imaginable, the white-middle-class majority that worships Permian football is both attracted to Boobie for what he can bring to the team, and then devalues him into “a dumb nigger with a football” when he blows out his knee and cannot play.

The coach of the team starts with a base salary of $69,000 and doesn’t have to teach a single class. When the team racks up a single loss during the regular season to state rivals, Midland Lee, he finds the local townspeople have placed several “for sale” signs on his lawn. He finds himself to be an expendable scapegoat at the end of a bad season and can be thrown away like the core of an apple for poor team performance.

The town’s fanaticism for football seems more like a mass neurosis than a true enjoyment of athletics. The team’s accomplishments are touted by pathetic townspeople who seem to have no lives. As Charles Taylor of writes in his review of the film, “Sporting glory is a paltry thing next to building a decent and satisfying life you can take pride in.”

Among the myriad of stories and details in the book, perhaps one about player Brian Chavez captures the incredible ignorance that we’re dealing with. He applies to Harvard after he graduates, and hoped that his football career would aid him in his chances of getting into the prestigious school, “The Permian staff did not contact the Harvard football program on his behalf. When asked by a Harvard coach to supply a game film of Brian, Gaines sent film of the first game of the season. It certainly wasn’t Brian’s best game…he hadn’t even played in it because he was injured.”

Regardless, athletic glory is still a pastime. I follow other sports, but I always wonder about ‘how much is too much’ when it comes to laying it on the line. I won’t become a rabid dog over Laurier’s performance in football, but I will never dismiss the heart and soul of anyone who plays to win.