TCS Daily

Deep in the Heart of...

By Ilya Shapiro - October 6, 2004 12:00 AM

DRIVING THROUGH TEXAS, Oct. 6 -- Fifteen years ago, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist H.G. Bissinger lived a season of pure Americana: Texas high school football. His chronicle became Friday Night Lights (originally published in 1990, now in its tenth paperback edition). The book depicts the relationship between a dusty town in decline and a storied team, its players, coaches, and fans. Among other accolades Friday Night Lights gained, Sports Illustrated named it one of the top five sports books ever written, and the best about football.

When Friday Night Lights hit bookstands 14 years ago, however, Bissinger became persona non grata in the West Texas city of Odessa. People wore buttons saying "Buzz off, Bissinger" and the author was indeed forced to cancel his signing in a local bookstore after receiving death threats. Many residents were hurt by Bissinger's tell-all tale about the good, the bad and the ugly of high school football culture in Odessa and the city's obsession with the Permian Panthers -- the famed team that won the state and national titles in 1989 and put the city on the map. They had let Buzz into their town and into their lives, and he had aired their dirty laundry, turned every stone, named every name.

After several failed attempts to bring the book to the bring screen, "Friday Night Lights" is premiering nationwide, and in Odessa, October 8. The movie stars Billy Bob Thornton as Coach Gary Gaines, the man who took the team to the top, and country music singer Tim McGraw. It was directed by Peter Berg of "Chicago Hope" fame and a cousin of Bissinger, and produced by Brian Grazer, who was responsible for "A Beautiful Mind" and "Apollo 13."

Intrigued by the deep-rooted fanaticism of Texas high school football, I am on the road to Odessa ahead of the premiere to chronicle the town in its full excitement and apprehension surrounding the movie. Years later, are residents still resentful or have they forgiven Buzz? How have perceptions of the book changed? In a city that went bust after the oil boom, is high school football still the Friday night church service? And is the book still an accurate depiction of life there -- if it ever was? I have set up interviews with current and former players, coaches, fans, and city and school board officials to understand the environment in which the film takes place and the type of welcome it receives. There is much excitement in Odessa already as opening day approaches.

Moreover, jealous of my colleagues on these digital pages who have traveled to foreign lands to cover UN conferences and such, I have endeavored to represent this worthy publication in an equally exotic location. With trusty credential in hand, I will venture to media screenings, red-carpet press-pool interviews, 7:30am pep rallies, and, of course, the big game Friday. All in the service of piquing and sustaining your interest, dear reader.

And there is the bigger picture: How apt is it to treat Friday Night Lights as a microcosm of America? In this election year, with less than a month to go before we see which Paris sends its apple to the winning candidate of the presidential beauty contest, what better place to spend some time than the heart of Texas? Or, as Bissinger put it, where better to search for answers to the country's biggest questions than Odessa, "not because it's a Texas town, but because it's an American one"?

Ilya Shapiro, who last wrote for TCS on the true meaning of the Olympic Games, is a lawyer and writer living in Washington, D.C.


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