TCS Daily

Friday Nights in a New Light

By Ilya Shapiro - October 19, 2004 12:00 AM

ODESSA, Texas -- Odessa, like so many towns across the barren oil fields of west Texas (and the fruited plain of the heartland), grows on you. I went there not knowing what to expect beyond a rabid passion for football and mixed feelings about "The Book" -- Buzz Bissinger's Friday Night Lights, which is now again on the New York Times bestseller list. I set out, in part, to search for that mythical national ethos of rugged individualism and hardscrabble honesty, one that has increasingly been relegated to the most crimson corners of Red America (like this one). What I found was a place without airs and a people as welcoming of outsiders as they were wary of being portrayed as unbalanced hicks by reporters from "up north" or "back east."

My writing partner and I knew that we had come upon something special long before we could put a finger on it. After taking in a press screening our first night -- having just raced in from Dallas and thus lacking all sense of context -- we spent the next few days running around town talking to current and former players, coaches, school and town officials, and citizens. We even had a journalistic star-turn as entertainment reporters on the red carpet beat (a picture of my colleague interviewing Peter Berg, the director, turned up on the front page of the Midland paper).

One night, having retired to a Starbucks that had opened just in time for the movie's filming this past spring, we thumbed through yearbooks and booster club annuals, trying to collect our senses and reconcile the impressions and opinions we had received from all layers of the community. After ordering a tall skim chai latte -- a request that would have been met with a puzzled expression in 1988 Manhattan, let alone Bissinger's Odessa -- I met a young man who graduated from Permian High a decade after the events chronicled in Friday Night Lights. Dustin Henderson, a running back on the first Panthers team in 40 years to lose to rival Odessa High, spoke proudly of the fact that football players had the highest average GPA of any team, and that all athletes were required to take extra tutoring. You may be looked up to on Fridays when you wore your jersey to class, but "when you play in the [football] system, they look at you harder" in terms of the scholastic standards.

Yet the educational reforms brought about in the wake of two disqualifications from post-season play in the early '90s have weakened the football program and consequently demystified the Permian legend. Indeed, they may have dampened the black-and-white "Mojo" magic that one preacher -- an Odessa High grad, naturally -- attributed to a deal with the devil.

Not that one would get that idea from spending a day at the high school itself. The pep rally we attended -- that highest of high school culture -- consisted of 20 minutes of carefully orchestrated exuberance, all in front of an imposing banner through which the football team would run onto the field that night; "their movie, our story" it said.

It was all so wholesome without being cloying, and the people were improbably unassuming -- more than the characters in some Horatio-Alger-cum-George-Gipp morality play that would be Friday Night Light's fictional counterpart. Coach Scott Smith exudes the confidence and fortitude that may well make him the logical successor to the storied Gary Gaines (ably interpreted by Billy Bob Thornton on screen), who himself exuded more decency in a half-hour conversation than most people encounter in a lifetime living in the coastal metropoles. And the perfectly named assistant principal Buddy Hale -- picture a thinner, better-looking Bill Clinton -- was our guide to his slice of Americana. Hale's office is replete with letter jackets, photographs, and other mementos, most recently an autographed photo of Toby "Crash" Stevenson, the be-helmeted pole vaulter who displayed so much, well, mojo, in winning silver in the Athens Games.

We also met Bobbye Harris, who practically raised Don Billingsley, the then-hellion played by Garret Hedland in the movie, and who gave me a copy of her eight-year-old grandson's poignant letter to President Bush. And registrar Liz Faught, who sent three daughters to Permian ("a cheerleader, a pepette, and a member of the band," she announced proudly), whose sheriff husband devised the school's "7th Flag Over Texas" banner.

The book may have been true, Hale confided to me on the sidelines that night, "but why portray the town that way," why concentrate on the negative when there was so much goodness in the town, so much friendly spirit and togetherness? Indeed, Odessa was and is a proud community, God-fearing and protective of its kids -- even if some folks lived vicariously through them to a glory day that never was.

After all these intimate conversations, with those happy that Odessa had gotten a long-needed wake-up call and those who were glad that the movie focused on the football, I felt that I was retracing Bissinger's footsteps. The game itself became almost an afterthought, in part because I could not help but relinquish my scribner's role, becoming a friend of the girls from the school paper and the parents of the star tailback who scored two touchdowns in a losing cause.

Somewhere between Buzz and Crash, among all that Mojo, I came face to face, if not quite with my mortality, with the fact that Permian was a truer representation of the American spirit -- of America itself -- than the elite big-city high school I had left not ten years before.

Ilya Shapiro is a lawyer living in Washington, D.C. He was in Odessa for the premiere of Friday Night Lights, and writes frequently on subjects at the intersection of culture, politics, and economics.


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