Clear Eyes, Full Hearts, Can’t Lose

I have an unbending, non-negotiable policy when it comes to films based off of books. Years ago, I vowed to never watch a film unless I read the book it was based off of first (exceptions include books that are utter wastes of time – i.e. abominations written by Jodi Picoult or Nicholas Sparks; those movies are passable, but I will never spend time or money on such novels when there’s a sea of better literature waiting for me to explore). I hate having my imagination diluted by familiar actors and actresses, even if they do the characters justice. That’s why I stick steadfastly to my self-imposed “read before watch” rule.

Friday Night Lights, however, is an extraordinary exception. I actually experienced the entire Friday Night Lights animal in reverse and can proudly admit that the television series, the film and the soundtrack enhanced the book. None of those elements detracted from my utter love and adoration with the original work the entire franchise was founded upon.

I discovered Explosions in the Sky first and I can’t compare them to any other band. I absolutely love listening to their beautiful, rich, wordless compositions. Their scoring of both the film and the television series are magnificent. Perhaps, their humble Midland, Texas origins gave them greater perspective on the phenomenon that is Texas high school football. Their music is so powerful and exhilarating and seeing Explosions in the Sky live (preferably in a theater or venue lauded for impressive acoustics) is one of the top-most items on my bucket list.

A few years later, I moved in with my current roommate who introduced me to what I consider the most exceptional television show I’ve ever watched. I’ve laughed and wept through five emotional and wonderful seasons before the series ended a year or two ago. The depth of the characters, the cinematography, the dialogue, the relationships, the heartbreak – they all compose such outstanding fiction. To this day, I can’t think of a couple that rivals that of Eric and Tami Taylor. I suppose that’s why I’m  single; Coach Taylor and his wife create a standard that is nearly impossible to achieve in real life, though I truly hope it exists.

After finishing the entire series, I watched the film, which was also wonderful. Billy Bob Thornton did an excellent job of portraying the ever-stressed, but always classy hometown high school football coach carrying the hopes and dreams of an entire community on his shoulders. Sometimes I wonder if his poignant acting in Friday Night Lights ultimately lead to his landing the role as Morris Buttermaker in Bad News Bears.

Today, more than 20 years after it was penned, I finished the original novel by H.G. Bissinger, which my sister thoughtfully gifted me for Christmas. What an outstanding book; considered by Sports Illustrated as the #1 book ever written about football.

I had no idea that Bissinger was a journalist from the Philadelphia Inquirer; he beautifully intertwined sharp reporting and engaging storytelling throughout the entire book. As I was reading Friday Night Lights, I was both surprised and pleased to discover that it wasn’t a sports book. The subject matter was undeniably centered around football. Football players. Football coaches. Football fans and football games played under extraordinarily luminous Friday night lights. But elements of politics, racism, economics, a failed academic system and smalltown Texas culture were also embedded in the story, which separated Friday Night LIghts from other books or news articles about the game of football. After all, Permian football in Odessa during the late 80’s was more than a sport; it was a lifestyle, essentially a religion.

I was born in 1987. The book catalogs the Odessa Permian Panther football team from 1988-1999. Sometimes, I balk at the ignorance, racism, conservative thinking and utter disregard for anything outside of football that was eloquently described in this book. It’s hard to fathom that I grew up in this decade. But as a native Texan, i also admired the devotion, loyalty and community that was Odessa in 1988. The characters, their families and the entire Odessa community exhibited such a tragic purity – almost childlike, in their support for the Permian Panthers. I couldn’t help but love and secretly wish I could attend a sports game with that level of emotional investment.

I did visualize characters from both the television show and the film as I read, sometimes wearing royal blue Dillon Panther jerseys, other times Permian Panther black. I think the creators of the movie and TV show did an exceptional job of casting the characters whose only common denominator orbited around an undying love of football.

After I finished the book, I listened to The Earth Is A Cold Dead Place, my favorite Explosions album, a few times on repeat. For a non-fiction book, Friday Night Lights had a heartwrenching effect on me. I badly wanted to be apart of the Odessa community, the Panther family and experience football in its purist, most electric form. Simultaneously, I pitied this tragic way of life – developing a lifestyle around a mere game played by 16 and 17-year-old boys. The blatant disregard for academic aptitude and racial tolerance not only appalled me, but disappointed me as a Texan.

Bissinger received a lot of negative criticisms, threats even, after publishing the book. I’m sure the way Odessa was portrayed infuriated many of the city’s residents. But he’s a Pulitzer-winning journalist and I considered his writing fair and even empathic. He loves the players he spent time with. He admired the wholesomeness of the Odessa community. And he loved the brightness of those Friday night lights. Upon finishing the last page of Friday Night Lights, I felt an odd emptiness, an indescribable loss spiked with a twinge of sadness. I felt like those Permian high school seniors must have felt upon ending their football careers in that monumental game against the Dallas Carter Cowboys in 1988. I just couldn’t believe it was over.

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