I read a lot—for my job, and for fun, and in a hopeless attempt to keep up with all the books my friends keep publishing. When I read for fun, probably half the books are about sport, but only one sport: soccer. (Why do I insist on calling it that? Essay forthcoming.) If I read a book about another game, it had better be damn good.
The success of the TV show Friday Night Lights has caused some to forget its source material, a book of the same name that was published a quarter of a century ago in 1990. I only watched the first season of the show, but I liked it well enough—it’s a soap opera, but a good one, balancing the high drama of the teenagers’ lives with interesting storylines for the mature characters: Coach Taylor, his wife Tami, team booster and car salesman Buddy Garrity, and more. And who can fail to be stirred by the players’ chant before they take the field?
Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose!
But the book tells a darker, more complex, and far more fascinating story, one that uses high-school football as a fulcrum to lift the lid off a tightly wound small town. It’s a story of teenage dreams and adult obsession, of economic hard times and casual racism, of the way sport can both bring us together and drive us apart. Amazingly, it was Bissinger’s first: a successful journalist, he moved his family from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to Odessa, Texas, on a hunch that there might be a good story in the high-school football scene there.
Was there ever.
Following the Permian Panthers for one season, Bissinger paints an unforgettable portrait of a boom-and-bust town whose best days lie behind it, and whose citizens have long tied their hopes and dreams to one of their two high-school football teams. (The other school, Odessa High, is predominantly Mexican, with all the complications you can imagine.) The Panthers do not have the biggest and best players in Texas, and their program may not be the best-funded, but the players are relentlessly coached to push themselves to the absolute limit of their potential and to give their all for the tradition of “Mojo,” the mascot. And, for the most part, they do.
For the town, the brief season is the focus of the whole year. For the senior players, most of whom will not go on to meaningful college careers, it can be the highlight of their entire lives. Showered with perks and attention, they are even assigned “Pepettes”—girls who bring them treats, make yard signs for them, and perform other small services. The perks are an incentive for players to punish themselves physically, to play when they’re hurt, to turn themselves inside out for a few brief games. For many of them, the high of senior season is a feeling they’ll never be able to recapture.
There are many moments in the book when any reasonable adult will find the pressure on the kids, and the adults’ obsession with a youth sport, disturbing. As the state playoffs proceed at the end of the book, legal wrangling about player eligibility reaches a level that is truly ludicrous. (Most of the powerhouse schools are guilty of grade-fixing to some degree.) But Bissinger does an admirable job of making the hype understandable, if not sympathetic. He profiles players who succeed and players who fail, players whose identity is football, and one memorably talented player who just isn’t that into it—until the whistle blows. He profiles coaches, parents, administrators, and local fans, capturing the feel of the place better than any TV series could.
After the final game, played for the state championship, the coach wipes the players’ names off the board and begins assembling next year’s team. It’s the perfect metaphor for how quickly the kids’ sacrifices are forgotten.
You don’t have to be a fan of American football to find this book fascinating. Hell, you don’t have to be a sports fan at all. (Although I imagine that, the less the reader cares about sports in general, the more horrifying he will find it.) And you may be a die-hard fan of soccer who thinks American football is ridiculous. But, if you read just one book about the wrong kind of football, make it this one.