You may have already heard the title Friday Night Lights before. After all, it is the title of both a movie and an NBC television series that ran from the mid to late 2000s. But both projects took their name from, and were inspired by, the book Friday Night Lights: A Town, A Team, And A Dream by H.G. Bissinger. The nonfiction was published in 1990, and it follows the story of a small-town high school football team called the Permian High School Panthers. From first glance, the book seems to be entirely about football. But unlike so many other books that center around a sports team and its players, Friday Night Lights spends few pages talking about the games the Panthers played.
In fact, Bissinger chose to emphasize on the people who made up the team, and the town they played for. The Permian High School Panthers represented a small town in Texas called Odessa, and for that town, the team was everything. Odessa had a history of excellence in high school football, but didn’t have too much else going on locally. In 1926, the discovery of oil in nearby fields saw the town’s population boom, but this brought more negatives than positives for the town. Lawlessness, overcrowding, and racism, among other things, started to plague the town. While the rich oil owners made millions of dollars off of the oil fields, the hard-working laborers in town were left with next to nothing. The only exception to this was their football team. The Panthers won four states championships between the years of 1965 and 1984, and the whole town began rallying around their young athletes. Panther football became an integral part of life and culture in Odessa, and Bissinger spent a good portion of the book detailing how the team animated the community and provided an outlet for the people of Odessa to be a part of a grander project.
Bissinger also did a fantastic job of making the high schoolers on the team more than just athletic phenoms in helmets. He singled out a few of the players as main characters of the story. The readers come to know these players as real people, complete with backstories, including successes and failures. For example, there’s James Miles, the star fullback of the team that has his whole future torn away from him by a knee injury. There’s Mike Winchell, the quarterback who, much like so many high-schoolers, is prone to nerves. He is under pressure from the entire town of Odessa to perform on the biggest stage he has ever known. There’s Don Billingsley, the son of a local legend who spends most of his time drinking and fighting rather than filling his bug shoes, and Ivory Christian, who struggles to enjoy using his insane athleticism and reflexes on the field because he has come to realize how much more to life there is than football. We learn so much about these characters and who they are off the field that it is easy to forget at times their role as football players.
The fact that the story is not all about football is part of the brilliance of this book. Football is simply the foundation on which Bissinger constructs complex characters, compelling narratives, and life lessons that extend far beyond the football field. His simple yet elegant language coupled with his attention to details make the book an exciting read. While the cover may show three football players taking the field hand-in-hand, you don’t need to know a single thing about football to enjoy this book, which is what makes it so special.