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Friday Night Lights : A Town, a Team, and a Dream ()

Mr. Doggett's Suggested Summer Reading for Students

I don't even know how the whole relationship started, but somehow my fraternity (Beta Theta Pi) at Colgate developed a tradition of having a few guys go work on a Geoseismic crew in Texas during our semesters off.  It was decent money; you got minimum but worked 100 hours a week, got $5 a day meal money and $25 cash per day just for showing up (suffice it to say that folks on these crews were not totally reliable employees).  So after we'd completed our Summer term in 1981, several of us headed down to Odessa/Midland to sign on with a Western Geophysical crew.

We had immense trouble locating them because they didn't want other companies knowing where they were, a hangover from oil wildcatting days.  But those difficulties are a whole other story and require an explanation of $500 in mysterious telephone calls charged to the Colgate Radio station.  At any rate, we finally located the crew in Snyder, Texas, Scurry County, Permian Oil Basin.  So we checked into the Snyder East Motel--a genuine fleabag, run, as was every convenience store and fast food place in West Texas, by Indians (subcontinent Indians, not Native Americans).  Within our first few hours in the motel: I had to kill a scorpion that one of the guys found crawling on his bed and thought was a "strange bug"; we flicked from TV channel to TV channel trying to get rid of the weird squiggle at the bottom until we realized it was a tornado warning; and we were perturbed to discover that Network TV was preempted on this Friday night by local High School football.  Actually, we soon learned that High School Football took over the airwaves every Friday night.  We knew we weren't in Central New York any more.

The next day we met our fellow crew members.  Most of them were decent enough folks and a few we really ended up liking, but we were taken aback when one of them asked us if we knew Ken Jones, a black fraternity brother who had worked with them that summer, and when we said yes, he said: "I don't generally like niggers, but that Ken Jones was alright."  Even more disconcerting was listening to the illegal aliens on the crew say, "I may be a Mexican, but at least I'm not a nigger."  That's just not the snappy banter we were used to hearing at one of the nation's finest liberal arts schools.

All of this is by way of introduction to H.G. Bissinger's great account of one year in the life of the Permian Panthers football team in Odessa, TX.  Odessa provided the perfect setting for him to explore a complex set of issues including race, exploitation, community pride, etc., but most of all to examine the centrality of high school sports in the life of a town.  Now we were in Texas when oil prices were booming and everyone was rolling in it, but by the time Bissinger, a Pulitzer Prize winning investigative journalist, got there in 1988, the boom had gone bust and west Texas faced a genuine economic crisis, which only added to the social pressures that he addresses in the book.

The book focuses on a couple of key contradictions: (1) the vaulting ambition and unrealistic dreams of the athletes as opposed to the harsh reality that awaits them; (2) the relative innocence of these kids as opposed to the really cynical and exploitative manipulation of them by coaches, parents, boosters, college recruiters, etc.; and (3) the dependence of the athletic programs in such places upon black athletes, despite cultural racism which does not acknowledge their value as full human beings.  Bissinger intertwines all these threads with the very real community pride and unity that the program brings to a city that is in dire straits.  The end product is a truly great book, not only one of the only great football books ever written, but one that rises far beyond the gridiron to illuminate the problems of school boy athletics in America.

So this review originally ended here, but then I found a couple of delightfully ironic items while looking for links.  First, there's the article below, Author Cancels Trip After Threats in Texas, about how Bissinger was getting death threats so he had to skip Odessa on his book tour.  Way to show the world that the author's wrong and you don't take football too seriously.  Then I found an essay by a University of Minnesota student on the book.  The student's name?  Bobby Jackson.  Yes, the same Bobby Jackson from their great NCAA Final Four basketball team of several years ago.  My interest piqued, I read further.  The essay was posted by the Minnesota Pioneer Planet, as part of their series on the academic scandals that rocked that basketball program, as an example of the classroom work that Golden Gopher players turned in but which was actually done by a supposed tutor.  What can have run through the writer's mind as she wrote about the unhealthy emphasis placed on sports, to the exclusion of all other concerns in the students' lives?   Obviously, the concerns that Bissinger addressed in Friday Night Lights remain just as topical and timely ten years later.


Grade: (A+)


Book-related and General Links:
    -ESSAY: America's Youngest Professionals (H. G. Bissinger, NY Times)
    -PROFILE: ALUMNUS  Buzz Bissinger prays for the city (JOHN McCALLA, U of PA Alumni Magazine)
    -ARTICLE: Author Cancels Trip After Threats in Texas (ROGER COHEN, NY Times)
    -Friday Night Lights 10 Years Later (Odessa American)
    -ARTICLE: It's simple Friday: Drive toward the lights (Al Pickett, Reporter News)
    -Odessa High School Bronchos Fan Page
    -STUDENT ESSAY: THE TAIL AND THE DOG (Terrance L. Furin, Owen J. Roberts School District)
    -ESSAY: Football, Tradition, and the American Way (Lorenzo Cortes, The Hoya)
    -SPECIAL REPORT: 'This program was corrupt' (Pioneer Planet)
Report on Academic cheating in U of Minn Sports, includes a fake ESSAY: Friday Night Lights Author: H. G. Bissinger Reviewer: Bobby Jackson, University of Minnesota
    -BRIEF REVIEW: of Friday Night Lights IN SHORT/FOOTBALL (MICHAEL SWINDLE, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of A PRAYER FOR THE CITY By Buzz Bissinger (Robert Fishman, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: Witold Rybczynski: The Fifth City, NY Review of Books
        A Prayer for the City by Buzz Bissinger


I was the starting quarterback and safety for the Midland Lee football team in 1988 during the season that would become famous because of the book.

The rivalry that was and still is Odessa Permian-Midland Lee is hard to explain to someone that hasn't experienced it first-hand. On the surface it is a football game that players from both teams want desperately to win and are remembered for it for years.

If that were all it was there wouldn't have been a reason for Buzz to have lived in Odessa for the year and followed the Permian team.

In reality it is so much more... It is about two towns only 10 miles apart in distance but so much farther apart in so many other ways. Odessa was always the blue collar town and Midland the white collar. Even during the oil boom of the late 1970's and early 1980's Odessa had the reputation of being where the "roughnecks" lived and Midland were the rich oil company owners and operators lived. To a large degree this was true. At one point Midland was the wealthiest city in the nation(per capita)with millionares left and right.

Odessans had plenty of reasons to dislike and even hate what Midland stood for. What Midland Lee didn't have and never will is simple. MOJO. It is something that can't really be explained to this day. They never had superior athletes all those years throughout the 1970's and 1980's but were able to win against EVERYONE. They won many of those state championships before they even stepped on the field. They intimidated the hell out of everyone they played. The plain black and white uniforms with the simple white helmet and the black 'P'. We were always able to play with them because they didn't intimidate us. Football is huge in West Texas and MOJO was famous for it and we weren't. Just as they hated the reputation Midland had as a city compared to Odessa we hated the reputation Permian football had compared to us.

The intimidation factor of MOJO magic was never seen more clearly than when the playoffs rolled around each year. Permian and Lee would beat the crap out of one another during the regular season each year and nearly always the games were nailbiters with us winning many of those games. When the playoffs would begin Permian would always go deeper in the playoffs than we would at Lee. They just intimidated the hell out of teams around the state. MOJO MAGIC!

All the underlying social issues explored by the book could have been found at many places in the south at the time and still are today to a (thankfully) smaller degree.

I went on to play quarterback and safety my senior year (1989-1990) when we played Permian on national television. Unfortunately, they stopped us inside their 10 yard-line as time expired to beat us 17-13. That would be the only game Midland Lee lost to Permian in my 4 years of high school. A great accomplishment, for sure. Permian would go on to an undefeated season and another state championship that year. We got beat by Arlington Lamar 17-3 in the regionals(third round)that year. Permian would go on to defeat Lamar on its way to the state championship.

The book is just AMAZING, written so well and capturing the true spirit of those times. After seeing the movie I was pretty disappointed. Had I not lived it I think it would be one of the best sports movies of all time. Because of the way the facts were distorted I just felt disappointed. I realize they did what they had to do to make the movie more marketable and I certainly understand that. Best book I've ever read and would strongly suggest it to everyone.

I can't tell you how many times I've met people(on planes, in business, etc...) and gotten to talk with them about my connection to that book. I'm very proud and honored to have been a part of that special time and place.

Vince Henderson #11

Midland Lee Rebels Football (1988, 1989)

- Vince Henderson

- Jan-05-2007, 23:46


Hi I was wondering if anyone could help me with answering some questions about the book Friday Night Lights vs. the movie.

1. Outline/discuss at least five events discussed in the book not included in the motion picture version.

2. Which version is "superior" Book or motion picture? Why?

3. Why would your instructor assign this book and motion picture? Give at least three reasons.

I would appreciate any help that you are wiiling to give. Please email at or leave comments on this page.

Thank You For Your Time

- Sweetpie

- Jul-18-2006, 15:35


i just felt like i should point out that the football situation is about the same in missouri, at least south eastern missouri, where the lead mining industry went under. it's the only chance the students really have.

- missouri

- Feb-21-2005, 10:46


Hey i am a big fan of Texas High School Football and i seen the movie Friday Night Lights and i loved it and ispired me to write about life in Texas. I am doing an essay about how the life really was and how the fans were and how everybdoy treated the football kids. If anybody could kind of tell me more about it that would be great and if you could be very detailed.

- Mike Jager

- Jan-28-2005, 12:15


Nick, What exactly would you like to know? I played for both Wilkins and Gaines and know all of the players profiled in the book and the movie.

Jimmy Mac

- Jim class of '87

- Dec-13-2004, 15:22


I am writing an essay on some of the differences between the book and movie. Can anybody help me out?

- Nick O.

- Dec-05-2004, 17:00


I read the book, seen the movie and live in West Texas. This author makes things seem worse than they really are for the reason of making money for himself. Yes we enjoy our high school football, as does most places in the United States, but this book is way off base. Just read the appendex at the end of the new release and one can understand that this author thinks he is responsable for all change that has came in the last 15 years, what an ego!! One of the lessons learned in high school sports is dedication and sacifice for the sake of the team. As far as his statement on refusal of moderation, not everybody wants to accept the new liberal way of thinking, sometimes it is nice to live in a place where old values still hold true and there is good God fearing folk.

- ric

- Nov-22-2004, 00:38


I think it was a great movie and really told the story of Football in Texas. As a Judson Alumni I didn't like the fact that the end of the movie was false. It was Converse Judson that played Dallas Carter for the State Championship. The movie depiced the Carter - Permian game as the state game but in reality it was the semi-Final Game!

- Reggie

- Oct-19-2004, 20:13


I absolutely agree. My review of Friday Night Lights takes a tough insight at the high school football organization in West Texas and gives a completely TRUTHFUL exposer of how morality and education are sacrificed to the gods of the gridiron. Bullied by an athlete in Midland-Odessa? Tough, the victim will be punished instead. Your NFL-dreamin' son flunking out? The teacher will get a quiet visit from the coach. Besides this heart felt book, the soundtrack to the movie was amazing! Very soothing and quite emotional. I purchase the soundtrack through and just found out that will be releasing this title on vinyl. Let me know what you think, I highly recommend it.

- Cynthia

- Oct-15-2004, 18:48


Odessa Permian is a great high school that loves their football, just as there are so many other high schools that feel the same. Permian just happened to be picked to have it's story told. It could have easily been Midland Lee, Converse Judson, Austin Westlake, or so many others. It's football in Texas!!! Ratliff Stadium is not the only place with lights burning on Friday night, but it sure is a fun place to be. Good luck to Odessa Permian and to the town of Odessa. I think the movie will be cool and can't wait to see it. MOJO 89-90-91 (1 National Title and 2 State Titles in 3 years) A pretty good run. 89 Rebel- you forgot Stoney Case of the New Mexico Lobos and Arizona Cardinals who was the quarterback for Permian in 1989, you must have blocked that game out. Go MOJO!

- PHS Class 92

- Oct-02-2004, 18:27


Hi i'm Lizabeth and i'm a student at Aledo High School in Aledo TX, i am SO excited to see this movie i absolutley love football all my friends say im obsessed Aledo is an all football town we eat drink sleep and watch football here. Remember the Titans is right now one of my favorite movies but maybe "FNL" will beat it out i mean cmon it is about a Texas town and about football so i think this is the one for me!! Thank you for your time. Lizabeth`

- Lizabeth

- Sep-29-2004, 19:55


I remember in 1959 voting on team colors and mascot for Permian High School. I read the book in 1990 and can understand how "Mojo Mania" seduced the town of Odessa. When you don't have much going for you, you gravitate to and justify any success, especially on a Texas high school football field. Talk about high school (and town) dreams hitting the cold cruel world of reality.... racism, economics, politics, etc. Am looking forward to the movie and hope that it delivers. PHS graduate, class of '61.

- donna

- Sep-17-2004, 13:18


I played for Permian during the 1984-1986 seasons. I have read the book and even had lunch with the author before he put ink to paper. I am glad I did not boast or say anything noteworthy. This means I was normal - just like most of the players that have been through the program. Coach Wilkins and Coach Gaines are good men who would not tolerate much of what is professed as the norm in the book. Those who know coach Gaines laugh at the thought of Billy Bob portraying the humble, Christian that Gary is.

To be caught in a moment in time to play for the best was an honor. It did come with sacrifices which were my choice. I never played college ball and still today miss the feeling of beating a larger player to the punch and driving him to the ground. To this day I will not be beat.

Read the book, see the movie; judge lest yee be judged. Please keep things into perspective. These are young men doing what they love to the best of their ability. They have hearts and minds that transcend an overdramatized story.

Jim #52

- Jim

- Sep-16-2004, 15:15


'89 Rebel, who are you?

- John Valles

- Sep-07-2004, 20:55


For all of you who ask why football is so big in West Texas, I can answer that. I did not read about it, see a movie, or hear the stories, I lived it. West Texas in itself is a desolate wasteland with nothing of particular interest within at least 2 hours. For most young people the only way out is sports. It has been that way for decades. Midland/Odessa has not always been known for the athletic prowess it has now. Oil was the major draw but sports was entertainment. Over the years Odessa Permian fielded some of the greatest high school football teams not only in Texas but the country: 6 state titles, 1 national chamionship and countless district, area, and regional titles before 1988. As a fan you come to expect a certain degree of excellence from your program (high school, college or professional). During the late 80's I played for Midland Lee (3 state titels, 1 national championship, etc.) Permians' blood rival. So, I am not an outsider pretending to understand the psyche of those involved. My parents enjoyed the prosperity of the oil "boom" and unfortunately the crush of the oil "bust". Football became a way to escape, if only for a few hours each week. Football was constant and provided a way for kids to "earn" our way out. However, the coaches careers, not just their jobs, depended on how well their team performed, especially in big games. Anything less than a state title was not acceptable. So, West Texas coaches were under enormous pressure to win at all costs. (During one season, the game between Midland Lee and Odessa Permian was covered by CNN and televised on ESPN.) It is true that we as players were treated like gods in our own towns. But understand that during that time we were our families hope from a bleak future. Right or wrong, football was the sermon each fall friday. Other sports were important as well, but nothing matched football. There have been many prominant athletes come from this area, in all sports: The 2004 Olympic silver medalist in pole vault is from Odessa Permian, Roy Williams of UT and the Detroit Lions (Odessa Permian), Cedric Benson of UT (Midland Lee), Laynce Nix of the Texas Rangers (Midland Lee), Randy Velarde of the Oakland Athletics ( Midland Lee), Kevin Rychel of the Pittsburgh Pirates (Midland High), Jason Baker of the Montreal Expos (Midland Lee), just to name a few. Sports is important in every community, but in West Texas, it is a way out of desolation and into a better future. Besides, as a teen-ager, would you have turned away from being treated as a god for any length of time?

- '89 Rebel

- Aug-28-2004, 03:51


First I would like to say, the book is so true! I did not play at Permian, but I did play at rival Midland Lee. I played there when the 10th Anniversary of the book. The 1998-1999 school year. And let me tell you racism is still strong out in West Texas. The coaches treat you like a machine, and when your time is up they put you on the back shelf. I was never a star on the Lee Rebels team that year but a big contributor. I am so glad it is all over with, the coaches, the town folk treating you like a god during the season but once it is all over with, you're "Ol' what's his name?" I am very excited to go see the movie.

- Ben

- Jul-13-2004, 16:14


There are some very interesting commentaries about the movie vs the book from people that were at the filming. Sounds like there are going to be some major differences. Check out:

- tess

- May-11-2004, 10:51


Hi Movie Fans ! I did not read the book but I did get the opportunity to work on the set of "FNL". The hours were long but we had a great time. I thought the filming process went well. As you all know the movie will be out in mid October, 2004.

Our high profile performers like Billie Bob Thornton, Tim McGraw, Derek Luke and Lee Jackson to name a few signed "FNL" books and took pictures with their not so famous co-workers on the set.

You can view behind-the-scene photos of the cast & crew. (click on link below) So enjoy the photos and look out for this movie in theatres near you !

From The Set of "FNL",

- Steven Jackson

- Apr-26-2004, 12:54


very good book a little dusappointing becasue it all leads up to the one game against the carter cowboys but nonetheless good crazy how football is considered a religion

- aleka

- Apr-07-2003, 23:31


it is a lovely book, but what is the author implying when he says the students strut around the school like its their palace?why is football so big?

- andra

- Nov-17-2002, 14:01