When H.G. "Buzz" Bissinger's Friday Night Lights: A Town, a Team, and a Dream was published 25 years ago in 1990, it shocked both the literary and sports worlds. Bissinger's searing portrayal of the city of Odessa, Texas, and its Permian High School football team, exposed a side of sports that many football fans didn't know about — one that involved racism, classism, and a school seemingly more interested in football than in academics. The reaction to the book in Odessa was hostile; the reaction in the literary world was ecstatic. The book quickly became a classic, and may well be the best book about American football ever written. It also inspired a hit movie starring Billy Bob Thornton, and a celebrated television show. Bissinger, now a contributing editor to Vanity Fair magazine, spoke to Men's Journal from Houston, where he was on a book tour.
You grew up in New York, which isn't really known as a city that's obsessed with high school football. What initially made you decide to write a book about it?
When I was 13-years-old, I remember reading an article in Sports Illustrated about a high school quarterback from Abilene, Texas. His name was Jack Mildren, and he was just the god of the town, and that story stuck with me. He wasn't much older than I was. In the mid '80s, I drove out west with a friend, and we took the southern route, so you go through Mississippi and Alabama and Louisiana and ultimately to Texas. We went through a lot of small towns, where they'd fallen on hard times, and then you came to the high school football stadiums and they were just beautiful to me. They were taken care of, they were watered and well painted, and I just said to myself, these are shrines. They're temples to people's hopes and dreams on a Friday night, gathering to live out their hopes and dreams on the backs of teenage kids. I was working at the Philadelphia Inquirer and was an editor, and I decided I had to do this book, and the rest is history. I found Odessa pretty quickly, got permission to be there, and started reporting on the book in the summer of 1988.
Did you know from the start that you wanted to do this with Odessa Permian, or were there any other schools you considered?
I knew pretty quickly I wanted to do it in Texas; there was nothing really scientific about it. I called some college recruiters, and spoke to some others, and they all pretty much said, you know, if you're looking for a program that's legendary, if you're looking for a town that isn't a quintessential small town but feels like a small town because of the isolation, then Odessa would be the place. And once I went out and visited, and saw this stadium that seats 19,000, I knew this was the place to do it.
It's such a football-crazy town. It had to be a pretty big culture shock moving from Philadelphia to Odessa for a year.
I was there as a reporter, and you know reporters are looking for stories, and it was all so new and so different that my eyes were just wide open all the time. It was kind of exhilarating and exciting. It's Odessa, you know? It's a gritty hardscrabble town. You know a town is in trouble when other Texas towns make fun of it. But it was stimulating, and I knew I was only going to live there a year. If I had to stay there indefinitely, I probably would have gone crazy.
When the book was published, the reaction from Odessa was initially pretty hostile, right?
I was supposed to go down and do a book signing, and there were serious threats of bodily harm, and I canceled the tour. They were upset. They didn't like some of the portrayal because it was an honest, searing portrayal of some of the problems the town had, including racism and misplaced academic priorities. It was a place that had lost all perspective when it came to high school football and the role it really should play.
You were just there a couple days ago. Has the reaction changed? Have they come around?
I did a signing, and it was not a big crowd. I think that the film came out — and I thought the film was extremely good for what the film was, but it didn't go into the darker themes that the book raised. They were very pleased with the film, and I think they sort of said, all right, we can now forget about the book. So I think the attitude [among Odessans], in a sense, is the book never existed.
It almost seems like they take some pride in the movie ,and possibly the TV series, but haven't really taken a lot of [the book's] lessons to heart.
That's what I feel. I did a radio show in Odessa. The host said that people were calling beforehand and saying, why are you having that guy on, he wrote that lousy book. You know, the moaning and groaning is — enough already. It's been 25 years, and it would be nice if instead of complaining about the book, look at what was written, and take it to heart. And some people did, but I think a lot did not. I also think that Odessa is a transient town, because of oil, and a lot of people that are there now probably haven't read the book. I get that comment a lot, you know. People say, what do you for a living, and [I say] I write books. And they say, anything I've heard of? And I'll say Friday Night Lights, and they go, that was a book? The film, in a sense, I guess just trumps everything.
Do you get the sense that in recent years, [Permian High School] is trying to get back to that '90-91 championship year again?
They're actually pretty good this year, they're actually ranked in the Top 20 in the AP [Texas high school football poll], which has not happened in a long, long time. [Permian] was a legendary program, the winningest in Texas state history in the 1980s. These were relatively small, undersized kids who were beating teams they probably shouldn't have beaten. But they were disciplined, and they were incredibly well-coached. When other teams got exhausted in the fourth quarter, they were all even stronger in the fourth quarter. So I think they want to get back to that. They haven't been to the state finals since 1995. I think their coach now [Blake Feldt] is good, and probably a better coach for the times.
Your book obviously highlighted a lot of problems with the way high school football works, not just in Texas, but everywhere. Do you think, in the past 25 years, that high school football has gotten better for the players in any way?
I think it's gotten worse. Some of these high school programs are semi-pro. Everyone's talked about it, maybe they're being picked on, but Allen, Texas, built a $60 million stadium. Katy, Texas, is building a stadium I think for about $60 million. They're the new towers, affluent suburbs of Dallas and Houston where parents can afford to pay for private trainers, and it's really kind of semi-pro. Our obsession with sports is worse than ever before because some parents have this lunatic idea that their kids are going to make it to the pros. That's absurd, that's crazy. You know, sports are great as a side [activity]. It should not be the mainstay of life in high school and college, but in so many places, it is.
I was thinking of the part in the new afterword where you talk about visiting [Permian alumnus] Boobie Miles in prison. Do you think the high school football system, and Permian High in particular, bear any responsibility for the direction that Boobie's life took?
Everyone has to take responsibility [for themselves]. But when adults say, when coaches and administrators and teachers say, that kid has no value beyond sports, he's not worth educating, the end result is that kid is going to have a tremendous amount of problems in life. There's not an education to fall back on, they doesn't know adversity, because they're all put on a pedestal, they're all told how great they are. And then they get hurt or someone comes along who's better, and then they're thrown aside. They're gone, and no one cares.
Obviously, there are serious problems with the college and pro games too. Do you have any hope that football can improve in the coming years, at any of these levels?
I still really like the game. I like the violence. We do like the violence, we don't want to admit that, because it makes us seem like Romans in the Colosseum, but that's pretty much what football is. I don't think football is going away, and the issue of concussion injuries is a very serious one. I think we're trying to take steps to curtail it. I also feel at this point, parents know going in what the risks are. Players know going in what the risks are. At this point, if they want to play, they should play, but if they get concussions, they shouldn't file suits in court. It's a very, very risky game, but it's also a game that generates billions of dollars. You're not going to get rid of it. It's too ingrained in American culture. And just American culture, there's no other country anywhere that emphasizes sports to the degree that we do.