HOUSTON (AP) — Twenty-five years ago, H.G. “Buzz” Bissinger published a book focusing on a handful of players and coaches at a West Texas high school, lone stars among a thousand teams and 126,000 young Texans who donned helmets and shoulder pads in 1988, grains of sand amid a hundred years and a million tales of Texas football.
He called it “Friday Night Lights,” and with almost 2 million copies in print, it remains arguably the most well-rounded examination ever written of topics that Texas and Texans continue to hold dear — as well as subjects with which they continue to struggle.
The Houston Chronicle (http://bit.ly/1MpSOYk ) reports such an accomplishment deserves a 25-year victory lap.
So Bissinger returns to Texas this week, with a Wednesday stop in Houston, to reminisce about those who admired and still admire “Friday Night Lights” and to recall those who were sufficiently offended in 1990 to threaten lawsuits and, in some case, threaten his life.
“I am proud of the book, and I am proud of its legacy,” Bissinger said. “I’m lucky that I was in the right place at the right time to write a book that really isn’t about sports but is about the impact of sports and that is more true than ever today.”
“Friday Night Lights” chronicles the 1988 season at longtime high school football powerhouse Odessa Permian, focusing on, as its subtitle states, “a town, a team and a dream.” From that narrow focus, however, came a larger narrative in which practically every reader could find things to admire or decry and any number of elements with which to identify.
“That was the secret sauce,” Bissinger said. “I knew there were excesses in the program and the town that had to be pointed out. But all over the country, not just in Texas, it became a parable of what was happening with high school football, both the great part and the scary part.
“The book has become timeless, and I know this based on thousands of comments from readers who identify with the book: ‘This was my high school.’ ‘I remember these kids.’ ‘I was one of these kids.’ ‘I remember the Friday night lights.’?”
In the wake of the “no-pass, no-play” furor of the mid-1980s, some readers focused on Bissinger’s descriptions of education taking a backseat to football at Permian. Others marveled at the intensity of Permian fans, including the man who said, “Life really wouldn’t be worth living if you didn’t have a high school team to support,” as West Texas struggled through the aftermath of the oil bust of the mid-’80s.
As Bissinger wove personal stories into the larger narrative, many readers focused on the sad tale of running back James “Boobie” Miles, who began the season as Permian’s best-known player but, after a season-ending injury, faced ridicule and scorn, some of it of a racial nature, as his importance to the Panthers’ football machine faded.
Don Billingsley, one of the featured students in the book, said a few weeks before its release, “I think there’s too much truth in there for people to handle.” Indeed, Bissinger received death threats that prompted his publisher to cancel a book-signing stop to Odessa.
In fact, this Texas tour, with stops in Odessa, Midland, San Antonio, Abilene, Dallas and Austin — in addition to his Wednesday night appearance at the Brazos Bookstore in Houston — re-creates his planned 1990 book tour.
Time, though, has healed most wounds. In 2004, when the movie based on the book was released, students in Permian’s hallways regularly sported “Friday Night Lights” T-shirts. These days, when Bissinger talks to younger men and women about the book, he said a common response is, “There was a book? I thought it was just a movie.”
“When I’ve been back to Odessa, people have been friendly and cordial,” he said. “I know there have been changes. When you walk into Permian High School now, you don’t see flags commemorating football championships. You see flags of colleges that kids have attended, including Harvard.”
The film, which took generous liberties with the truth, and the TV series, with which Bissinger was not involved, both drew mixed reviews. The book remains a classic, cited in the recent anthology “100 Essential Texas Books” for its mixture of sports and sociology.
“It was the first of its kind that explored the whole phenomenon of football and a community and the whole social spectrum rather than just the players and the games,” said Carlton Stowers, the former sportswriter and award-winning true crime author who helped compile “100 Essential Texas Books.” ”It was an honest book. And, sometimes, that will make you some enemies.”
In 1990, some of those enemies contacted Gerald Treece, a Houston attorney and Odessa Permian graduate, to explore legal action because they felt betrayed by the manner in which Bissinger portrayed them and their city.
“They thought it was going to be ‘Hoosiers,’?” Treece said. “The problem was that the story was accurate. Truth is a pretty strong defense.”
Bissinger acknowledges that he lucked into a treasure trove of material of personalities and circumstances. Permian was not ranked in the Class 5A Top 10 before the 1988 season and required a coin flip to break a three-way tie for the district title to make the playoffs, but the Panthers made it within one game of the championship game before losing to Dallas Carter, which had controversies of its own in 1988 that added to the tense times described in the book.
“I had nothing to do with it being such a great story,” he said. “There were more twists and turns than you can imagine.”
The twists continued after the 1988 season and, in some ways, continue today. Permian won a state championship in 1989 but in 1990 was barred from the playoffs because of improper preseason practices. The Panthers won a division title in 1991 and lost in the 1995 division finals and have not played for a championship in 20 years.
In fact, Permian has become a relative afterthought, in terms of statewide significance, in the last two decades. After making the playoffs 20 times in 26 years from 1970 through 1995, Permian has made the playoffs only nine times in the last 19 seasons, five times advancing as far as the third of six rounds but no further.
Instead, much as Permian emerged in the 1960s as a force, the Panthers specifically, and West Texas football in general, have been overshadowed by Dallas-Fort Worth teams as Texas’ population has shifted to the DFW-Houston-San Antonio triangle.
“People have assumed I would be happy about that. I wasn’t happy about that,” Bissinger said. “The landscape changed. I don’t get the sense they’re committing the excesses of the past. Now it’s Katy and Allen and Euless Trinity.
“Permian won (in the 1970s and ’80s) with undersized, tough kids. Those days are over. It’s hard to compete against schools with great facilities and big kids and private trainers. That storybook ending isn’t going to happen anymore.”
While Bissinger senses that football and academics are now more in balance in Permian than they were in the 1980s, he cocks a skeptical eye toward the likes of Allen and Katy, each of which spent or plans to spend nearly $60 million on new stadiums.
“Do you need (a $60 million stadium)?” he said. “People need to ask that question. Is that what it’s all about? I don’t think it is, but I’m not a taxpayer.”
Bissinger went on to professional success and a degree of personal turmoil in the wake of “Friday Night Lights.”
He recently wrote one of the year’s most-anticipated stories, the tale of 1972 Olympic gold medalist Bruce Jenner’s transformation into Caitlyn Jenner, for Vanity Fair, and a personal confession of sorts about a shopping addiction that cost him a half-million dollars and, along with other issues, led to a stint in rehab.
“There was a time when I was burned out and tired of hearing about ‘Friday Night Lights,’?” he said. “Then I went into rehab and got a grip and realized, as my father told me, ‘that a book like this is a great problem to have. Shut up and feel good that you wrote something that people cared about and that still sells.’?”
Just as he delved so thoroughly into the inner life of Odessa, Bissinger did not spare himself in disclosing the “variety of compulsive and dangerous behavior” that led to rehab. He wrote that using men’s and women’s clothing “became my venue,” as he described it, “into the sexual unknown.”
“It was part of me believing we are in a profession where we ask people to be honest so you have to be honest about yourself,” he said. “Maybe people can derive some benefit from my talking about what I’ve been through and how I got through it.”
Similarly, he was impressed with which Jenner shared her story.
“I found Caitlyn a flawed person, with a difficult relationship with the four Jenner children,” he said. “But she was impeccably honest; I found her candor appealing. People like honesty, even though it’s not practiced very much anymore.”
Still, despite the recent attention surrounding the Jenner story, and even though he thinks he’s written better books (notably “A Prayer for the City” about Philadelphia’s city government), Bissinger acknowledges that it is “Friday Night Lights” for which he will remain known.
“For a lot of writers, the best book you write is not the book that people cling to,” he said. “It’s been 25 years, and I still get two or three emails a week about ‘Friday Night Lights.’ I don’t get that many on Jenner.”
He is discouraged by the emphasis that many continue to place on high school football and the occasional off-kilter moments it produces, including the recent attack on a game official by two players in Texas, and said he would hesitate to let his children play the game because of injury concerns.
But Bissinger also remains spellbound by the spectacle of it all.
“My most indelible memories of Permian are the games and those noble, gladiatorial kids,” he said. “. I love the game. I like the violence. The hits are exciting, and you’re never going to get them out of the game.
“You have to accept football for what it is or get rid of it. We’re not going to get rid of it, and I don’t think that we should.”
Information from: Houston Chronicle, http://www.houstonchronicle.com