"Friday Night Lights" And Reminiscing On High School Football Glory

“Friday Night Lights,” the acclaimed series with mediocre ratings during its first run has since found new life after its initial airing. This sincere depiction at the religion of Texas high school football is a compelling documentation of an array of characters. As an unlikely veteran of high school football, I take a look back at the series and what made it great while reflecting on my own experiences as a student-athlete.

The television series, based on both the book “Friday Night Lights: A Town, a Team, and a Dream” by journalist H. G. Bissinger and its 2004 film adaptation, takes place in the fictional Texas town of Dillon. The original source material was a true account of the 1988 season of the Permian Panthers of Odessa, Texas. Developed for television by Peter Berg, who directed the film, the show is set in present day and goes in depth of various story arcs of families and student cliques that paint a more comprehensive study of its characters than a feature film could ever do. The series begins with Coach Eric Taylor’s first year as head coach facing a lot of pressure to win big that season. With mounting pressure to win by the local press and the townspeople, the players themselves still have to deal with their day-to-day lives at home, at school, and their social interactions. “Friday Night Lights” is more than just a typical teen drama. You don’t even have to be that familiar with football in order to appreciate the premise of the series. It’s an engaging voyeuristic look into a town centered on high school football that treats its characters realistically and empathetically.

For a show like Friday Night Lights and why it has grown more in popularity with its availability on DVD and Netflix streaming since it’s been off the air can be traced to word-of-mouth promotion and its wide relatability. While its focal point is high school football, it’s much more than that. It portrays a realistic depiction of Middle America in a rural setting but with the same dynamics of family and school life that is present around the country. You have Coach Eric Taylor (Kyle Chandler), who is responsible for both the well-being of his family and his team. His wife Tami (Connie Britton) is his biggest supporter and the mother to their teenage daughter Julie (Aimee Teegarden). Eric and Tami represent an idealistic depiction of parenting while maintaining a strong loving marriage while dealing with the highs and lows of their lives. In 2011, Judy Berman of Flavorwire.com named Eric and Tami Taylor as one of the best TV characters that year, adding that they are “deeply good people who are imperfect enough to never seem saccharine, they have major disagreements and relationship-changing conflicts but value each other and their marriage enough to work them out.”

Since the beginning of the series Eric Taylor is a tough but fair coach who always looks out for the best of his players. He never lets his guard down and if one player struggles, he makes sure the whole team unites together to bring that player back up. When his star running back’s ego gets too high while being interviewed by a local news channel, he takes every player out for a late evening run to remind everyone that they work as a team by not putting one player above the rest. When the team wins, he’s not afraid to join in the celebration. When the team loses, he uses it as a teachable moment while not putting the players down. Off the field, his wife Tami remained the voice of reason in both the raising of their teenage daughter and her role at the high school beginning as a counselor and later promoted to school principal. Her genuine kindness and caring role as a mother translated to treating her students, in particular mentoring Tyra Collette (Adrianne Palicki), whom she helped boost her confidence to turn her grades around and getting accepted to college. Together, they have the difficult time of raising a teenage daughter plus a newborn daughter in the second season. The two become wary when Julie starts dating Matt Saracen (Zach Gilford). Despite being a studious but shy high school student who spends most of his free time taking care of his elderly grandmother, the fact that Matt was a football player was initially off-putting for the Taylors when it came to their daughter’s dating life. But like the good parents they are, they were only looking out to protect Julie from any harm teenage girls face.

I wasn’t a viewer at the time the show started airing in 2006 but gained interest as the show was picking up a cult following. Running for five seasons despite low ratings in the first few seasons, NBC struck a deal with DirecTV to continue distribution of the show to keep it on the air. DirecTV would get to air new episodes but for non-DirecTV subscribers, NBC would air those episodes months later. As a Netflix subscriber, I caught up with the first four seasons just in time for NBC’s airing of the fifth and final season in 2011. As this year’s football season launched in September, I decided to revisit Dillon, Texas. As I was watching the show a second time around, I found myself not only appreciating the show and its characters even more, but I began reminiscing about my own high school football “career.”

I grew up and went to school in a small suburban town in Connecticut, 1,800 miles away from Texas. I was the unlikely athlete. I was five foot six, little muscle mass, and a not the biggest drive and determination as a player. But looking back, I’m glad I played all four years. I never started in a varsity game but I had my fair share of playing time. Football kept me in shape, I made many friends on the team, and it looked good on my college application. In my four years playing, we never made the playoffs (almost came close in our 7-3 season my sophomore year) but never fell short of a .500 season. One of my favorite memories was a home game my sophomore year. We were the Wildcats with maroon and white jerseys. Nothing flashy. Before the game, we were out on the field doing our routine stretches while the crowd made their way to the stands. We went back into the locker room when our head coach unveiled brand new black game jerseys which really pumped us up. We strolled onto the field with our new impenetrable armor and newfound confidence as the crowd roared on. We won the game in historic fashion. We felt invincible after that game. While we never achieved post-season glory, that game remained one of our finest moments.

Unlike typical teenage melodramas, “Friday Night Lights” depicts normal teenagers who have to deal with the pressure to succeed on the field and in the classroom. They could go off to college or remain trapped in Dillon. Jason Street (Scott Porter) was the star quarterback and pride of the Panthers until he was severely injured and left paralyzed in the first game of the season of the pilot episode. His football future was cut short and had to search for a new purpose in life while confided to a wheelchair. Backup quarterback Matt Saracen is the shy sophomore who must step up to the plate and is able to deliver in clutch moments. Meanwhile, he has to adjust to his newfound status and admiration from the town while developing a love interest in Julie Taylor. Tim Riggins (Taylor Kitsch) is the powerful fullback but struggles as a troubled teen who relies on alcohol to cope with his problems. Lyla Garrity (Minka Kelly) is the popular and smart cheerleader who dated Jason Street but began an affair Tim Riggins soon after Jason’s paralysis. Her father Buddy (Brad Leland), owner of a successful car dealership and influential booster for the football program has his share of wrongdoings throughout the show but redeems himself as a father figure and remains loyal to Coach Taylor and his players. Brian “Smash” Williams (Gaius Charles) is the fast-talking running back with the best chances of being recruited to a Division I school with dreams of making it in the pros.

Over the course of five years, some characters come and go, considering the students graduate and go off to college. Some stick around and others pop in again near the series’ conclusion. By the end of the third season, Coach Taylor is forced out of his coaching job by the administration at the time of the school district’s decision to re-open East Dillon high school, which is located in a poorer part of the town. Now coaching the East Dillon Lions’ inaugural season, Coach Taylor must start from scratch with an underfunded program with many players who’ve never played the game before. As season four begins, the focus is on two new players: Vince Howard (Michael B. Jordan) and Luke Cafferty (Matt Lauria). Vince is a troubled youth with a drug addicted mother and a father serving time in prisons but is given the choice to join the team or go to juvenile detention. Luke, a promising young player who was originally on the Dillon Panthers, must transfer to East Dillon when it is learned that he used a fake address to be eligible to play in Dillon. Luke comes from a farming family with no interest or support of their son’s passion for playing football. With two different backgrounds, Vince and Luke are the center of the East Dillon Lions players, often clashing on the team but ultimately support each other for the benefit of the team. In the last two seasons of the show, the testament to the talents of Coach Taylor was his ability to assemble and discipline a new crop of players, play for a school with no money and little community support to prove that they have the potential to be a winning football team.

So while my team never had the level of success as the Dillon Panthers / East Dillon Lions, for the most part I was able to relate to the aspect of being a high school player. Watching Coach Taylor discipline his team brought a flood of memories back. As a high school football player, we had to work as a team, as a single unit. We had to know the plays, know what to expect of the opposing team in next week’s game, and know what we were capable of. If someone mouthed off, they had to run laps. If someone half-assed it, they had to re-do the drill until they went 100%. Like I previously said, Coach Eric Taylor was tough but fair. The creation of his character must have been based on dozens of real-life high school football coaches who knew how to mold athletes while representing the ideal mentor figure teenage boys strived for.

While playing football in Connecticut had its share of small town fanfare and community support, football in Texas is just on a whole other level. It’s practically a religion. The stadium is the church, the townspeople are the congregation, the players are choir, and the coach is the pastor. For desolate rural Texas towns, Friday nights at the stadium is the best entertainment they can get each week. The players are treated like rock stars not just in school but from the whole town. But with rock stardom comes with the pressure. The pressure to not let your coach down, not let your players down, and not let the town down. The short term goals are to win that week. The long term goal is to win State. For those talented enough, their skills on the field can lead to prosperity at a Division I college football program. So not only do players have to prove themselves to the town, they have to proof themselves to recruiters.

Like I previously said, I wasn’t the likeliest of high school football players, which made me a fan of Landry Clark (Jessie Plemons) since the beginning of the series. As a freshman in season one, he is best friends with second-string quarterback Matt Saracen. Bright but somewhat nerdy, Landry has no interest in football but supports Matt nonetheless despite being in the shadow of Jason Street in the pilot episode. Once Matt becomes first string following Jason’s paralysis, Landry watches as Matt assumes this new role on the team and reputation in school while dealing with the added pressure of winning. In season two, Landry decides to join the team, partially to impress his father. Landry is the unlikely athlete but remains loyal to his team and his coach. In a clutch moment, Landry has assumed a new role as a kicker and proves himself during a last-second win in the fourth season.

“Friday Night Lights” remains an incredibly addicting series with realistic portrayals of characters deep in the religion of Texas high school football. This isn’t your typical teen drama and makes every type of viewer root for the home team. With brilliant performances and smart writing, “Friday Night Lights” proves to be one of the best and most cherished series of the past decade.

Clear eyes, full hearts… can’t lose.

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