Author Of "Friday Night Lights" Presents Dewald Lecture And Convocation At Mount Union College
September 9, 2005
The story of a high school quarterback from Abilene, Texas and how he became the hero of an entire town was what first enticed H.G. "Buzz" Bissinger, author of Friday Night Lights, to consider writing a book about the importance of high school football in small town America. A high school student himself at the time, Bissinger was mesmerized by the magic of the tale.
"How can a kid that young become that famous, that important and that worshiped?" asked Bissinger.
After years as a prize-winning journalist and writer, Bissinger finally made the decision to pursue the project, although everyone around him thought he was crazy.
"I have learned one thing in my years as a writer," Bissinger told an audience of Mount Union College students at a convocation today. "I never listen to my head, just the pounding of my heart."
Bissinger explained how he pursued writing a book about high school football and what he learned during the process to the audience, comprised mostly of freshmen students who were required to read Friday Night Lights as part of a summer reading program.
After traveling through Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana, he ended up in the small town of Odessa, Texas, home of the Permian Panther football team. He immediately knew he was about to embark on an amazing journey.
"I picked up and moved to Odessa with my family," said Bissinger, who also presented the Dewald Lecture Wednesday night on Mount Union's campus.
"Over time a bond developed," said Bissinger. "I came to feel comfortable in the town and built great relationships with the Permian players." But in the end, Bissinger was a journalist investigating a story and he began to see a much different side of Odessa, more than just football glory and pride.
A town that rose and fell with the prices of oil, Odessa was, as Bissinger said, "in the middle of nowhere." Avoiding desegregation until the early 1980s, racism was considered a way of life and education took a back seat to athletics. The only saving grace of its residents was the success of the Permian football team, and they put all of their faith into winning Friday night games. They were in search of an identity, and as Bissinger commented, there is nothing more powerful than sports to provide a town with a purpose.
"I was not prepared for the 'friday night lights,'" said Bissinger. "It is a certain kind of religion, not just in Odessa, but in tens of thousands of towns across the country. I will never forget the responsibility that these players had. They were kids and they were asked to act and perform like men. It went beyond all comprehension.
"I saw high school kids literally being sacrificed, discarded after their powers dried up and demoted from rock stars, princes and kings at the age of 17 to has-beens at the age of 18," said Bissinger. "The education of these boys and their preparation for life after sports was considered an afterthought."
Bissinger then told the tale of Boobie Miles, an African-American senior on the 1988 Permian Panther football team who was considered the best running back in the state of Texas that year.
"Plans for Boobie were as grand as they were for many players in Texas who were strong and could run like the wind," said Bissinger. "Football was his reason to exist, and any academic preparation for his future was an afterthought."
According to Bissinger, Miles thought he had it made, with recruiting letters pouring in from Division I teams. Learning disabled, Miles paid little attention to his school coursework and teachers at Permian High School made no attempt to instill in him any appreciation for learning.
"When Boobie blew out his knee in a meaningless pre-season scrimmage, he had nothing to fall back on," said Bissinger. "I watched him transform from a football star to a has-been at the age of 18."
Today, Bissinger continues to have contact with Miles, who he considers a good friend.
"He actually called me two days ago," said Bissinger. "We usually chat a bit and he tells me about his life. Sometimes are conversations are positive, but more than not they are sad."
During his most recent call, Miles told Bissinger that his wife left him. She is in prison and he is trying to take care of his five-year-old twins by himself. According to Bissinger, Miles wants a good job and good life, but due to a recent prison stay of his own, his pay scale has dropped from $17 an hour to $7.
"When Boobie gets halfway up the ladder, something always knocks him down," said Bissinger. "I love him because he has a heart as big as an angel, but when he calls, I know he usually wants something from me. I know he hates to ask me for money, but when he does, I give it to him. I give it to him out of guilt because without Boobie, there would not have been a Friday Night Lights. I give to him because each tear of an envelope holding a letter from a Division I recruiter was the sound of an American tragedy.
"I wonder what would have become of Boobie if someone at that school would have directed him," added Bissinger. "What if he would have been given the bare minimum of what all children deserve an education."
Bissinger admitted that wondering does little good. "The past is the past and you have to move on," he said. Yet, he believes the lack of education in Odessa is the only real legacy of what it meant to play in those "friday night lights."
Fifteen years later, Bissinger says that the story of Odessa has stood the test of time. "I fear that what happened in Odessa was in no way exceptional," he said. "We've all seen the craziness that can come from sports scandals at all levels. You can see the kids that have been cast aside like road kill on the highway, kids that put everything they had into the game."
When asked by a student in the audience how the residents of Odessa responded to the book, he noted that they were very upset at the time. "I had a couple of book signings scheduled in the town that I had to cancel because of threats of bodily harm," he said chuckling. "But I went back last June and things had tempered a bit. They were excited about the upcoming film and for the most part were very friendly."
The book definitely had an effect on the town, despite their anger. One school administrator admitted that the book caused such a frenzy partly because it was difficult to look in the mirror. "He said the book was a painful wake-up call and its accuracy showed that Odessa needed to change," said Bissinger
And it has changed. According to Bissinger, it is a much more enlightened place, but that enlightenment has come with a price. The success of the Permian Panther football program has plummeted, finishing winless during last year's season.
"Football is no longer the center of the universe in Odessa," concluded Bissinger.