By Jeff Merron
"Friday Night Lights," H.G. "Buzz" Bissinger's book about the Odessa (Texas) Permian High School football team, was published in 1990. It was an instant success, spending 15 weeks on the New York Times Book Review best-seller list. Since the original publication, the book has never been out of print and has sold about 700,000 copies.
It was recently named the best sports book of the past 25 years by ESPN.
Page 2's Jeff Merron recently spoke to Bissinger, who's promoting the movie version, which opens this Friday.
1. What drew you to the story in the first place?
It's an idea that was actually kicking around in my head for 20 years before I wrote it, at least subliminally. I grew up in New York City, which has no high school football, but when I was about 13 years old, there was a cover story in Sports Illustrated about a high school quarterback named Jack Mildren, and he played at Abilene Cooper High School in Abilene, Texas.
I read that story word for word and was enthralled and amazed. He was like the Elvis Presley (or) Marilyn Monroe of the town. He was playing in front of 15,000, his name was on church marquees, and movie marquees
all over town. I just said, "My God." I think I was jealous. I mean, what is it like to be that young and that famous? It sort of stayed with me and stayed with me.
But it really kicked in during the summer of 1986. I had some time off from work, and I drove out West with a friend, and we took kind of the leisurely southern route. So you go through Georgia and Virginia and
Mississippi and Louisiana and then into Texas. Went through lots of small towns and then it hit me -- because you would always see the high school football stadium, and no matter what economic condition
the town's in, the stadium was always beautiful, and I just sort of said to myself, "This isn't just a stadium, this really is a shrine."
I went back to work, became an editor, I couldn't get the idea out of my head, and I was interested in the challenge of writing a book, and I just said, "You know what, I've got to do this."
2. Why Odessa?
There were four places I thought about. I thought about Ohio, I thought about Western Pennsylvania, there was a team in Georgia, Valdosta, and of course there was Texas. And I decided you've got to
do it in Texas.
Author Buzz Bissinger, right, and director Peter Berg endured a long wait to turn "Friday Night Lights" into a movie.
I wanted to find a place that was really out there, that I knew nothing about. I checked around with college recruiters, and to a person they all said, go to this place, Odessa. I said, "Why?" And they said, just go.
So I got on a plane in the spring of '88, and went down there, and just drove out and saw the high school football stadium which was unbelievable to me. I mean, it sat 19,000 people, it had an artificial surface field, a two-story press box. It was sort of like a rocket ship had landed in the middle of nowhere, because Odessa is dusty, it's not very pretty, and it's out in the desert.
I just knew this was the right place. And they also had a very, very winning program, which I thought was important for the drama of the book.
3. I've done a lot of reading about this, and the most common -- it's almost like a talking point among the townspeople -- is you said you were going to make another "Hoosiers." And you misled us ...
The issue is whether or not I misled them. There was no doubt that I said to people -- and my initial impulse and what attracted me to the story was that I thought this would be a "Hoosiers"-type experience of a
town coming together around a team.
And you know what? The minute Boobie Miles got hurt within the book, when he blows out his knee, it -- all sorts of things came into play that had not been there before. And as I delved deeper into the sort
of heart of Boobie, you know, you discover the racism, and reported on that.
When I spent time with the kids in class and saw what they were learning and how they were treated, it became clear to me that I believe the book has a lot of "Hoosiers"-type elements to it, but I was
there as a reporter. I had to report what I observed and what I found in my reporting.
It wasn't that "Hoosiers" became a cover. I knew it was a different story and, did I go around town saying, "Ah, I've gotcha, and I've discovered you?" No, I absolutely did not. I was quiet and circumspect
and went about my business.
The one person that I should've told much more about what was in the book was the head coach (Gary Gaines). I feel that I was wrong in not doing that, and I've thought about that for 14 years. And I actually went and saw him after 14 years. I went back down in June. (Sports Illustrated) wanted me to go back to Odessa and sort of take the temperature of the town. I went back and saw the coach unannounced.
He had been very loud in his cries of betrayal. And I wasn't there to apologize for what I had written but, you know, if I had done him harm or upset him that bothered me. My intent, at least in my mind, had been
to treat him sympathetically. At the very end, he asked me what was in the book. I was vague, and I was wrong. I should have said, "You know, Gary, frankly, there's a lot of things in here that I've discovered
that I'm going to have to report on," as opposed to blindsiding him.
|BISSINGER ON THE MOVIE|
|What was the movie-making process like for you, and why did it take so long?
The rights were sold almost as soon as the book was published. It was the Hollywood saga. It just churned and churned. It went through I don't know, six different directors.
It just kept falling apart. There were seven different scripts. I think the problem was that no one quite knew what movie to make. I mean, the biggest knock against the book, and it was a nice knock, is
that there's almost five or six different movies. There's a lot of ways you can take this. And no one quite knew how to take it. And because of that, it just kept churning.
Have you been very involved in the making of the movie?
No. Not really. Pete Berg came aboard about a year and a half ago. We're second cousins, we're very close, and that created probably another layer of tension.
I stayed away because he is my cousin, but I also stayed away because once you sell the rights you have to give them up. No one put a gun to my head to sell them.
I obviously was very nervous. I love Pete, but I love my book more. There was no way he could ever make a documentary. I understood that. To me the key thing (is), does the film totally reflect the tone, the
essential spirit of the book? And I have to say now, having seen the film three times, I think it does that superbly.
Not every aspect of the book is in it. But the underlying spirit of the book, to me, was about these boys and about this incredible rite of passage and about this incredible journey that they go on during the
course of the season.
The movie ends just like the book ends, with their names coming off the board, which to me was the most powerful metaphor of all. That this was your moment, and your moment is over, and now you're being
We spoke for an hour. He was incredibly gracious. I don't know if I'll ever see him again in my life. I think he respected the fact that I came to see him, unannounced, that I wanted to try to sort of bury the
wounds. For that hour, at least, we were friends again. To me at least, it was very cathartic and very purifying. He was a good man, and I will remember him as a good man, and whatever he thought of me
or didn't think of me, I was really glad that I saw him. It meant a lot to me personally.
4. I read through some "10 years later stories." People said, "He got us all wrong, but here's how we've changed." Is that all true?
When I was down in Odessa, it was very gratifying to me. I had lots of people, some of them in high governmental and school positions, saying, "You know what? There was more truth in the book than maybe we
were willing to admit. It's hard to look in the mirror, and it has had an impact."
I give Odessa a lot of credit for this. I think it's more enlightened in areas of race, in areas of education. (And) there's nowhere near the intensity placed on the football program that there used to be. And I
think the book is somewhat responsible for that.
5. How was your general reception when you went back?
It was good. I honestly think that many of those who cried foul the most, I'm not sure they read all of the book. I think they might have read the most controversial parts, and you've got to read the whole book. I mean, that's the point.
Also, a lot of them -- I'm not trying to be smarmy -- a lot of them have either died or moved on or are no longer there.
I did a book signing. It was the first public appearance I've done in Odessa. The first one that I was supposed to do, when the book was published in 1990, was cancelled because of threats of bodily harm.
(This time) about 200 people showed up. It was very gratifying to me. Granted, they were very excited about the film, so it might have been, "Eh, who cares about the book?", but that's a lot of people to show up
in a fairly small town.
6. Back when the town initially reacted, and you got the threats, were you surprised?
I was not surprised that the book would be controversial. (But) nothing that I wrote about was gained by, you know, sort of hiding behind bushes. When people used the word "n-----" to me, I had
my notebook open, and I was there clearly as a reporter.
Was I surprised by the threats? Yes. I also knew it had become a very charged atmosphere. Permian had just been banned from the playoffs, and they had been turned in by the rival school in town. Then the
book is coming out. So people blamed the book.
For parents, this was a huge deal. All of the sudden their kid, they'd been waiting 17 years for this moment, and it has been taken away from them. So it was a very, very crazy, chaotic environment.
7. What about the response of the players you wrote about?
That's what sort of kept me going. I was under a sea of a lot of criticism and it wasn't pleasant, but I knew what I had written to be true. And the response of the players, to a man -- the six players
that I focused on, every one of them said the book was accurate.
They stood by me, and the proof of it is that five of the six I'm still very, very friendly with today. I've spoken to each of them in the past week. The sixth is just busy and away a lot, so it's not like
we've had a falling out. That never would have happened if they didn't think the book was faithful to their experience. And that was very gratifying to me, and it was really important.
Boobie and I have an extremely close relationship. He's almost in some ways like a surrogate son to me. I've helped him. After the book came out, I've helped him out financially, and we talk sometimes as many
times as three or four times a week.
I've been very, very close to Brian Chavez and his family. I've had a lot of contact with Jerrod McDougal and Don Billingsley. It has a wonderful unintended result of the book. I loved them as kids, and I still call them kids, and now I love them as men. We have a very, very close bond that will be there forever.
8. Aside from the actual book and the controversy, how did living in Odessa change your life?
It changed my life in an interesting way. One of the exciting things about reporting is going to places you've never been to before. I always had a curiosity about Texas. I had a curiosity about small-town life, although, granted, Odessa's not a tiny town.
I had certain preconceptions of what Odessa would be like and what Texas would be like and what these kids would be like. You know, they were sort of the typical cultural stereotypes: They'd be a bunch of
hicks, a bunch of wahoos, and I found out that was not the case. They were smart, they had a curiosity, they had an incredible nobility to them because of the unbelievable pressure that was being heaped upon
Beyond the book, it was kind of a great experience both ways. I just spoke to Brian Chavez about this a couple of months ago. He said, "You know, when you came in, it was like some Martian had landed on our
planet. You're Jewish, you're from New York, you're tense, you wear glasses, you don't really party much, you're not an athlete, you ask a lot of questions, you went to an Ivy League school. We didn't know
what the hell this was."
But bit by bit, because I was there for every practice and continued to act myself, he said what was neat was that by the end of the season I really was a part of the team.
I really like Odessa. I mean, it's got problems, like every place has problems, but there's a rawness and a visceral quality to it. I think frankly what happened was that people are brutally honest, which is
great for a reporter, and probably not so great for the people who are brutally honest. They said what they believed and what they felt.
The people in the town embraced me, and were very, very friendly, and I was friendly back. And I didn't -- I didn't write the things I wrote with blood dripping out of my mouth. "Ooh, I'm gonna get 'em."
I mean, it was hard to write.
9. My impression of the book was not nearly as negative as Odessans' impressions. I grew up in New Jersey. I thought, "These were the kinds of problems that were in every town in New Jersey."
It's interesting that you say that. Because that was almost the universal reaction outside of Odessa.
The longevity of the book, the fact that it's sold more than 700,000 copies, that it's never gone out of print, wasn't because it was an expose. It was because -- I'm not sure I even knew this -- it was a
timeless experience that people all over the country were able to identify with.
Particularly the kids, and those incredible emotional highs of what it's like to be in high school and particularly what it's like to be a high school athlete.
If all it was was an expose about a place in Texas that no one had heard of, the book would not have worked.
10. Is there a moral to the tale?
There's a definite moral. Athletics: it's a wonderful thing, it's a spell-binding thing, nothing in life has quite as much pageantry, as much emotion within a finite time frame, it's incredibly exciting.
But the problem with athletics is that it ends. Boobie's entire life changed in that millisecond when he wrecked his knee. Without an education, Boobie's life has been very, very hard.
Boobie talks about this with great passion. Sixteen- and 17-year-old kids ask him, "What was it like, Boobie, what was it like?" and he says, "You should never do what I did, because I am paying the price
for not having to study."
He was getting paid. By boosters. Unmarked envelopes, in his locker, containing as many dollars as yards he gained the previous Friday night. If you're getting paid, if you're getting money for football,
you think you're going to hit the books?
And there's thousands of Boobies out there. Maybe it's a tired tale, but without an education, you're not going to go anywhere. And it's also a message for administrators and coaches. There's a tendency to
add, "That's Odessa, boy, it's really intense, it'll never be that intense here," but that just is wrong.