I’m in the lobby of Buzz Bissinger’s hotel. He’s the author of Friday Night Lights, the book-turned-movie-turned-TV-show that conjures up a very specific image of Texas, of football, of high school. Lights rising over a stadium, bleachers filled with fans so loyal it almost feels surreal.
“You know ‘Friday Night Lights’ has become part of the vernacular. It’s the phrase. I should have trademarked it, I would’ve been very rich. I would’ve owned NPR,” he muses, despite the fact that nonprofit NPR doesn’t have owners.
Bissinger is in Dallas for a Friday Night Lights book tour — yet another one. He’s been bopping around the state, and country, for weeks promoting his book's twenty-fifth anniversary edition, which also chronicles his visits to six former Permian High Panthers he profiled a quarter-century ago.
He seems worn down by the traveling — or is it the book itself?
"There's nothing worse than a book tour -- trust me, I've done these -- where you go to a bookstore and there are like, three people there. It's very, very humiliating," Bissinger says.
Earlier this morning, he was in Abilene, Texas, two hours east of Odessa, where the book was set. It’s hard to imagine this rocker type in a small town like that, where oil and football reign supreme. He’s written before that his aesthetic has been compared to Bon Jovi, which isn’t a surprise. He’s decked out in black and some more black, wearing sunglasses as we talk. On a few of his fingers are metal rings, tiny skulls that embrace his knuckles.
“Twenty-five year anniversary of everything is a big deal,” he says. “The book has lasted longer than two of my marriages.”
Bissinger has seen a lot in life since then. The New York native is 60 now, and has a shelf of other successful books: "Shattered Glass," about a plagiarizing journalist; "Three Nights In August," about baseball; "Father’s Day," about one of his sons.
He's also had his share rough patches.
There was a brief stint as a notorious Twitter troll, which he acknowledged came at a rocky point in his life when he was thirsty for attention. “I didn’t like myself on Twitter, I was acting like an idiot,” he tells me. A couple years ago, he wrote about his debt-inducing, half-a-million-dollar addiction to leather, which he revealed in GQ.
Still, after all this, Bissinger can’t seem to shake the pull of "Friday Night Lights" — the way it’s attached itself to his name, the way it seems to eclipse any of his other accomplishments. Like that Pulitzer Prize he and his colleagues at the Philadelphia Inquirer scored in 1987 for their investigation on the city’s courts.
That’s why, after two and a half decades, he came back to Texas.
“I want to resurrect those memories, or at least the memory of those memories," he wrote in the book's anniversary edition, "since I am now 60, when you forget far more than you remember. I hate going back in my life for the very reason it means going back, and I am neither a believer in nor advocate of nostalgia. It was a linchpin moment of my life — the moment, to be honest.”
Today, some of the Permian players from Bissinger’s book — most of them now overweight and balding, he tells me, kind of wryly — have kids. Some are married. Some are in and out of jail. Some have solid jobs. He remembers how Odessa reacted when the book first came out.
“They thought I’d betrayed them. You know, I will point out, I had no idea what would happen,” Bissinger says.
See, "Friday Night Lights" is as much about race as football.
Odessa didn’t desegregate its schools until a federal court ordered it in 1982, decades years after Brown v. Board of Education. In the book, Permian’s running back — its star player — was Boobie Miles, dubbed “The Great Black Hope” by some. Miles had a lot on his shoulders: He was to carry the team, he was to use football as a way to get out of this town, he was to do something different, better. His uncle, L.V., wanted that for him.
But when Miles tore up his knee in a preseason scrimmage, he was discarded. He’d shredded his ACL, and he’d never play with the same ferocity again. Another black player came in, seemingly out of nowhere, and took his place. One of the assistant coaches referred to Miles as a “big ol’ dumb nigger.” Years later, in his e-book, "After Friday Night Lights," Bissinger says he revealed the name of that assistant coach — Mike Belew — because he felt it was unfair to protect him.
“Boobie was just an 18-year-old kid. And the shortness of that comment — I don’t like repeating it — was really just awful,” Bissinger tells me. “I didn’t do it with glee. I just thought it’d be fair, albeit quite late.”
He talked to a middle-aged Miles in "After Friday Night Lights."
“I could not believe he would say that shit about me,” Miles told him. “That hurt for real when he said that. I could not get that shit out of my mind. He actually called me that, bro.”
This haunted Bissinger over the decades; after all, Miles, who’s now in prison for violating a probation order, had become like a fourth son to him. A son he helped out, from time to time, with money for a car, trade school, other odds and ends. Bissinger says he even split proceeds from the e-book with Miles.
“I felt a moral responsibility to help him. The book would’ve been different without him, and I think a lot of authors don’t feel any moral responsibility to the people they write about,” Bissinger says. He mentions he met up with Miles’ two kids and their mother for dinner the night before.
I ask if he's talked to Miles recently. “No, I can’t,” Bissinger says, plainly. “He sends me letters, and I owe him a letter.”
And — fleetingly, suddenly — the gears are turning.
“Well, I guess he could call me on the phone. I could get on his list. After this is over, I’ll email him. ... This is not some, 'All right, I’ll latch onto Boobie because I’m doing a new afterword.'... I worry about him, and I don’t really know how much I or anyone can do. Texas can be a tough place if you’re a convicted felon coming out at the age of 50.”
This is the type of stuff Bissinger thinks about constantly. The way "Friday Night Lights" has infiltrated his life is exhausting.
By the time the TV show rolled out in 2006 — nearly a decade and a half after his book was first released, and just two years after the movie — he felt his first book overshadowing everything else he’d done. And anything else he could do.
“I thought, God, how weird is this. I’m sort of the non-fiction equivalent of the high school quarterback. I won state in a sense, when I was 34 years old,” Bissinger says. “So when the TV show came out, I was sick of hearing it, I just didn’t want to watch it. I was 'Friday Night Lighted' out."
“At a certain point, it was a noose,” he adds. "Life is about moving up.”
I ask what’s next.
“You know, when you write for a long time, finding that connection, that passion... those feelings are hard to come by, and I’m thinking I’m in a sort of career decision time,” he says.
Bissinger will teach nonfiction at the University of Pennsylvania, where he went to school. It’ll be good to give back, he says. He’s also tossing around the idea of another book -- one about the cultural history of football. But the idea of writing and selling yet another piece of work feels daunting. There’s the anxiety he has to consider, and the shot to his ego.
“ 'Friday Night Lights' was a perfect... It was a first-time publisher, non-fiction, it was a first-time author, it was a first-time photographer, and everything worked. And that was a magic experience, and you know, I’m not going to have that again.”