Buzz Bissinger: A Savior for the City

More than two decades ago, Buzz Bissinger won a Pulitzer writing for the Inquirer, then published his masterpiece, Friday Night Lights. Now he’s rich, and famous. So why is he back at the Inky as a columnist — and why is he so mad?

Don’t get Buzz wrong; he’s no Luddite. He Twitters. He adores his Kindle. And he’s aware some Philadelphians don’t even know who Steve Lopez is (though Lopez’s The Soloist was Philly’s “One Book, One City” pick last year — and don’t think that doesn’t stick in Buzz’s craw). Such citizens see Buzz differently. “His commentaries in the Inquirer are grounded in a belief that there’s an older political system in play,” says attorney Wendy Beetlestone, “whereas there’s actually a new, different system.” His column, she says, reeks of negativity: “Attacking politicians, especially good ones, isn’t helpful. Mayor Nutter does things in a different way from Rendell. Buzz doesn’t see that.”

To an even younger generation, he’s simply irrelevant. blogger Joey Sweeney, who organized a boycott of the Inquirer after it hired Yoo, is brusque: “Having not read the columns, and having written Buzz off as a crank a while ago, I don’t have a lot to say.”

Buzz is too smart not to fear the future slipping away from him. “It feels like the column is satisfying some itch he has,” Stalberg says, but it’s more than an itch. It’s a compulsion, the need to matter, to be paid attention to. When Buzz was growing up, wisdom and experience counted, not glib cleverness. But beneath that inversion, he harbors a darker, more terrible secret: “The success I had with my first book,” he admits, “is impossible to replicate.” It’s what drew him to write about high-school football in the first place — the pathos of kids who peak at 18, for whom all the years to follow are a long look back.

Buzz is still a pit bull, though. That’s why he won’t give up trying to top Steve Lopez, why he’s working with Billy Bob Thornton to turn Three Nights in August into a film, why he’s penning a sports column for — of all places — the New Republic. It’s why he’s tiptoeing into a new medium, radio, trying out as a guest host on WPHT, the Big Talker, a while back. “Radio is entertainment,” he says. “It tempts you to be outrageous.” He filled in on the 10 p.m.-to-midnight slot: “Maybe four people called in.” It’s a start, another means to exhort, try to right what’s wrong. Hey, the city still needs saving. And it’s not like Buzz is going to be keeping his counsel. Even when he knows he should. “Salinger just cut out after Catcher in the Rye,” he mentions. “He was smart. I admire that.”