Friday Night Lights

Small towns and football and fall—what more could anyone ask?

I went to a football movie on Friday night.

You know this movie. You’ve seen it. Run-down small-town high school hires a new football coach. Program used to be great, but hasn’t done squat in years. Hardly anyone goes out for the team anymore. Nobody much goes to games, either, except for a vocal minority that sits in the stands and bellows to the new coach about what he ought to be doing out there instead of what he is.

Doesn’t seem to much faze the new coach. He’s a big guy, young guy, enthusiastic, with a bunch of new ideas. He organizes fund-raisers to build a weight room. Has the kids sell discount cards to pay for a week of summer sleep-away football camp. Assigns each recruit a thick playbook, and quizzes him on it. Runs a ton of drills. Gives the kids handouts with quotes from coaches he admires: Vince Lombardi, Joe Paterno, Knute Rockne. Talks about stuff like dedication and hard work and heart.

Doesn’t seem to make much difference. The team keeps losing. The first few years are bad; then it gets worse. Every time it looks like Coach might be turning things around, disaster strikes: The quarterback dislocates his shoulder. The star running back injures his knee. The Division 1-quality wide receiver gets a girlfriend and quits the team. Meantime, the cross-town rivals keep racking up wins.

The whispers begin. There are letters to the newspaper: This coach sucks! Get rid of him! Coach just keeps at it: the drills, the off-seasons in the weight room, the handouts and pep talks. He does more, too: He’s a steady presence in the lives of all those boys, urging them to take their SAT tests, texting them to make sure they’re hitting curfew, having them deliver gifts to needy families at Christmastime.

Four seasons go by. Then comes the fifth one. The preseason games are a split: one win, one loss. You can never tell with preseason. The season opener is at home, with all those doubters in the stands. And it’s against the cross-town rivals. Of course.

You know what happens. The home team comes out strong—scores in the first two minutes! Then scores again, on a beauty of a pass from the unlikely quarterback, who’s listed in the program at five-nine but is more like five-three. The kicker, recruited from the soccer team (of course he is), hits one point after, but flubs the other. The rumbling in the stands begins. “They’ll blow it, don’t worry,” one loudmouth dad announces. “They never hold a lead.”

Sure enough, they blow it. Oh, not right away. They hold on for a long time, but then the rivals start chipping away. Coach watches as his boys turn over on a fumble, then an interception. His demeanor doesn’t change. He clasps shoulders, bends down to whisper encouragement.

But the rivals, in the end, are too mighty. The home team pushes all the way to the 10-yard line and seems about to score—only to fumble it again. The rivals grind the clock down, grind the yards down, take it all the way with four minutes remaining, to lead 27-20. The crowd starts to trickle toward the parking lot. …

But wait! Against all odds, the home team doesn’t fold. They set to work, make their way back up the field. A long pass, a run, another run, and they’re knocking on the door. Oh God, this is just where they fumbled last time. Those who remain in the stands hold their breath. …

Score! The home team scores! They’re down by one—by that missed point-after. Do they play for the tie, or go for the win? Coach doesn’t hesitate. He calls for the two-point conversion, and … and … it’s … GOOD! WE WIN! WE WIN!

Strangers hug and clap each other on the back in the stands. The cheerleaders are hoarse from screaming. The players allow themselves high-fives and chest-bumps before heeding Coach’s order to line up to shake hands with the other team. And me? I cry. I sit in the stands, just bawling. I love this movie. I love it even more when it’s real life.