I’m a Reagan baby, a product of recession, later reared in the economically secure Clinton nineties, in a McMansioned suburb of the Eastern Seaboard. Our athletes—statuesque Celtics and sinewy Red Sox—were billboarded, televised, and extra-life-sized for us to admire as we turned into populist fist-pumpers in the soft reflection of our screens.
My own sports career ended at fifteen, soon after my discoveries of breasts and marijuana—plus, my post-pubic body’s physiological rejection of the command, “Run laps.” I attended a large public high school known for its high rate of acceptance into Harvard and for its unattractive cheerleaders. Once, at a basketball game, a rival school’s fans chanted “Who Let the Dogs Out” when our Lady-Lions took the court.
Still, one makes do. When it comes to social strata in American public schools, life has no choice but to imitate, if not art, then at least John Hughes movies. Our football players held the top position in the high school hierarchy. They wore jerseys over ties on game day, took Creatine, shotgunned beers, spoke with put-on Boston accents. Sensitive stoners like me hung girl-less at the edge of the party, colluding in the mass self-delusion that this was a football team, that this was a party.
I watched Friday Night Lights for the first time four years ago in my New York apartment, bedridden by the idiocy of avoiding a flu shot. Some cable channel had the first season on marathon so that sick boys like myself could feel the pull of pigskin, forget our ailing, gene-weak bodies amidst the rush of Panther pride and the belief that no woman in a million years will ever out-MILF Ms. Tami Taylor, aka Mrs. Coach, the strong-willed and substantially cleavaged matriarch at the heart of the show.
Which is all to say: When I lie in bed at night and imagine white-bearded God making his earthly presence known at the foot of my futon, he asks, “And what is your deepest desire, young man?” I say, “Lord of all things, king of the universe, purveyor of rain, and pain, and occasional love, would you be so kind as to turn me into Tim Riggins?”
Suddenly, I have morphed into the Panther fullback himself: majestic in blue and gold, #33, cheekbones the product of seriously intelligent design, sweat-wet locks hanging freely from my helmet; clear eyes, full heart, and Tyra, Lyla, and all the other Dillon Debbies, and debutantes, and dirty, flirty rally girls, watching with want as I strut to the huddle, back-pat Matt Saracen, move my beautiful body to the line of scrimmage.
Tim Riggins is FNL’s strong-jawed, sad-eyed, archetypal romantic lead. He’s cold steel during daytime, but sweetly sentimental by dawn, arms wrapped tenderly around some lucky conquest. Riggins is inhumanly handsome, yet ever so humanly flawed. He is a Christ-like figure, with his long hair and the way he suffers for the sins of others. Surely it is no accident that he wears number thirty-three. Like Don Quixote, Riggins rides the open plains—he’s traded his horse for a pick-up—saving damsels in distress. Like Odysseus, he has reigned victorious on the battlefield but must fight off sirens on his long trek home. Like Luke Skywalker, he is an orphan who learns the art of living from a proverb-spouting master (coach). Like Don Juan, he spreads female thighs with but a wink of his sea-blue eyes. Like Poseidon, Riggins literally controls the tides. Consider: West Texas is barren, dry. Tumbleweeds pass like old lovers, whispering harsh hellos. Rain gods are prayed to; prayers are denied. Yet how many times have we seen Riggins standing in a storm, soaking wet for our sins, awaiting the rejuvenating kiss of some fair maiden? And like Sir Galahad, Riggins is on a quest for a holy grail.
But as Friday Night Lights is a modern show in a post-modern world, Riggins’ quest is not for some tangible object—a trophy, say, though he wants that too—but for an elusive intangible. Riggins’ is a futile quest for an immaterial concept; he is searching for something called “Texas Forever.”
Riggins is a man of few words, but he says “Texas, Forever” a lot. It’s a fraternal drunken toast around a dwindling bonfire, a rallying cry in the locker room, an inspirational tone poem when the hard times hit. But mostly Riggins says it to himself. Mostly he mumbles “Texas Forever” alone on the tail of his pickup, then chugs what remains of his beer. “Texas Forever” is what keeps Tim ticking. It is his mantra.
In almost every movie about athletes in a small town, the protagonist’s goal is to escape from it. In All the Right Moves, Tom Cruise needs a football scholarship so he can avoid a lifetime in the steel mill. In Varsity Blues, James Van Der Beek needs a football scholarship so he can major in Women’s Studies at Brown. And not just athletes; in 8 Mile Eminem must hone his rap skills in order to escape the fate of his trailer park.
The towns presented in these films are blue collar, and the implication seems to be that working class life has its quiet charms but is ultimately unsatisfactory for anyone with “talent.” And though this hackneyed narrative might, on the surface, seem inspirational for the small town boy who wants to be the first in his family to go to college, or the barrio princess who dreams of being a NASA scientist, it also quietly affirms the status quo; it condescends by painting red-state America as “one-horse” and outdated, a place unsuitable for the chosen few.
But Tim Riggins has no particular interest in “getting out.” He tried college at San Antonio State and dropped out before he’d even arrived on campus. He attempted a number of professions that might have eased his slide into the white-collar world. Alas, he’s better off in cowboy boots.
What Riggins wants, in fact, is something far more complex than money or status, wine or women. What he wants is so complex, so poetically vague and out of reach, that he can’t even explain what it is in any way other than to stare at a sunset and say, “Texas Forever”—we understand that he both paradoxically already has what he wants (a Texas sunset, wind in his hair) and that it won’t last, because what he wants is only a feeling, and it’s fleeting. Which is not to say that Tim Riggins doesn’t also long for certain discrete solutions. He would like a supportive family, a loving lady, and enough money to keep him out of trouble, comfortable in the business of fixing cars and drinking beer. But as in any great Western, these material wants pale in comparison to Riggins’ true desire, which is the mystical and metaphorical place called Texas Forever, a place whose appeal lies partly in the unspoken profundity of its landscape—the wide roads and wider skies—and partly in the notions of liberty and freedom upon which, as the saying goes, this country was founded.
I am not Tim Riggins, and never will be. But I too am woven into the tapestry of a particular American narrative. Here’s my family’s origin myth: My father flew into New York from London in 1976, on the day before the celebration of the Bicentennial. The Twin Towers loomed like silver stalks amidst a pink horizon. His first meal was at Tom’s Restaurant, which was not yet the Seinfeld Restaurant. The waitress called him “honey.” He thought, “America.”
He stayed on. He saw Springsteen sing “Rosalita” to a half-empty crowd at the Palladium. He saw Chris Chamblis lift one into the left field bleachers. When he returned to England he carried this romantic America the way one carries a beloved paperback whose actual text has been buried by the inference of the cracked cover, the dog-eared corporeality of the pages.
Later he met my American mother, fell in love, returned to the United States to declare his nuptial vows, procreate.
In 1983, a year after my birth, Twentieth Century Fox released the film All The Right Moves. This film became my father’s point of reference for all things American: a bluesy dirge on the American condition. Both beautiful and tragic, All The Right Moves carried its own quiet poetry in the filmic shots of flatlands littered with steel-mills, like something out of D. H. Lawrence.
My father never attended a prom and will regret it—half-jokingly—for the rest of his life. I did attend a prom. There were no slow dances, or tender kisses, or hymens ecstatically un-tethered from their owners. I woke on a motel room floor with a massive hangover and the feeling that romance was a sham propagated by Hollywood.
So in a way—and maybe this is what I’m getting at—though I attended an actual prom, I still share my father’s prom fantasy, the fantasy that life can be like a high school movie, that life can be like Friday Night Lights. It is a harmless fantasy, but painful, because it illuminates the great tragedy of American life: we will never live up to the myths we have created for ourselves.
Adam Wilson is the author of the novel Flatscreen, forthcoming from Harper Perennial in February 2012. A longer version of this essay can be found in the anthology A Friday Night Lights Companion: Love, Loss, and Football in Dillon, Texas.