My introduction to Texas came well before I ever set foot in the state itself. I found H. G. Bissinger’s book Friday Night Lights at a used bookstore when I was a teenager in the early aughts, drifting in the dog days of summer between my junior and senior years of high school. I had just gotten my first car, a brown Nissan Maxima with a faulty alarm and inconsistent shades of window tint. Despite the ways that an engine and four wheels can expand a geographical radius, there are only so many places you can go when you are sixteen years old. And so I spent many of my days simply driving around Columbus, Ohio, popping into stores I couldn’t afford until I worked my way down to the stores I could.
On the cover of that edition of Friday Night Lights was the now iconic black-and-white photo taken by Robert Clark: Odessa Permian football players Brian Chavez, Mike Winchell, and Ivory Christian linking hands together and walking along the sideline of a football field. I was drawn to the book because of this image first. I was a high school athlete, preparing to become a college athlete. I was still young and eager enough to buy into all of the mythologies about brotherhood and family that sports sold me. The captains on my own soccer team would walk out to the middle of the pitch before the game in this same manner: hands clasped together, forming a single chain of movement.
Being from Ohio, I know there are similar ways to understand the enthusiasm that can set upon an entire community as the days tick toward the weekend. In Massillon, Ohio, Paul Brown Tiger Stadium looms large within the town’s landscape. Boys born in the town are given tiny footballs in the hospital. The Massillon Tigers are among the winningest high school programs in the nation, and their rivalry with nearby Canton McKinley is one of the fiercest rivalries in all of high school sports. Even if you didn’t live near Massillon, you might make the trip up on a Friday night, just to see what all the noise was about. In this way, entering the world of Odessa through the pages of Friday Night Lights felt at least somewhat familiar, even though I was entering a different era of high school football and high school football players. And even though the physical space and concerns of the local population were all different, there was a comfort in the idea that even before I knew what football was, there was a town that revolved around a few hours on a Friday night inside of a stadium. With summer’s spiral into autumn, there was the promise of some escape waiting at the end of the week. If your job was shit or if things at home weren’t great or if you had played once and had some glory slip through your fingers, the game could become a portal to some newer, or better, dreams.
The issue with this, of course, is that the people acting as vehicles toward those dreams are teenagers, some with dreams of their own—teenagers who are flawed, complex, and fighting through the many pressures of being alive and young while also being uniquely responsible for the contentment of their friends, family, and the other people they share a town with. Bissinger does a great job of capturing this in Friday Night Lights, even when he doesn’t paint the town of Odessa in the most generous light. There is, of course, the tragic story of James “Boobie” Miles, who succumbed to a domino effect of tragedies after blowing out his knee during the dying moments of a preseason game before his senior year—an injury that caused his pile of scholarship offers to vanish. Among a great many other things, the book turns a sharp eye to issues of race, as well as perceived usefulness once someone becomes less than a hero. There’s Mike Winchell, the starting quarterback who defied the stereotypes of starting quarterbacks on great teams as being confident, boastful, and easygoing. In the book, Winchell is portrayed as anxious, caring, deeply thoughtful, and prone to surgical self-reflection. There’s also Don Billingsley, the troubled troublemaker with a tumultuous home life, and Ivory Christian, who played middle linebacker with a singular violence, but who, off the field, was reserved and often ambivalent.
It was the generosity of Bissinger’s time and language that worked to afford these students all of their many dimensions and addressed the town as its full self, even if the people inside the town were uncomfortable with that fullness coming to light. When the film version of Friday Night Lights came out in 2004, one drawback to its success—and the subsequent revisit to the book it inspired—was that the real-life players and people from that 1988 Odessa Permian team began being referred to as “characters,” as if they were crafted specifically for this story to play itself out and were not actual people with real lives that extended beyond the ways they were immortalized in the text (a text that was made infinitely more interesting by fate: Bissinger arrived in Odessa surely not expecting a star player to have a devastating injury that would shape the narrative of the story and the narrative of the town so immensely).
A corrective to this, for me, always rested in the photos of Robert Clark, collected now in the book Friday Night Lives: Photos from the Town, the Team, and After. It was his photo of the captains walking hand in hand that led me to the book, after all. In this collection of photos, you are confronted with the aesthetics of a high school football–obsessed town at the end of a decade mired in economic stagnation and decline, as an oil bust drained Odessa of one of its primary sources of work and income. The promise of the 1988 Permian Panthers and the hope placed on them show up in the town’s surroundings. In these photos, you see STATE! ’88 painted haphazardly on a white fence. On the bumper of a Ford pickup, there are stickers declaring its owner a MOJO Booster on one side, and on the other side, another sticker that reads ENDANGERED SPECIES: OILFIELD HAND.
And, of course, beyond capturing the anxieties of a town looking for excitement and emotional renewal through its high school football team, Clark’s photos also do the vital work of reminding us that the central participants in this whirlwind of a story were, at the time, young people: teenagers, who were more than just cogs in the machinery of a place and its history and its obsession. The photos taken at practices are stunning, of course. It is a gift to be able to capture the strain and exhaustion that a morning practice can inflict on a body, and how the body pushes through, no matter what. There are photos of players lifting weights reflected in a mirror, and photos of players sprawled out on the gym floor, waiting for their chance at whatever drill they are called to next. The photos of an afternoon practice translate the weight of expectation, with boosters watching from lawn chairs while players run drills with the sun sketching its heat along their faces. Some get to seek a brief reprieve from it by basking in sprays of water.
Clark’s most important work, however, is what he captures beyond the pads and helmets and watching eyes of elders: the mischief, the disappointment, the desire for players to cling to each other in moments outside of the game. On the bus to Abilene High, student managers hover around each other while a card game unfolds. I love this photo for how it allows us to see the fullness of these young people, who deserve their own escape from the pressures they were taking on simply by being adjacent to the Permian Football behemoth. In a locker room before a game, a player stands in his uniform socks and two knee braces next to his now empty cowboy boots. It’s a portrait of being, and becoming. After a loss at Midland Lee, Jerrod McDougal cries against the wall in a locker room, while outside, Don Billingsley receives a hug from a woman with tall blonde hair, and his melancholy turns into a wide smile.
There are two photos of Boobie that stand out. One is from before the Abilene game. He sits in front of his locker, his face resting inside of his hands, parted into a gentle V shape. His already wide shoulders look even broader with the added bulk of his pads, contrasted with the narrow shape of his locker. A “Terminator X” towel dangles from his waist. This was the game where Boobie returned and attempted to play on his damaged knee, receiving only a handful of carries. In this shot before the game, he already looks defeated, as if he knows the attempts at recapturing his hopes for a limitless future are futile. It makes his arc even more heartbreaking—that he clung so desperately to football as a pathway, he couldn’t see anything else.
The second photo is from after Boobie left the team, frustrated after a game at Midland Lee. Free from the grasp of football, which consumed him for an entire lifetime, Boobie and his beloved uncle L. V. lean into each other and laugh on a porch. It is a photo that situates Boobie as someone beyond the game he played or the injury that altered his life. He’s a kid, spending time with a person who means the world to him. The photos need each other to work. One serves as a reminder of what seemed to be a monumental loss; the other, a reminder of the entire world outside of that perceived loss.
I came to the story of Friday Night Lights late, years after it actually took place. At the time it arrived for me, I thought high school sports was the only thing I had to define myself. I had yet to fall back in love with reading, and so I had yet to fall in love with writing. Winning and losing games was what I knew: getting up earlier than everyone else and running on a track during long, hot summer mornings; joking around in a weight room and occasionally lifting a thing or two. It was such a massive part of my identity that I refused to see beyond it. Despite being drawn to the book by its cover, I didn’t see the photos then like I see them now, years removed from whatever small slivers of athletic glory I got to accumulate. It is funny what distance can afford. When I first read the book, I saw myself as someone entangled with these players solely through our athletic desires and the people pushing us toward them. Now, through the lens of Robert Clark, I’m reminded once again that sports are the backdrop of the story, as they often are. The story has always been about humanity, anxiety, loss, fear, and the promise of a place and the people in it.
Propelled by Friday Night Lights and the photos in it, I drove to Odessa in 2004, in my early twenties. I drove from Ohio, with no real purpose other than a feeling that I needed to see the school. I needed to see the stadium. All of its mythology felt so larger than life, and I needed to be reminded that it was real, and touchable. It was a foolish trip, one buoyed by what I felt were the dying moments of my reckless youth. I stood outside Ratliff Stadium and I looked at the banners celebrating the titles of the Permian Panthers football team. This was in the month after the film was released. It was late fall, and football season had wound down disappointingly. The team had a 4–6 record, but there were still banners adorning the fences outside of the stadium, cheering the team on. I didn’t stay long, and I didn’t linger much in the town itself. It was just good to know that there was something worth seeing beyond the story that became a national phenomenon—that there were people still living with all it had given them, whether they wanted it or not. I am thankful for Clark’s photos. I am thankful for the fact that they do that same work, pouring some of the humanity back into the narrative. I hope someone younger than I am now finds Friday Night Lights in a used bookstore far from Odessa some day. And when they get the urge to make the trip to see that world for themselves, they’ll look to Clark’s photos instead.
Hanif Abdurraqib is a poet, essayist, and cultural critic from Columbus, Ohio. His next book, A Little Devil in America: Notes in Praise of Black Performance, will be published in 2021.
Excepted from Friday Night Lives: Photos from the Town, the Team, and After, by Robert Clark; foreword by Hanif Abdurraqib. Used with permission from the University of Texas Press, © 2020.