I finished reading Friday Night Lights this weekend, a book about the world of high school football in small town Texas. Being from Nebraska, well, saying we like football is an understatement. However, I had no idea what football means to the small towns of Texas. Multiply Nebraska’s devotion times 1000 with a dash of somewhat scary fundamentalism, and you are close.
The book follows the 1988 football team of Permian High School as they start the never-ending journey to the state championship. The pressure these kids face is enormous; Permian football is something of a dynasty, taking mediocre athletes and turning them into world class football players. They are routinely compared to gladiators by the author (H.R. Bissinger), playing to a sold out stadium of around 20, 000 fans. At a high school football game. That is amazing.
I finished the book and called my father, because I knew he had seen the movie. My father played eight-man high school football in Chicago (ironically near where current Nebraska head coach Bill Callahan played also about ten years later, I believe). Eight man is tough; a player has both a defensive and offensive position. Interestingly enough, eight-man got its start here in Nebraska. He then went on to play in one of the most winning-est teams in NAIA history at Doane College, a distinction that got his team photographed for Sports Illustrated.
He knows football (one of these days I have to get his football photos scanned in – they are so 60s cool). So it was interesting to get his perspective on it, how systems like that chew you up and spit you out once your senior season is over; if you don’t have that heaven-sent talent, good luck going to college, especially at the commitment level you had been playing at. Your body can only take so much punishment playing as hard as these kids did at that age, and unfortunately that is one of the sad truths of the book. Once they get out of the Permian program, most of the players are damaged goods, physically or psychologically. It is difficult to play football elsewhere for them, and mostly they don’t at all in college. And since the educational system favors letting the football players slide by, many don’t have a whole lot to fall back on.
However, this is the rub – they had the greatest four months of their lives playing for Permian. That is the most interesting thing for me: with all the pain, all the heartache, would you trade a normal high school life (thus following into a normal adult life presumably) for all that glory, even if it was only for four months of your entire life?
We were driving home from physical therapy, my father and I, talking about my options for playing freshmen football in high school. I had hit the weights all summer, but it had been all for naught as my knee suffered from a dislocation, probably from the stress I had been putting on it and the fact that I was growing rapidly then at 14. He asked me if I wanted to play, then we would have to take the physical therapist’s advice and get my knee operated on. I’d have to sit that year out. Would I want to do that?
I thought about how I’d have to learn how to walk again, how I had no real athletic ability other than being strong for my size and being able to take a hit, and how much I just wanted to draw comics.
I didn’t get the surgery. I never played football. He didn’t mind.
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