You’re probably well aware that earlier this summer the television show Friday Night Lights came to an end. The network season finale, in mid-July, triggered a wave of epitaphs from critics and slews of tearful “texasforever”-hashtagged tweets from fans, more reminders of the powerful chord that the scrappy football drama had struck during its five-year run. Though FNL struggled with ratings, it attracted an audience whose fervor overmatched its size (including us; last year we made the case that it was the most realistic TV show about Texas ever made). It also had a knack for enthralling critics for whom the world it depicted was entirely foreign, and even objectionable. “I hate to leave Dillon, Texas,” wrote Salon’s Steven Axelrod on the morning of the finale, “a fly-over flyspeck I would never have even wanted to visit in real life.” Well, how nice for you, Mr. Axelrod. The height of this sort of elitist-joyride-through-the-heartland came from the fiction writer and critic Lorrie Moore, who took to the pages of the New York Review of Books, in an article titled “Very Deep in America”—an article that immediately followed one on “The Pleasures of Rimbaud”—to tell about her excitement over encountering two other writers at a Manhattan book party who shared her guilty pleasure. “Though the title might make the uninitiated think of shabbat candles,” she wrote, “the show is actually about football in Texas, a state that I felt just then had not been this far east since the Bush administration.”
Why, aside from the fact of its unmistakable high quality, did FNL hit such a nerve with these folks? I was thinking about this a couple weeks later as I walked through a new exhibit at the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum that documents the world on which FNL was based. “Texas High School Football: More Than the Game” was guest-curated for the museum by Joe Nick Patoski, a former longtime writer for TEXAS MONTHLY. Over the past two years that he’s been working on it, I’ve heard Joe Nick talk about “the museum deal” from time to time, and I was eager to finally see it. The exhibit (which runs through January) is arranged in a clever fashion that takes you through the familiar weekly cycle of buildup, game time, and postmortem, and football fans will probably spend hours, as I did, inching through the sequence, poring over treasures like the very first University Interscholastic League state championship trophy; or the spring-loaded snapping machine invented by Felton “Pooch” Wright, the head coach of the Ballinger Bearcats, so that his quarterback could practice taking snaps at home on his ranch; or the gaudy and impressive Port Neches–Groves Indian Spirit costume. The sum of all these artifacts makes an impressive display, but it’s the powerful sense of community that pervades every item that stays with you.
Joe Nick acknowledged that this was the point. “High school football is the glue. It’s the community-binder,” he said, “from a six-man school where there’s no town left and all there is is football to a brand-new suburb, where the first evidence of community is the high school’s team.”
This issue salutes college football in Texas, which, like high school football, is more than a game. It’s a shared experience that knits people together. You can see this in the kids in Fort Worth who dress up like TCU head coach Gary Patterson for Halloween, as Skip Hollandsworth writes in his profile of Patterson, and the 45,000 loyalists who turned out for the first spring practice of the new-look Longhorns. You can see it in the ornate traditions of Aggieland and in the creation of new traditions, and the sense of collective identity that comes with them, at the University of Texas at San Antonio, whose effort to launch a football program from scratch is detailed in a fascinating article by Jason Cohen. Football—at both the high school and college levels (but not so much the pro)—is a world and a way of life. And if you’re a part of it, as most people reading this magazine are, it’s a part of you.
Which is why, in my opinion, Moore, Axelrod, and countless other critics overcame a vague dislike of small-town Texas, and even of football itself, to fall so hard for Friday Night Lights. It’s not about the thrill of the games or the excellent camera work or the attractive actors. It’s about the sense of belonging, for an hour a week, to a place where people are bound together by something deep, lasting, and true.
Executive editor Skip Hollandsworth goes on the road with Miranda Lambert; executive editor Mimi Swartz spends a year inside the Houston Independent School District; associate editor Jordan Breal takes a look at the state’s best art; and senior editor Katy Vine reports from San Angelo on the Warren Jeffs trial.