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[Courtesy: Universal Pictures]

Each week during the 1988 Permian High School football season, 20,000 people packed in to Ratliff Stadium to worship teenagers, to worship the Panthers.

Football in Odessa, Texas, was more than money, more than any individual. It was God.

Some didn't appreciate when Buzz Bissinger chronicled the deification of an institution in his 1990 best-seller Friday Night Lights. The players themselves just acknowledge it as truth.

The truth about the 1988 season. The truth about how racism flows through the South, how adults manipulate teenagers and how money pours through the stadiums that light up the Friday night plains of Texas.

The most recent film, which is based on the book, simply makes this reality public knowledge.

In 1988, a strange man showed up to football practice in Odessa, Texas. He arrived from Philadelphia, from the University of Pennsylvania and from Phillips Academy in Andover, Md.

His task? Integrating with high school football players in a location that was more myth than any reality he had previously experienced.

"At first, we didn't know who he was and he kind of was the antithesis of what we were," said Brian Chavez, a senior defensive back on the 1988 Permian squad. A southern drawl dominates each vowel that he utters.

Despite the initial odds, it's fair to say that Buzz Bissinger succeeded in connecting with the Permian football program. Success, to the tune of a national bestseller and being named the fourth-best sports book ever by a Sports Illustrated ranking. Success to the tune of Friday Night Lights, the 1990 book and 2004 film.

"He started gaining our confidence and our trust," Chavez said.

From his interactions with the team, he's gained much more than that.

* * *

Bissinger never intended for Friday Night Lights to represent the story it did. That's not how he sold the story to the Permian school board. It certainly isn't the way he sold it to Permian coach Gary Gaines.

It didn't take long for Bissinger to realize that this was not a Hoosiers type school, however. From the outside, the story appeared as a football version of the popular movie that portrayed a town's love of its Indiana basketball team.

This version had chartered jets to away games and had built a stadium in 1982 for $5.6 million -- a bit different from Hoosiers, but it could still hold the same overall story.

Bissinger knew of the exterior glamour already. That's why he headed to Odessa in the first place.

Once inside the system, once a part of the team, it became clear that football consumed more than just the pocketbook of taxpayers. A twisted knee to a star player meant more than several months of recovery -- it tore apart a psyche and future.

So in some ways it was just the cardinal rule of journalism that produced the book. He showed up, stuck around and it happened.

But generic generalizations don't explain why certain writers continually find a story. It doesn't explain a 1987 Pulitzer Prize, which Bissinger won for his investigative reporting on transgressions of justice in the Philadelphia court system.

Since his days at The Daily Pennsylvanian in the early 1960s, Bissinger searched for stories that needed to be told.

In February of 1975, the writing was already on the wall for his cover story in 34th Street magazine. Or at least the stall, anyway.

What does it mean that bathroom stalls across the University and the entire city are littered with gay-bashing?

After all, the derogatory spewings are written in the same fashion as the note in the Sociology Department bathroom, with which Bissinger concludes his piece, "I hate diarrhea."

The story was there, and Bissinger went after it. He hasn't stopped since then.

That doesn't mean that the Penn English major didn't have a bit of fun during his time at the DP, though.

He was, after all, responsible for writing a comedy column each week in 34th Street for a year.

"At least I tried to make it part of my agenda," Bissinger smirked as he glanced at some of his old work. "I'm not sure that these would hold up as comedy today."

His cynicism outlined his work in 1975 as well, devoting an entire Lost Causes column to the headline,"I'm not funny." It just happens that his hyperbolic rhetoric ultimately disproved his headline.

But later in his career, some of the ingrained humor was accidental -- even unwanted.

Nicknamed Buzz since birth, Bissinger has held three different byline names in his journalism career -- H.G. appears on Friday Night Lights, representative of his given name, Herald Gerard Bissinger, III.

Buzzy, his byline in his DP days and post-college jobs, didn't go over quite as smoothly.

"I would pick up the phone and say 'Hi, this is Buzzy Bissinger from the Inquirer,' and they'd think it was a joke and hang up on me."

Time for a change. Plain old Buzz would do just fine.

* * *

Nobody really found it odd that a reporter was following around the Permian football team. Maybe Bissinger's presence during the course of the school day was a change, but this was Permian.

Reporters were everywhere. The same faces showed up to practice every day. When 20,000 fans show up to Ratliff Stadium every Friday night, what difference did an extra reporter walking around the sidelines make?

But Bissinger was different, at least as time progressed.

"He didn't bug us," said Boobie Miles, the star running back on the 1988 squad before he got injured. "He wasn't in the way. He was a nice person, which was a bit of difference than other people who were around."

"He was cool, you know," Miles added. "He fit just right in. He adapted to us -- we didn't have to adapt to him."

But the book took Bissinger where other reporters didn't go. Reporters don't really care how drunk football players get every weekend.

Bissinger did.

"He went to parties with us, everything," Chavez said.

"At the beginning, we thought that there was this reporter, but by the end he was one of the guys."

One of the guys, but still a journalist.

It's the inherent paradox of chronicling any person or group for an extended period -- to relate to the source on a human level and then restrict any natural humanity to feel compassionate for that very individual.

Since the publication of Friday Night Lights, Bissinger has become close friends with several members of the team. He recently traveled with Chavez and both of their families on a vacation to the College World Series in Omaha, Neb.

Just over 10 years ago, Bissinger traveled to see Chavez graduate from Harvard. Since then, Chavez went to law school and currently serves as a criminal lawyer in Odessa.

Only once Bissinger physically removed himself from Odessa's fever could he begin to write the book, completing the finished product in Wisconsin. He tried beginning the work in 1989 while still in Texas -- it simply didn't work.

"It's not fun when you refer to someone that refers to a kid as a big dumb old nigger," Bissinger said. "You have to do those things and the only way I could do it was to move."

It took 16 years for Bissinger to return to Odessa -- people didn't appreciate the story that he told, the one that needed to be told.

"It felt good. I was glad he came," said Miles, who considers Bissinger an uncle-figure, and both agree that the two are family. Since Miles' beloved uncle L.V. passed away in 1998, Miles has reached out to Bissinger for a listening ear.

"Everything that he wrote in that book was true and people have to realize that. I was glad to see him. I don't know about everyone else, but I was glad to see him."

* * *

Following Friday Night Lights, Bissinger next set out to explore the inner workings of city government, eventually appearing with Prayer for the City, a chronicle of Ed Rendell's first four years as Philadelphia mayor.

Currently a must-read on all urban studies departments' reading lists, the book shows the politics behind decisions in ways that had rarely been explained before, including the manipulative tactics of then-City Council member and current Philadelphia Mayor John Street.

Bissinger considers this to be a more substantial work than Friday Night Lights, and definitely a better written book, even if the public did not agree in terms of total sales.

For Rendell, it was just a story that needed to be told. His biggest concern? That people wouldn't recognize Bissinger and it would therefore be tough to get him into certain private meetings.

"I thought it was an important project," Rendell said. The current Pennsylvania governor still has not read Friday Night Lights.

"I wasn't disappointed. I thought that Buzz would shed light on how American cities survive under difficult conditions, and what we need to get them out of it.

"I thought it would be an important book and it was."

* * *

The movie version of Friday Night Lights appropriately had to evade a series of defensive linemen on its way to the current version, which stars Billy Bob Thornton.

Almost immediately after the book hit shelves in 1990, it soared to the top of the best-seller lists and the rights for the film were subsequently sold.

Good stories make good movies, and this particular epic couldn't have been scripted any better.

With three definitive acts to the book -- the injury to star running back Miles, the coin toss to make the playoffs and the final game against Dallas Carter High School -- the story didn't need to adapt to the film medium.

"This book had one of the great built-in narratives of all time because it wasn't made up," Bissinger said.

Yet somehow people seemed to continually mess it up.

Bissinger expected to see the result on-screen in a few years following the 1990 signing, but despite the superior talent of All the President's Men director Allen Pakura, the lead man on the project eventually left.

The film then went through four subsequent directors and 11 rewrites, leaving Bissinger hopeless after a decade.

When Varsity Blues emerged on the big screen in 1999, Friday Night Lights, the film, had effectually met its doom.

"It was a veiled ripoff of the book, it was cliched, it was spoofy, it was stupid," said Bissinger of the MTV film, which fictionally chronicles a Texas high school football team. Conveniently, this edition also features the star player being knocked out with a knee injury.

"It was everything that Friday Night Lights wasn't. I figured that the studio would say that we do one of these every 10 years. That's it. We're not going to do it."

With the release of Disney's Remember the Titans in 2000, Bissinger thought that a film version of his best-seller might still be a possibility. The public realized that a movie about high school football does not have to include whipped cream bikinis to capture national attention.

With a bit of a delay, Universal Studios and Imagine Entertainment subsequently contacted Peter Berg, who received attention for his directorial prowess in The Rundown, about the prospect of once again attempting to make Friday Night Lights a big screen reality. Berg took control of making sure the movie would come to fruition.

But even under the directorship of Bissinger's second cousin, who also wrote the screenplay that did not stray from the original narrative of the book, the author did not get his hopes up -- until he picked up his phone this February.

"We've just done our first scene," Billy Bob Thornton told Bissinger with a deep southern twang. Thornton plays the part of Permian coach Gary Gaines in the film. "And Buzz -- we're going to take good care of you."

* * *

This weekend the film grossed $12,216,880, and the movie has a two-week total of $37,819,455.

And with the big-screen success, so too has the book soared in popularity, once again taking its spot atop The New York Times best-seller list for paperback nonfiction.

Sure, some of the details in the book are changed in the film. The camera never enters a classroom. The team actually chartered a jet when traveling at the end of the season. The film also takes Permian all the way to the Texas High School finals instead of the semifinals.

But the narrative is honest to the original text. The characters are not treated as "West Texas wahoos."

After 14 years of almosts, Bissinger is quite pleased with the result.

Both Chavez and Miles are as well.

"I thought it was really powerful and intense and caught the emotions and feelings of the year," Chavez said.

"The movie caught the spirit of the book and the spirit of that year. They change a lot of stuff, but it wasn't anything that took away from that year."

"It was crazy to see your life on big-screen," Miles added. "I was blown away."

As of last week, Pennsylvania's biggest football fan had not yet seen the film.

In general, Rendell doesn't have much extra time to see movies -- especially during the Eagles season.

But he certainly looks forward to catching Friday Night Lights.

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