Odessa let go of Boobie Miles, but Buzz Bissinger held on
So much of Buzz Bissinger’s 1990 classic, Friday Night Lights, has been absorbed into the mainstream consciousness that some of its original power is lost: The dirt-poor town that spends millions on a state-of-the art stadium at the expense of school supplies no longer shocks us. The once-deified football star who gets discarded by the townspeople after his physical talents are no longer of use has become a cliché.
Still, Friday Night Lights—which Bissinger left his job as an editor at the Philadelphia Inquirer to travel to the oil patch town of Odessa, Texas to research and write—will never be out of date. It still sets a standard for sportswriting as sociological commentary. And the power of Bissinger’s narrative voice made his characters unforgettable.
The most unforgettable of all of them is star running back Boobie Miles, who becomes a cautionary tale of the consequences of his town’s warped value system combined with enduring American racism. Before his senior year, Miles carries with him both the hopes of the rabid local fan base and reams of recruiting materials from top Division I schools.
But then his knee buckles, and it’s a torn ACL, he learns after an abortive comeback during which his coaches excoriate him for not being tough enough. At that moment, he’s reduced from football hero to, in the words of one of his coaches, “a big ol’ dumb nigger.” Stripped of his overinflated hopes and illusory trappings, he’s left with basically nothing.
But not exactly nothing, Bissinger tells us in After Friday Night Lights, which was published as a 45-page afterword to the original book and separately as an e-book. (The book focuses exclusively on Miles.) Rather, the success of Bissinger’s book, followed by a movie and television show of the same name, has “metastasized [Miles] into a celebrity,” Bissinger writes.
The word choice is significant.
“His was an all too typical American celebrity, misleading because it didn’t move his life forward a single inch, destructive because it only made it a hundred times harder for Boobie to get a grip on the simple rigors of an ordinary life.”
Many people profited immensely from of Friday Night Lights, but Miles did not. Earlier this year, the rapper Big K.R.I.T. released a song called “Boobie Miles,” but never contacted Miles, drawing a characterisatically profane scolding from Bissinger on Twitter. The song’s hook amounts to a taunting echo of the coaches' criticism that Miles heard a quarter-century ago:
Get money, don’t be no lame
Benchwarmers never ride foreign, so play the game
Never drop the ball, never accept a loss, get back if you fall
And when your number called, you better give your all
I hope you give your all
You gotta play until the end
The only difference between a winner and a loser is a winner plays until he wins.
Miles’ knee never fully healed. The major recruiters lost interest in him, leaving him to settle for junior college, which he summarily flunked out of. Psychologically encumbered by his traumatic fall from grace and the childhood physical abuse he suffered at the hands of his father (a new revelation in the afterword) Miles has gone in and out of various downward spirals ever since. Arrests, more children than he has the means to support, employment ranging from dead-end jobs to selling drugs, and suicidal thoughts have followed him.
And so has Bissinger. After the back-to-back premature deaths of Miles’ father and uncle from heart attacks, Bissinger took Miles on as “a fourth son.” (Miles, now 42, weighs more than 300 pounds, more than 100 above his old playing weight.)
Some of this was journalistic follow-up. Some was motivated by his desire to develop a relationship “outside the narrow sphere of family and work.” And some of it, Bissinger freely admits, is motivated by the guilt he feels from having achieved literary immortality partly because of Miles’ sad saga.
“I’ve been a journalist for over thirty years, and never have I seen someone treated as horribly as Boobie was. Once he got hurt, it was as if he had been kindling tossed on a bonfire, a sacrifice to the god of football,” he writes.
Bissinger feels bad about this, and he puts his money where his mouth is, literally. Over the years, he’s given Miles tens of thousands of dollars for things like rent and vocational courses. Like many parent-child relationships, this one is fraught with the question of whether Bissinger is doing good by his son or enabling his dysfunctional habits.
If the afterword has a weakness, it’s that we’re told of the intimacy between Bissinger and Miles, but, save for one exchange of “fuck yous,” we’re not really shown it. They obviously have a connection, but we don’t really see the plane on which they connect. Similarly, we are told of Miles’ good qualities—he is engaging, he is warm, he is fundamentally decent—but we don’t get much of a sense of his personality beyond his victimhood.
Still, After Friday Night Lights is a strong coda to the original book because it follows up on the book’s ominous tone. If the book ends with our awareness of how difficult it will be for Miles to pick up the pieces of his shattered identity, the coda shows us that he’s still in the process of doing so, and that it hasn’t been easy. After being treated like a “football animal”—Bissinger’s term of choice to describe a player who was prized for his physicality but neglected intellectually—Miles has had a difficult transition to becoming a whole human being.
The afterword also revisits some of his the characters from the book. With the sympathies of access having faded, Bissinger is much harsher this time around. There’s head coach Gary Gaines, who Bissinger portrayed as a decent but beleaguered man in the original book. In the coda, he’s just another casually cruel manipulator. Then there’s the coach who made the infamous “ol’ dumb nigger” comment, which, not surprisingly, hurt Miles deeply once he read it. (The coach has since gotten married to an African-American woman.)
Bissinger didn’t put the coach’s name in the first book, telling himself that he was protecting Miles. His decision to name the coach in this afterword seems to be an acknowledgment that it's too late for that.