Coincident to my re-reading and -viewing of Friday Night Lights I’ve been reading a book by Michael Chabon called Manhood for Amateurs, a collection of non-fiction essays about his thoughts and experiences as an adult man, husband, father and pop culture obsessive, and a few sentences made me think about Coach Eric Taylor (played by Kyle Chandler) in the Friday Night Lights pilot episode.
In an essay called Faking It Chabon quotes a Rudyard Kipling poem (If) whose sentiment still informs at least somewhat an idea both boys and girls have of what it is to be a man: “To keep your head when all about you are losing theirs.” Chabon wonders if there really an operative difference between keeping one’s head and merely appearing to do so but concludes that the differences are probably moot: “There is also the more subtle damage that is done repeatedly to boys who grow up learning from their fathers and the men around them the tragic lesson that failure is not a human constant but a kind of aberration of gender, a flaw in a man, to be concealed.”
These lines are apropos because it’s not clear for most of this first episode of Friday Night Lights which sort of man (Kipling or Chabon) Coach Taylor is. He’s a pretty stoic, Kipling-esque guy for a lot of this episode, mostly keeping any doubts or conflicts he has pretty close. This might be because he’s pragmatic enough to recognize that the community of Dillon, Texas will accept nothing less from him. He gets not-so-subtle assessments of his readiness and declarations of expectations from both the local radio sports show and in person. At a rally hosted by booster Buddy Garrity at his newest car dealership, townspeople mince no words: we want to win championships.
He might be playing it cool because he knows, as a coach who scouts opposing teams reminds him, that when expectations are this high he has nowhere to go but down. The Dillon Panthers open the first season of the show as favorites for State. The local paper’s headline rhetorically asks if this year’s team is the best ever and Sports Illustrated has named the Panthers the number one high school football team in Texas.
We also learn early in the episode that Taylor has been coaching senior quarterback Jason Street since he was a kid, and has been his quarterback coach throughout his freshman and junior varsity teams. Street is seemingly beloved by the entire town, adults and children alike, resolutely faithful to his girlfriend, unfailingly polite and possibly the best young quarterback ever scouted by Notre Dame. The only exception to the otherwise universal adoration of him is that the mayor, Lucy Rodell, thinks he’s too polite and prescribes early Black Sabbath to make him mean.
(Even Matt Saracen, sophomore, caretaker of his grandmother, and distant-second-string quarterback, and occasional holder for extra points, seems to respect the guy, though it’s not clear that football is as important to Saracen as it is to everyone else. He dutifully practices target throws in his front yard, but his best friend Landry suspects that his interest in football is more a “daddy love me thing” than anything else. The coaches don't take him very seriously, either; during a practice one sends him to dig something out of the trash.)
After it's established that Jason Street doesn't have an arrogant or unkind bone in his body, his neck is broken in a bad tackle during the first game of the season. This plot twist raises the emotional stakes of the show and signals unequivocally that this show is going to side with Chabon; that bad, difficult things are going to happen; and they will happen because difficult things, even failure, are constant. They're the normal. And that this show's measure of all its characters, but particularly its men, will not be their imperviousness to hardship, but their weathering of it. The closing minutes of the episode are set to a prayer of Coach Taylor's that may as well be the show's mission statement:
Give all of us gathered here tonight the strength to remember that life is so very fragile. We are all vulnerable, and we will all at some point in our lives fall. We will all fall. We must carry this in our hearts: that what we have is special, that it can be taken from us, and that when it is taken from us we will be tested. We will be tested to our very souls. We will now all be tested.
- The Westerby Mustangs are opponents in first episode
- Street breaks his neck tackling a Westerby player named “Chandler”
- Landry mentions wanting to start a Christian speed metal band
- Jason Street 6’2", 190 lbs
- On the field, Smash wears #20, Riggins is #33, Street #6 and Saracen #7
- First use of "Clear eyes, full hearts, can't lose."
- Explosions in the Sky, "Remember Me As A Time Of Day" (used three times)
- Explosions in the Sky, "From West Texas"
- Explosions in the Sky, "Your Hand in Mine (with strings)"
- Yeah Yeah Yeahs, "Gold Lion"