Wednesday, June 12, 2024

Friday night lights shine on life lessons

It’s football time in Tennessee, especially on Friday nights when the lights are on our local high school teams.

For so many of us former players, the pregame preparations, pageantry and the hard-fought battles of Friday nights were the highlights of our high school years.

Through it all, we met long-time friends and learned life lessons that still resonate in our adult years.

I reminisced about playing football in the Stone Castle at Tennessee High in Bristol after watching the film Friday Night Lights. Starring Billy Bob Thornton as head coach Gary Gaines, the film portrays the personal and collective struggles of the 1988 Permian Panthers, a high school team with a history of delivering state championships to the west Texas town of Odessa.

When I played for Tennessee High in 1974 and 1975, hopes were high that we would make the AAA playoffs. Previous teams won two state championships and were named 1972 National Champions. That’s a daunting legacy for a team in a small town of only 24,000 people.

In the film, expectations are high for the Permian team. The coach is often surrounded by townspeople who freely offer their advice about game plans and strategies. The current players are interviewed on TV, sign autographs, and are encouraged by former players to “Git ya one of these” state championship rings. All this attention weighs heavily on their minds.

But football is not a game that you can play timidly, hoping you don’t screw up and lose. It requires hard work, physical and mental, to prepare for the game. And when the whistle blows and the ball is snapped, it’s an all-out burst to make your play and help your team win the game

The head coach must often focus his players on the tasks at hand and motivate them to play with spirit and determination.

When the Permian team loses their star halfback, the team struggles in the next few games. After a bad loss, numerous “For Sale” signs are placed in the head coach’s front lawn. One father, drunk and too proud of his own football days (portrayed surprisingly well by Tim McGraw), berates his young son for fumbling too often and duct tapes a ball to his hands.

But their hard work and determination pays off, and with a lucky coin toss, the Panthers enter the state playoffs. The team finally gels and battles their way to the championship game.

To win, Permian must defeat an undefeated team that is big, bad and fast. By halftime, the score doesn’t look good and the players need to be inspired to continue the fight against this overpowering foe.

Coach Gaines provides the inspiration. Speaking to his players kneeling around him, Coach Gaines explains why he wants his players to be “perfect.”

“Being perfect is not about the scoreboard, it’s not about winning. It’s about your relationship to yourself, your family and friends. Being perfect is being able to look your friends in the eye and tell them that you did everything you could have done. Can you live in that moment with clear eyes and love in your heart? With joy in your heart? If you can do that, gentlemen, then you are perfect.”

You don’t have to be a former football player to recognize that this is the same message in Jesus’ directive “love your neighbor as yourself.” As a man, as a member of our team, Jesus was the perfect teammate, sacrificing his life so that our sins could be wiped away. His example of living in that moment with clear eyes and love in his heart for us is an example we can always aspire to fulfill.

Being a Christian in today’s culture is hard work, physical and mental. It takes prayerful time to prepare and take stock of our own talents. But when the moment comes to act in a Christ-like manner, we need to make the play and help our teammates.

I wish my team had made the playoffs, especially in 1974 when we could have met Father Ryan in the championship game. But we missed the playoffs both times, by only one game in my senior year. Still, the memories of those glorious Friday nights will live forever in my mind.

As the Panthers prepare to take the field and play the final two quarters of football that will last forever in their minds, Coach Gaines tells his players that his heart is full of love for them.

As we prepare to live each day with the example of Jesus to guide us, how full are our hearts for our teammates?


First published in the October 10, 2005 issue of The Tennessee Register.
© 2005 Christopher Fenoglio.

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