“Friday Night Lights” is not just a book about sports, author and sportswriter Buzz Bissinger said.
“It’s about the sociological impact that sports can make in America,” he explained.
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Bissinger shared stories from his professional career with an audience of 40 students, many of them athletes, at the hour-and-a-half-long Master’s Tea in Morse College. The sportswriter described his own path to becoming a writer and the story behind “Friday Night Lights,” his critically acclaimed work about Texas high school football. Bissinger, who has written two other books about politics and baseball, respectively, spoke candidly about growing up as “just a Jewish kid from New York.”
“I always knew I wanted to be a reporter for a newspaper,” Bissinger said at the beginning of the tea. “I loved the feel and the smell of a newspaper. That’s what I wanted to do.”
Bissinger wrote for his high school newspaper and, as an undergraduate, worked as sports editor for the student newspaper at the University of Pennsylvania. But after graduating from college and working for several small daily papers, Bissinger realized he wanted more.
“I got bit by the book bug,” he said.
The dilemma, Bissinger said, was whether to take the risk — to trade the life he knew for the life of a full-time narrative journalist.
“I asked myself: ‘Should I follow my dreams?’ ” he said.
And he did. In 1989, Bissinger’s fiancée and two children accompanied him to Odessa, Texas. Once there, Bissinger said his eye caught the stark contrast between the gloominess of the city and the magnificence of its high school football stadium — a $5.6 million arena.
“Then I began talking to people about how it was to be there on a Friday night,” he said. “They said wonderful things.”
He stayed in Odessa for over a year, collecting information about the town’s high school football team. He had a story, but when he sat down to write, the pieces did not come together.
“I wrote 30,000 words and out of those, I ended up keeping about 5,000,” Bissinger said.
Nevertheless, the book was ready four months after Bissinger left Odessa.
Bissinger sold the rights to the book the same year it was published. “Friday Night Lights” became a movie in 2004, and a TV show of the same name is currently in its third season.
In his tea, Bissinger tried to inspire the young audience by sharing the experience of writing his first book.
“To make anything work you need a story — a structure,” he said.
Six students interviewed said they enjoyed the tea. Most came because they were familiar with “Friday Night Lights,” either the movie or the TV show.
“I basically came because I’m obsessed with the TV show, and Texas in general,” said Jacqueline Erickson ’10.
Ann Chou ’10 was surprised by the contrast between Bissinger’s personality — the author swore often during the talk — and the characters he depicted in “Friday Night Lights.”
“I would never imagine him as the writer of the story I love,” Chou said.
Bissinger has also contributed to the magazine Vanity Fair, where his pieces have touched on radio personality Don Imus, the Duke University lacrosse scandal and baseball legend Pete Rose.