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Buzz Bissinger’s book Friday Night Lights still sells about 30,000 times a year, which arguably makes it as popular today as it was when it was first published. There was a movie and a television series based on it. The songs were based on the title of the book and the players on the Permian High School football team. And since it was first published, the book’s photographer Robert Clark has kept dozens of rolls of film largely undisturbed.
“Even when I first took the pictures, I thought it would be a great photo book,” says Clark. During the 1988 season, Clark spent two weeks in Odessa when Bissinger reported on his book. There he slept on an inflatable bed in Bissinger’s office, let himself be swung up in a supermarket by a drunken oil field worker and of course took photos – a total of 137 rolls.
Of all the film, only 29 images appeared in Bissinger’s book. But now, on the 30th anniversary of Friday Night Lights’ release, the University of Texas Press is releasing a book of Clark’s many never-before-seen photos, titled Friday Night Lives: Photos of the City, the Team, and After.
The images are poignant, as is Bissinger’s book about the Permian Panthers’ quest to win the state championship before they ultimately fail. All are in black and white because, as Clark explains, color can be distracting. The photos are a visceral reminder of the emotions the young men went through before many saw them on screen as soccer players.
“Buzz has always said,” It’s about the kids, it’s about the kids, “says Clark.” So there are essentially no action pictures in the book. “
What the book has are moments of serenity, like the photo of an offensive attack on Jerrod McDougal next to his mother, both smiling in front of their house. He was trying very hard to let go of football when the lights on Friday night turned off his career.
Moments of lightness, like the photo of Brian Chavez standing in front of a urinal laughing while wearing only a t-shirt and jockstrap. He was the valedictorian who left the West Texas oil fields, graduated from Harvard, felt out of place, and came back.
Moments that make the reader wonder what could have been, like the photo of Boobie Miles sitting in the stands 16 years after he thought he’d figured it all out. He was the star who ran back with dreams big until an injury destroyed her.
Moments that show loneliness in the most unexpected of places, like the photo of Mike Winchell sitting thoughtfully in the middle of a chaotic pep rally. He was the quarterback who dealt as best he could with the expectations of the city and the team.
“I really like this picture,” said Clark of the Winchell photo when asked about his favorite. “In a way, Mike opened up with this image. It also showed the pressure he was under. “
Three decades after Friday Night Lights captured that pressure along with the hopes, dreams, and frustrations, Friday Night Lives reveals the real players and locations that have been largely fictionalized for audiences across the country.
Clark shows what once was and shows how much has changed. In the second half of Friday Night Lives – the book is broken down into “then” and “now” – he shows relatively recent photos of long-ago teenagers who have become middle-aged men.
Some have moved on; others have not. Some still live there; others left. Some died tragically. But Clark’s photos show them all playing soccer for Odessa’s Permian High School.
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