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Friday Night Lights illuminate sociological issues

Sports Illustrated called H. G. Bissinger’s best-selling book Friday Night Lights “one of the greatest sports stories of all time,” and it is now the subject of a highly anticipated feature film that opens in theaters across the country on Friday.

But for sociology professor Heather Johnson, reading and learning about the Texas high school football team that inspired the book and the film is just another tool for reaching students and helping them embrace a new educational concept.

Students in Johnson’s class are expected to gain a broader understanding of the story and its sociological implications when they attend a special preview of the film at 7:30 p.m. tonight at the Regal Saucon Valley Cinema 10 on Route 378 in Lower Saucon Township.

Friday Night Lights chronicles the 1988 season of the Permian High School Panthers of Odessa, Texas, following the team’s players, coaches and fans as they struggle with personal conflicts while fighting for the state championship.

In depicting the daily grind of Coach Gary Gaines (played by Oscar-winning actor Billy Bob Thornton in the film) and the potential destinies of its individual players, the story paints a vivid portrait of Odessa and the many towns across the country where football provides a common sense of purpose and inspiration.

The preview was arranged for Johnson’s class, the Lehigh football team, and other interested students, administration and faculty by Universal Pictures, which responded to Johnson’s request.

“I’ve been using this book for one of my courses, “Intro to Sociology,” and I’ve found that it’s a great way to get the students to think about the social environments we grow up in and what impact they have on our lives and our choices,” Johnson says. “It’s a great example of how to think sociologically and it contains a subject matter that many of my first-year students can relate to.”

Sociology 101

Johnson was watching a movie last spring when she saw a trailer for the film version of Friday Night Lights. During the first few weeks of the fall 2004 semester, she and her teaching assistants contacted Universal to see if a special screening could be arranged for her class and others.

She expects to use the film as the starting point for further group discussions, which will no doubt concentrate on the role sports plays in the lives of student-athletes at Lehigh, and how a shared culture can shape world views and personal perspectives.

“In this small town in Texas, everyone is absolutely crazy about football,” Johnson says. “It’s a great examination of how the context of the life you’re living shapes your world, and it combines the dynamics of race, class and gender as well. It’s really Sociology 101.”

Danny Greenawalt, a fifth-year integrated business and engineering Presidential Scholar who is working toward a second bachelor’s degree in industrial engineering, is taking his fourth class with Johnson. He never played football, but grew up in Austin, Texas, where he says the intensity of the football culture was a major influence on the lives of those who lived there.

“Football was and is larger than life in my high school, and it played a central role in the social scene,” he says. “We went to the state championship four times in the last 10 years, so I found it easier to believe many of the extreme statements in the book about the culture than some of my classmates.”

He recalls packed stadiums, dress-up days for school pep rallies, and fan intensity that sometimes reached the level of fanaticism.

“The stadium was always sold out and the student section was always packed,” he says. “And the football players were treated like gods.”

The love of the game

For several of the student-athletes who will attend this evening’s showing, the film and the culture it represents will have greater familiarity and deeper meaning. One of them is Gerran Walker, a junior wide receiver, who says sports were a way of life for him growing up in Atlanta.

“I can definitely identify with that football culture,” says the Africana Studies major.

Nicholas Oakley, a sophomore defensive lineman from Virginia Beach, read the book in Johnson’s class and developed a full understanding of the role football played in his development.

“Like some of the players in the book, it taught me responsibility—just things like being on time and doing what needs to be done,” Oakley says. “But the biggest thing it probably taught me was that, in football, if you mess up, everyone sees it—your teammates, the coaches, the fans. And on top of that, it’s on film. Basically, you have no choice but to man-up and take accountability.”

But the part that resonated the most with Oakley was the passion the players, the fans and the coaches brought to the stadium every Friday night.

“It’s the love of the game,” he says. “To go from hot summers to the winter wars, and you keep on fighting even when no one sees you. And it’s all for the team. The same guys you see more than your family at home are the ones you suit up with to do battle.”

Newcomer Brendan Caffrey, a 6-2, 280-lb. offensive lineman from Branford, Conn., is looking forward to attending tonight’s showing of Friday Night Lights with several other members of the Lehigh football team.

“Professor Johnson’s class and this book, in particular, are helping me to broaden my view of things—to analyze, to look at aspects of my life beyond football and outside the classroom,” he says.

He also relates to several aspects of the story, which detail the lives of some of the town’s star athletes: the attention, the praise, the worship.

“You remember your life in high school and how you were a football superstar at your school, then you come to college and you start all over, and learn how to deal with all the pressures of your new surroundings,” Caffrey says.

And, like many of the athletes in Johnson’s class, Caffrey concedes that nothing comes close to the electric atmosphere of a highly competitive football game.

“You never really forget those feelings of winning and losing, and you never really forget that sense of euphoria when you step out onto the football field. The lights shining, the fans screaming—it really hits home.”

--Linda Harbrecht

Posted on Tuesday, October 05, 2004

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