Buzz Bissinger is a journalist of the type that doesn’t exist that much anymore, a name-brand who demands your attention whenever he puts pen to paper. Since leaving the Philadelphia Inquirer to move to Odessa, Texas and write about a high school football team 25 years ago, Bissinger has become a contributing editor at Vanity Fair and a columnist at the Daily Beast, as well as written two other books. Now, he has published, with new journalism endeavor Byliner, a 12,000-word piece about his relationship with Boobie Miles, one of the best-known characters from FNL. The book, After Friday Night Lights, is a tremendously touching love story, and I spoke with Bissinger over the phone about his relationship with Boobie, the role FNL has played in his life, why he wants LeBron to win the ring, and Jose Canseco’s Twitter.
Before I read “After Friday Night Lights,” my first question was going to be, “Why’d you write this book?” Then I read it, and I think I know why you wrote the book, so my question is, why’d you write this book in 2012?
Well, I’ve been very very close to Boobie for a long time, and I just thought it was a story that was worth telling. I wanted to get across to readers just how hard he has struggled in his life. This is fundamentally a very decent guy, a very decent person, and if nothing else, if people have empathy for him and understand what he’s been through, that’s enough for me. And I just thought it was kind of neat in life that two people who are so different and from such different backgrounds can come together and love each other. To me, it’s inspirational about what life can bring, the surprises it can bring, and I just said hey, why not write it, and I think the length is appropriate. I’ve been asked many many times, “Don’t you want to do a where-are-they-now sequel?” and I find those clichéd and kind of boring, but Boobie and I have a special relationship.
It seemed like a cool way to revisit the subject matter and the characters but to do it in a way that advanced the story. It definitely wasn’t anything you would call a sequel.
Exactly. It’s not a sequel, it’s a slice of After Friday Night Lights, and it’s a specific slice dealing with the relationship between myself and one of the players. To me, this is not a sequel; it’s a story, as you say, about a very unique and special relationship that I’ve maintained with Boobie Miles since the book came out and a relationship and friendship that has become essentially important to me, as it has to him. He is like my fourth son: I love him, and I scold him, and I worry about him, and he’s great with me when he’s not upset. We have fights; we’re like a married couple. But again, there really is a core love. When he says to me, “You have a place to stay whenever you want,” it’s sort of embarrassing how flattering that is to me. And he says, “You came along, and if it wasn’t for you, I’d be in prison” — when he said that to me it really sent chills up my spine. Beyond Boobie Miles, it’s just the fact that we can make differences in peoples’ lives. I saw what Boobie went through in high school. I’ve never maintained that Boobie was meant to be a rocket scientist or a physicist, but Boobie was destroyed by that high school, he was. He was treated as a football animal. He was much smarter and more intuitive than people ever gave him credit for. With that kind of education he got, which was no education, he had three strikes against him, and he always felt cheated in his life. Most people get a chance to fail at their dream; he never even got that chance once he got hurt.
You sort of mention this in the book, how the failure wasn’t his failure, it was a circumstantial failure — everyone else failed him.
Yeah, it was a circumstantial failure, it was a freak failure. I mean, the injury, I remember it — he wasn’t even hit that hard. It wasn’t like he got pounded in the knee. And after that it was just the complete onslaught and hatred against him, particularly after they found a very good running back to replace him and everybody turned on him. As he said, “I was always getting 70s and 80s as long as I was playing football. Now that I’m not playing football, I’m flunking.” That’s the way it worked, and I soul-searched, and I felt it was both important and fair to Boobie to name who described him in that despicable way. [Ed.’s note: In Friday Night Lights, an unnamed coach calls Boobie “a big ol’ dumb nigger.”] As I said, why was I protecting him if I wasn’t protecting Boobie. Boobie has to live with that comment his entire life. I don’t regret putting it in, I put it in to show the racism against him, but I said, why am I protecting that coach? So I decided twenty years later that it was time to name names, and I did not do it with balance, but if I’m not protecting Boobie why should I protect this coach?
Have you heard from him at all since this started to come out?
I haven’t heard from Mike Belew since the book was written. I have spoken to Gary Gaines once, in I guess it was 2004, on the even of the film coming out. I went up and saw him unannounced; he was coaching at Abilene Christian University. I just wanted to see him, bury the hatchet — he’d been very critical of the book, although he’d never read it. It had been conveyed to him by others; if he had read it, he’d have seen that the portrait of him was enormously empathetic. But I wanted to tell him, I thought it was important, I wanted to look him in the eye and say Gary, I don’t regret a single thing that I said, but the intention was not to hurt you, the intention was to be honest. We had what I thought was a great hour, he asked after my kids, there was a lot of private conversation. I thought the hatchet was buried, but then he continued to trash me.
It’s very clear in After Friday Night Lights that you have complicated and to some extent negative feelings toward Gaines, and I wanted to ask you how you feel now that the Friday Night Lights TV show, which you described very favorably, has kind of presented this portrayal of Eric Taylor as this really heroic character. And he isn’t based exactly on Gaines, but they seem intrinsically connected, you know? Coach Taylor is such a hero in American culture. Do you ever feel uncomfortable about that? Has that ever bothered you?
You know, it does bother me. I think you make a very good point, because Gaines is also very favorably portrayed in the film and the book. I always felt, until I began to think about it and talk to Boobie, Gaines was in the middle of this shitstorm basically, and I thought he conducted himself with great dignity. Eric Taylor is a wonderful portrayal and Kyle Chandler does a brilliant job of acting. I can pretty much guarantee you there’s not a coach alive that acts that way. I’ve known too many coaches. Coaches are manipulators, that’s what they’re paid to do, they’re paid to manipulate whether they’re paid to manipulate in grade school, high school, college or the pros. They’re paid to manipulate people, and as Boobie talked about Gary and I thought about it, I think Gary did consider Boobie a kind of necessary evil. He was too good to get rid of, but there is that anecdote that Boobie relates of Gaines humiliating him as a sophomore, and I think they were relieved, frankly, when they found someone else. I don’t know whose fault it was; I know Boobie and his uncle L.V. really wanted him to play after he hurt his knee, but frankly the idea of having anybody come back with a torn anterior cruciate ligament is really, really derelict on the part of adults. Whether it was the doctor, whether it was Gary Gaines, I don’t know. I don’t know any athlete who has actually played in the same season in which he had a torn anterior cruciate ligament that hadn’t been fixed! To me it was like feeding Boobie to the wolves; it was setting him up for failure, setting him up for frustration. And the only coach who realized that was black, Nate Hearn, who was a great guy and basically there to take care of the black players, the white coaches really couldn’t relate. He was the only one who really had any sympathy for Boobie. My personal interaction with Gaines after the book, he gave me every impression that the hatchet was buried and I felt it was, I said publicly we had a great hour conversation and I came away with respect for him. But he continues to trash the book, and he’s doing it in USA Today, where he’s on the front page when he goes back to Permian. I made that guy famous! I think I was easy on him: he’s moved around constantly, he’s always looking ahead to the next job. Talking to Boobie, I just didn’t like the way Gaines treated him. He is the head coach. And I may be wrong, a lot of people swear by Gary Gaines and that’s fine, but you reflect and you realize, hey, I was a little bit too soft in my portrayal.
Something you mentioned earlier, about how no coaches are like Coach Taylor, I would agree with that and I think it’s interesting in the light of the whole Saints bounty thing, where coaches probably err closer to Gregg Williams and Sean Payton than Coach Taylor.
Yeah, they do. I had no problem with the bounty thing because I think that’s football, that’s how you rev people up, and this idea that football isn’t a brutally violent, insanely violent game is ridiculous. It is. And if you look at the number of penalties that were assessed against the Saints for being too rough, they had very very few. So I mean, they were tough on Brett Favre, there’s no question about that, but there are referees — why didn’t they call more penalties? The coaches are there to rev kids up. It could be kids, it could be high school, it could be Pop Warner, it could be Little League, it could be college and certainly the pros. They are manipulating at all times, that’s what they do, in addition to Xs and Os. And a lot of the Xs and Os, frankly, are done by the assistant coaches.
How did the partnership with Byliner come about?
I know [Editorial Director and Co-founder] Mark Bryant. Mark was the editor of Play magazine with the New York Times, and I had written for Play, and Mark called me about working with this website, he said it’s new, it’s different and would you have any interest in doing anything? I called him and said, I had this relationship with Boobie Miles, and I think there’s something inspirational about it and interesting about it. It’s not a sequel but it is a kind of slice of life after Friday Night Lights, and I want people to know how much Boobie has struggled. Basically, it’s a story about love, love between two very different people — as I said, I come up to his chest. Mark said that sounds like a terrific story. That’s really how it came about. I looked at Byliner and said, you know what, it’s the future. Here’s a guy saying this is the future and here’s a guy writing an e-book who is the same guy who went completely nuts on Bob Costas and made a complete ass of himself. And I’m aware of that. But I also realize, you know what, it’s the future and you might as well participate in it, and I like the Byliner structure: if the book does well, you do well as an author. It’s a low advance but if the book takes off the royalties are basically split. I think that’s a good model, and that’s probably the model of the future. I’ve seen what Jon Krakauer has written, and they’ve got really good people to write for them. This is a quick read, it’s not a book and it’s not intended to be a book — it’s the equivalent of a very long magazine piece. But I felt the length here was perfect because it’s zoning in on the relationship I had with one player.
Something you say in the book, about how Friday Night Lights has come to define you, seemed interesting to me: you’ve written “Shattered Glass” and so many other things that have also trickled into the culture. Do you think it looms so large because you wrote it so early?
Yes, there’s no question. It’s my first book, I don’t really know what I’m doing in the sense that I’ve done this on a whim. I did get a good advance, but it was not nearly as much as I was making at the Philadelphia Inquirer where I had a good future. I’m moving my kids to a different place, a strange place, I don’t really know what will happen because I’m a dependent on a season that hasn’t been played yet, and I’m 33 years old. By a combination of talent and luck and having the perfect season and the perfect characters, this book pays off and it’s never stopped. When you’re that young, and that’s your first book, and it’s now sold somewhere in the vicinity of two million copies, and it’s been a movie and a TV show and one of 30 books selected for World Book Night, which is on Monday — that’s a tough act to follow. When you’re ambitious, part of life is exceeding your last work. In terms of popularity, I will never do that. I’ve got to say, 22 years later, I get a comment about it a day. And then someone might say, “Well, why’d you write this?” But it’s really the story of Boobie and me. After Friday Night Lights as the title that was used, Byliner wanted to capitalize on Friday Night Lights and I understand that. It’s the act I can’t follow, and I am so defined by it that I do want to scream sometimes. As my father says, it’s a good problem to have, but it has had a psychological impact on me, there’s no question.
I feel like part of it too is that at least with Boobie, you’ve had this incredibly meaningful and consequential relationship come out of it.
Right. And that really has made it worth it, and it is a real relationship. Look, Boobie can drive me crazy and I drive him crazy, because he gets scared and he gets impulsive and there’s that jag in the Byliner piece where we’re throwing f-bombs all over the place. I can give it to him, and he can give it to me, but there really is a core… I love seeing him. I hope I’m helping him, he’s helping me, and it is the most meaningful legacy of Friday Night Lights and really one I never expected. And that’s cool, that’s really cool, because it’s totally human-oriented. Anything I can do to help him, I will, because one of the tragedies is that he’s been terribly taken advantage of.
You mentioned in the book that the Friday Night Lights TV show is wonderful. I don’t know that I’ve seen a show that seems to transcend its subject matter so well — as in, people of all different stripes seem to love it equally.
To be frank, I was not a regular watcher of the show, probably because I was Friday Night Light-ed out. I got a very small royalty from it and really had nothing to do with it on purpose. I met with the writers and they knew exactly what they were doing, they had a great vision, and my feeling was, they don’t need me sticking around. What I saw I felt was terrific, because it really became a show about relationships: husband-and-wife relationships and teenage relationships. Football was just the narrative structure of it, and as you watched it, you realized football became less and less important. It’s a show about relationships and the difficulties of growing up, the difficulties of love, the difficulties of compromise, and you don’t see many shows on television about that. It really wasn’t about football at all. It was just a complex show. One thing that it did get right was about the complex relationship between Coach Taylor and his wife and the compromises they needed to make, because in Texas, high school coaches are moving all the time.
Obviously with your book Shooting Stars, you have a closer connection with LeBron James than maybe any other journalist not named Brian Windhorst. You spoke of your disappointment with him after “The Decision,” but with this year he’s been having, which statistically is one of the best of any player’s ever, do you think he’s beginning to redeem himself?
Yeah, I do, and I wrote columns during the NBA Finals saying look, I was critical of this but enough is enough. He made a bad decision, and he handled it terribly, but he didn’t kill anybody. Peyton Manning is the gold standard of how to leave an organization, and LeBron didn’t do that, but in terms of being accessible to the media, he’s been friendly, he’s good with fans. This is a guy who has been in constant public exposure basically since he was a sophomore in high school. I just couldn’t understand the hatred, because he is a phenomenal basketball player. This year, whether it’s coaching or it’s his own feeling, he’s playing an incredibly well-rounded game that is the type of game he should play. He’s not a three-point shooter, he doesn’t have to score 35 points a game. The guy can rebound, he could be a triple-double every game. I think he’s realizing that he needs the ring. If he gets the ring, people are going to shut up, and I think they should shut up, because he is magnificent to watch. Yes, it was the worst hour of television, there’s no question about it — no, it’s the second-worst hour of television; the first-worst was when I was on Costas with Will Leitch. Just watch how magnificent he is, just the way he passes the ball, I don’t know how he does it — he does have eyes in the back of his head. I want him to win the ring, I do. People are always going to hate him, but at least with a ring he can hold his head high and say I came to Miami with a reason, and this is the reason.
You’re a giant on Twitter, and I wanted to ask you for your thoughts on Jose Canseco and his weird Twitter presence where he seems to be slowly losing his mind in public. But I kind of suspect it’s way more focused and intentional than that. He’s been keeping himself in the public conversation like few retired athletes manage to do, and it’s all because of this weird unhinged Twitter he has.
I probably should follow him, but I’ve never read him. I see him referred to. Now you’re scaring me, because people will say, “Who’s Twitter is more fucked up, Buzz Bissinger’s or Jose Canseco’s?” I haven’t read it, so I don’t really know how unhinged it is, but it does seem clear anecdotally that he is making inroads because people refer to it a lot, I see it referred to a lot when I tweet. I think Jose has always wanted to keep himself relevant. When he wrote his book, and he was calling people out for steroids, everyone was up in arms, but he told more truth than anyone else. He really did. I’ve never met him, and look, maybe he is becoming unhinged, he wouldn’t be the first athlete who had. But I’ll have to read it.
He seems to know what he’s at least trying to do.
The only thing I know about Jose Canseco is from writing Three Nights In August, when Tony [La Russa] said, “This is a very bright guy.” Jose always had a good sense of marketing. I remember Tony calling Jose into his office and saying, “Why do you try to hit a home run every at bat? It’s not helping the team — a single at the right time is more important.” And Jose said, “People don’t come to watch me walk or hit singles, they come to watch me hit home runs.” And he was right. That’s why people came to watch him. So he always had a very good sense of his marketing. Did Tony like that? Obviously not, because that’s not the type of hitter that Tony wants. But Jose was exactly right, you know: “I turn into a singles hitter and I walk a lot, people don’t want that. They want my home runs.”