Tuesday, May 31, 2011

I watched Friday Night Lights

Never Done: I watched Friday Night Lights

Two people have told me (Justine in person, and Jennifer in a Facebook update) how much they love Friday Night Lights. I didn't even know what it was, but I respect both of them so much that I decided to watch it cold, with no prep -- not even knowing the topic.

So imagine my delight when it turned out to be a sports show. High school football in Texas, to be precise. Which had a number of plot elements that were surprisingly relevant to my own personal life. Speaking of which ... I don't know exactly what I'm going to write about in this blog post, but I feel pretty confident that it will contain spoilers, so if you don't want to know what's in the 2006 pilot, stop reading now.

The show follows a coach, several members of the football team, a cheerleader, their families, and community as they head into a season in which its (for some reason) really important that they make it to the State Championships. We see them on Monday, and then on Tuesday, and then on Wednesday and Thursday, and finally at the big game on Friday. One of the players is a drunk, one of them takes care of his grandmother, one of them is African American and touchy about his deceased father. The star quarterback is dating the head cheerleader, and has also been close to the coach since he was a Pee Wee. We get the sense that this team, and this season are particularly important for the coach, but we (at least I) don't yet understand why. From the cinematography and a little of the plot, we get the clear message that this is going to be about race and class as much as it's going to be about football. Also, there's something up with the relationships between the girls and the boys that makes me think it might go deeper than the usual who's dating who.

However, even considering all it had going for it, I spent the first 30 minutes wondering how this show got made, because at its core, it just seemed like another high school sports show. And then it happened. In the middle of the big game, just when we thought the tension was about whether their second half slump was going to result in a loss, the star quarterback -- the one the Notre Dame scout said is the best high school player he'd ever seen, threw a wobbly pass that got intercepted, and when the opponent ran it down the field, he (the quarterback) was the only guy around to block him, and he went down. Hard. And didn't get back up again.

That happened to me too. I wasn't a star, and I wasn't in a big important game, but I was a completely dedicated high school basketball point guard, and I was good. I wasn't amazing, but I was good. I worked incredibly hard at it, and I was playing Varsity in my sophomore year, and I was taking a jump shot, and something happened and I went down in the most pain I had ever felt. I didn't know it at the time, but I tore my anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) and both meniscus, and also my quadriceps tendon. I was a mess. When I saw in the show that the ambulance was coming for the injured star, and the way that time stopped, I was immediately thrown back to the moment of my injury. I just remember a couple things. I think I screamed fuck and was later made fun of for that, and I remember that nothing really mattered to me except that I was very hurt. I knew a game had to go on, but it wasn't my concern. My concern was that I needed help, and I couldn't move.

My classmate Bruce Maisel took a photo of the moment (which if I were home I would try to find, scan, and post) -- with my left leg splayed out on the floor, and the school nurse Betty Bergendahl tending to me. I've actually found that photo incredibly helpful over the years -- it reminds me of the stillness that I felt in that moment. The stillness that was captured beautifully in Friday Night Lights. One young man's life completely changing; everyone slowing down to care for him, but only long enough to send him elsewhere for care, and then the game must go on.

The other image from the show that brought up a very deep memory was the image of the doctor screwing a halo brace into this young man's head, to stabilize his neck after his spinal cord injury. You know what the halo brace is -- it's the one that sits on the shoulders, and is screwed into the head. My father had one after he had cervical disc surgery. Again, I wish I were home and could scan the photo of him dancing at Claire's wedding with a halo brace screwed into his head. (That's love, Claire.) I wasn't in the room when the halo was put on -- they do that in surgery -- but I was the one who took my dad to the doctor to finally have it removed, and I think it might have been the most vulnerable I had ever seen my father, all because the doctor decided to make a really dumb joke.

The thing is literally screwed into the skull with a cordless Makita drill. I was a carpenter at the time, and used my Makita all the time, so to see something that quotidien being used in such a delicate medical operation was a surprise. But the greater surprise was that after my father had been warned for weeks that one false move, and those screws could enter his skull too far and injure his brain, the doctor "joked" -- as he revved up the drill -- that he couldn't tell which was was forward and which was reverse.

The rage and powerlessness that flashed in my father's eyes were heartbreaking to me, and at the same time, this was the first opportunity I ever had to stand up and protect my father. I took it. I told the jovial young doctor that this was not a moment to joke -- to please remove the screws immediately and with great care. He did, and we left, and my father, though shaken, put the incident behind him. But that moment sealed something between us, and although we never spoke about it over the next 15 years, I know that the fact that I witnessed his vulnerability was a deep part of our bond.

And so I'm hoping that Friday Night Lights might also be about personal vulnerability, as well as racial and economic vulnerability. I have to finish Battlestar Galactica and keep watching Breaking Bad, but I think I'm hooked on yet another show.

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