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    audience in a American football game

    Boomers and Stickers in Devil Town

    Friday Night Lights shows how to leave as well as how to stay.

    By Peter Blair

    April 19, 2021
    • Jacob Murrie


    In 2012 the National Endowment for the Humanities chose Wendell Berry to give the annual Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities. The lecture, entitled “It All Turns on Affection,” touched on the interplay in American life between two kinds of people, which Berry, following his teacher Wallace Stegner, calls the “boomers” and the “stickers.”

    “The boomer,” Berry stated, “is motivated by greed, the desire for money, property, and therefore power.” A boomer would go “wherever the getting was good” and get “as much as he could take.” Stickers, on the contrary, “are motivated by affection, by such love for a place and its life that they want to preserve it and remain in it.” In the lecture, Berry associates boomers with mobility, which has led to “an ever-worsening unsettlement of our people, and the extinction or near-extinction of traditional and necessary communal structures.” The boomers embrace mobility in the pursuit of more and more material gain. The stickers, on the other hand, resist the allure of mobility, and this is part of the reason they offer “a significant hope” to repair America ecologically, economically, and communally through an ethic of affection.

    This lecture was delivered about a year after the TV show Friday Night Lights went off air, and the two make fruitful dialogue partners: the lecture gives us vocabulary to understand the show, while the show gives us stories that, insofar as they ring true, complicate the lecture. In the terms of Berry’s analysis, the world of Friday Night Lights contains both boomers and stickers. Like Berry, the show refuses a vision of life centered exclusively on acquisitiveness, and honors those who orient their lives around more than bare ambition. The qualified localism of Friday Night Lights, however, suggests that both types can take honorable paths. There are, so to speak, ethical boomers, just as there are dignified stickers.

    The season finale of Friday Night Lights aired ten years ago. There are many reasons to revisit this show in the finale’s decennial, but its close attention to how different characters resolve tensions between ambition, relationships, and loyalty to community is high on the list.

    players and coach in a American football game

    Still from Friday Night Lights

    Friday Night Lights is based on a movie, which in turn is based on a book – Friday Night Lights: A Town, a Team, and a Dream by H. G. Bissinger (1990). The movie came out in 2004; the show ran from 2006 to 2011. The latter explores five seasons of high school football in Dillon, a small town in West Texas that is inordinately obsessed with high school football. Friday Night Lights isn’t shy about criticizing Dillon, the backdrop against which the boomers and stickers make their choices. One of the show’s musical motifs is the song “Devil Town” covered by Tony Lucca. “I was living in a devil town,” the song begins, “I didn’t know it was a devil town.” The town of Dillon has gravely serious problems – racism, a seemingly high rate of adult-teenager relationships that may or may not legally qualify as statutory rape (the precise ages of many of the characters are left a bit fuzzy), and a culture around high school football that damages both players and coaches. The characters’ trajectories can’t be understood without reference to how they feel about this place.

    American life need not be defined by antagonism between the ambitiously mobile and the virtuous localist.

    Many of the main high school characters want out: they want to go to college, or play pro football, or join the military – anything that can give them a life beyond Dillon. Some of the characters hug football close because it’s their path out, while others hate (or pretend to hate) the sport, because it represents the town, functioning as a symbol for them of what they want to leave behind.

    One of the main characters in the show’s early seasons, Tyra Collette, is an example of this latter type. Tyra is a (moderately) rebellious high school student, who is in an on-again-off-again relationship with football player Tim Riggins, who is himself in an on-again-off-again relationship with football. Tyra regularly criticizes Dillon’s football culture, and she wants out of Dillon to ensure that she does not become her mother – a woman with a spotty employment history who makes bad choices with men.

    At the end of the show’s five seasons, Tyra returns from college. She’s the first in her family to go to college and she is, in her words, “kicking ass.” Given her general attitude to Dillon, you might expect her to dwell on how happy she is to have escaped it, but that would be out of keeping with the show’s ethos. Instead, she agrees with another character who calls it a hard place to shake: “Yeah,” she says, “didn’t see that one coming.”

    One could read this as Dillon’s last, devilish trick – that it’s so good at sucking people into its culture that even its harshest critics can’t fully shake it. But that’s not, I believe, what the show is doing. The ambivalence of Tyra’s attitude toward Dillon is a case study in how the show ultimately does not adopt an exclusively hostile stance to the town.

    When Tyra admits that Dillon has unexpectedly stuck with her, she’s talking with Julie Taylor, the daughter of the high school football coach, Eric Taylor. Earlier in the show, while meeting with a college admissions officer, Julie gives the following speech, which sums up well Friday Night Lights in its affectionate mode:

    When I started high school, I couldn’t wait to get out of Dillon. I thought that every book I read was like a rung on a ladder that I built to escape this town that was all about high school football and nothing else. And now that I’m actually getting close to leaving, I’m starting to appreciate that I was shaped by my town, that I have a different viewpoint than every other person. I guess what I’m trying to say is that I’m surprised by how happy I am to be from where I’m from.

    In his lecture, Wendell Berry argues that, when it comes to learning about land and its health, “Affection can teach us, and soon enough, if we grant appropriate standing to affection. For this we must look to the stickers, who ‘love the life they have made and the place they have made it in.’” Both Tyra and Julie are motivated to leave Dillon, but their leaving of it does not, in the end, create hostility to it, or result in severing all connections with it. Friday Night Lights suggests that there are ways of leaving a place that don’t require forfeiting affection for it.

    Like Tyra and Julie, other characters throughout the course of the show meditate on, and make choices about, their relationship to Dillon and to the community it contains. The arcs of Eric Taylor and Tim Riggins are at the center of the show’s treatment of these themes. If Taylor’s story is about how he learned what ethical mobility looks like, Riggins’s story is about how he learned to be a dignified sticker.

    Throughout the show, Taylor is presented with options to leave Dillon in order to coach football at a college level, a dream career move. The first time he’s offered this, at the end of the first season, the show clearly sets up the stakes. Taking the job will mean dividing his family, since his wife Tami, pregnant with their second child, is committed to staying in Dillon for the sake of her own career and their daughter Julie’s happiness. It also means leaving behind a team that has grown to trust and depend on him. To many, his leaving would seem like a betrayal.

    To Eric, not only his ambition but a basic sense of self-preservation and breadwinning responsibility argues in favor of taking the job – as he points out to one character, the town hadn’t exactly been loyal to him through the ups and downs of his first season as head coach. Accepting the college offer means leaving behind the stress and uncertainty of a job where the loss of one game could put you out of work and on the road to another town. After changing his mind a couple of times, he takes the job, at Tami’s insistence (she doesn’t want him to pass up the opportunity of a lifetime).

    With Eric out of Dillon, the world of Friday Night Lights falls apart. Season 2 is infamous for going off the rails. The show introduces an unnecessary murder subplot, for example. The wildness of season 2 is, in my view, a result of the way Eric’s choice fractures Dillon, but even leaving aside this pet theory, the show makes it clear that Eric’s family does suffer from his taking the job. He tries to commute back and forth between the college and Dillon, but it doesn’t work. Tami is crushed by the burden of trying to be a new mother on her own, and their older daughter turns rebellious out of a feeling of abandonment. Eventually he finds a way to return to the town. He gets his old job back by nodding at a scheme to have his replacement fired – just one more cost of his original choice.

    Later in the series, Eric is offered the same choice: a different college comes knocking with an attractive offer complete with an upscale house. After a number of the players make it clear to him how much his coaching has meant to them, he turns the job down. He has learned his lesson. The first time he (and Tami) learned, the hard way, that his family had to come before his ambition; the second time he’s able to realize his team and his town have to come before his ambition.

    In the series finale, a final choice of a different nature presents itself. Dillon has decided to combine the town’s two football teams into one “super team” and they offer Eric the role of head coach. The offer comes with the kind of job security the town has always denied him before, and it seems like he finally has everything he could want: a smart career choice that doesn’t require comprising any of his loyalties. At the same time, however, Tami has been offered her dream job at a college in Philadelphia. Tami and Eric come to an impasse in their marriage: Eric wants to stay in Dillon with his newly secure job, Tami wants to accept her offer and move to Philadelphia. From Tami’s perspective, she’s spent years serving as “Mrs. Coach,” channeling her time and energy into supporting her husband in his career. Now, she feels like it’s time to take turns, and for him to support her in her career. In the end, he comes to see it from her perspective and, touchingly, asks her, “Take me to Philadelphia with you, please.” And so in the end Eric Taylor leaves Dillon, but not to chase his own ambition. He leaves as an act of love.

    Friday Night Lights pays careful attention to the reasons people leave Dillon, and (as in the case of the Taylors) praises some of them. But it also paints a picture of what dignified staying looks like, especially in the trajectory of high school football player Tim Riggins. When we first meet him in season one he’s a mess of a person, though an often loveable one. He drinks a lot, sleeps around a lot, talks hardly at all. When he does speak, it’s to say things like “Texas forever.” He loves Dillon, he loves Texas, and he’s a romantic localist of a sort. But his localism is boomer-inflected, complicating Berry’s distinction in another direction. Riggins always loves Texas – always wants to live and die in an area he loves – but this doesn’t stop him from dreaming of, so to speak, acquisitiveness in place (a possibility which Berry, to be fair, recognizes in his own novels). When the show starts, his dream is “to live large” in Texas by sponging off his friend Jason Street, who is destined for the NFL before a bad tackle leaves him paralyzed at the end of the show’s pilot.

    Jason’s injury reverberates throughout Dillon; many lives are changed as a result, including Tim, who must figure out a new plan for his life. He’s a decent enough football player that he eventually manages to get into college on a football scholarship. But he’s barely got into his first year in college before he decides it’s not for him. He returns to Dillon, where he has a series of misadventures that eventually land him in prison for helping to run a chop shop. He carries the full weight for both him and his brother, his partner in crime.

    When he’s released from prison, he’s angry with his life and angry with his brother. He contemplates leaving Dillon for Alaska for a work program he learned about in prison. When Tyra returns from college, she reminds Tim of what he loves about Texas. Before going to prison, he had bought some land, and in a memorable scene near the end of the show Tim and Tyra are sitting on his land in a golden hour and she turns to him simply to ask, “Alaska, Tim?”

    Tim decides to stay and reconciles with his brother. The show leaves him building a house with his brother on his own land, a more quiet and modest version of his original dream to live large in Texas off of Jason’s NFL income. His plan is to build the house, get a job, and “never do anything illegal for the rest of my life.” His localism has been purified.

    For her part, Tyra still has her ambitions. She wants to be like Tami Taylor, “only bigger.” But the show ends on a note of possibility for Tyra and Tim, on the chance that his dream of living a quiet sticker life in Texas could somehow merge with her ambition. Perhaps in the end boomers who keep their affection and dignified stickers can come together. Perhaps American life need not be defined by antagonism between the ambitiously mobile and the virtuous localist.

    Friday Night Lights begins in Texas, but it ends in Philadelphia. Having moved to Philly to give Tami her turn, Eric finds himself with a new high school football team to train. The very last shot of the show depicts him giving one of his signature speeches to his new team, before walking off the field with Tami. “Do you know what I just realized, fellas?” asks Eric. “That is we got a long way to go, gentlemen. A long way to go. And you know what? I’m looking forward to it.”

    I myself have also recently relocated to Philadelphia, though for me it is a return, since I grew up in the area. Generally speaking, returning home is a localist act, at least when it’s done right. But localism is also often associated with all sorts of things – agrarianism, small towns, resisting the “brain drain,” and the like – which don’t seem to apply to an East Coast city. It makes the distinction between boomer and sticker seem a little less clear, which is perhaps why the ambiguities of Friday Night Lights appeal to me.

    In any case, I’m here now, and, in Berry’s words, I need to relearn affection for my place. Like Eric Taylor, I’m looking forward to it.

    Contributed By PeterBlair Peter Blair

    Peter is the Program Director for the Augustine Collective at the Veritas Forum, helping to support student publications at universities across the country.

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