illustration by Brianna Ashbyalone
For a collection of seasons, I saw a therapist every Monday night. In the winter, the street lamps would throw themselves through the blind slats and ladder across the floor of her office. In the summer, a colossal Northern sky flooded like paints in rinse water, blue to yellow to orange to red to dusk, while I talked and she listened. And when I drove home, my boyfriend and my family knew not to call because I was bruised and pushed inward in a way that required a long, quiet night to re-expand.
In all we talked through in my therapist’s office, the focus somehow never came to teams, which makes sense, I guess. Why would it?
But when I watch Friday Night Lights, I think maybe all of life comes down to that. To teams and tribes. And it occurs to me that some of my greatest mental grapples are with the discomfort of that truth.
For years, I thought and preached that what really mattered was what you accomplished alone. The jobs you labored to get, the late nights you labored to keep them, at your desk, alone. The dormant volcano you climbed by yourself to prove you could still climb things after heartache; the borders you walked across alone; the airports you landed in alone; the dark hostel rooms in which you woke with the call to prayer resounding in your ears. Alone. All the miles you biked alone and all the meals you were proud to eat, alone. The apartments you moved into and painted and fixed up alone, with the garage sale toolbox you bought alone.
How else could you get and deserve credit in your own heart unless you did it all alone? For all their benefits, partnerships hold you back and compromise your vision, I said. Partnerships, I thought, were proof that two people were required to carry you where you needed to go, and I most certainly equated that with weakness.
But here is the truth: I have always been afraid of being on a team because it is hard enough to let myself down. I couldn’t bear having the weight of a team’s hopes on me as well.
Maybe that’s part of what makes me cry in nearly every episode of Friday Night Lights.
For so long, I thought I was most afraid of losing my independence. But I will admit to you that more so, I am terrified of being found lacking. Of not being good enough. Team sports were not an option I allowed myself to consider in high school. I ran track and played tennis and dreaded Phys Ed not because—as I claimed—sports were stupid. But because I was so pitifully insecure about my athletic ability.
If I ran alone and failed, I might embarrass myself, but I would never embarrass a team.
Somehow, these boys and this coach and this smart, beautiful wife live in a world where they are allowed to just keeping demanding more of each other and showing up for each other and yelling and loving and never giving up on each other.
Somehow, these characters are held to each other by a trust in which they are vulnerable enough to hear, every day, how they need to work harder and do better. And somehow, it doesn’t erase their value back to zero. They accept the truth in the assessment and commit to improving for themselves and for each other because they know the challenge was spoken out of love and loyalty and that it is no impeachment of their worth. And I know—to the perfectionist, sensitive-to-the-point-of-rawness heart of me—how very difficult that kind of open resilience is.
I know that you can only show up for that kind of honesty for someone you love and respect, who also loves and respects you and who holds constant in one sacred hand your worth. Who won’t ever let that hand down no matter how you fall and fail.
There’s a first-season Friday Night Lights scene in the rain. Smash Williams has freshly given a dumb-ass TV interview saying that he thinks the coach ought to be winning games, and Buddy Garrity is relentlessly lobbying Coach Taylor to illegally recruit Voodoo Tatum—a Katrina refugee who coincidentally happens to be one of the best quarterbacks in the south. Coach has lost Jason Street, the star quarterback he spent years grooming, to a paralyzing injury. Everywhere he goes, everyone in town is on Coach like petition seekers outside Whole Foods and he just sort of snaps, broken by the stupidity of his community assuming he might not understand the gravity of the situation.
So he calls Assistant Coach Mac after the 10 o’clock news and tells him to get the team together and meet him at the field. And it’s pouring rain and it’s dark and half the team has no idea what Smash did or why they’re getting punished and they’re just running the hill in the dark while Coach berates them. “You think you’re champions because you wear this uniform? Because someone gives you a free slice of pie at the diner?”
Because you’re hot shit in a hot, small Texas town 99 percent of the world has never heard of? Please, son. You have to earn the title of champions – it’s nothing you deserve.
So these boys just keep running and puking and wiping the rain out of their eyes in the dark and maybe blushing a little, convicted by what Coach is saying. And Mac, that weasel, says “Don’t you think they’ve had enough?” And Coach says “I’ll say when they’ve had enough.” And he and Smash have this stare down and you can see the power and honor structure change.
One warrior kneels down to another. And in this shift, you hear Matt Saracen call out, through the downpour, broken but determined and still a little quiet the first time: “Clear Eyes, Full Hearts, Can’t Lose.” And then Smash takes up the call. And then together: first yelling it, then believing it. Then Riggins—Riggins who secretly blames himself for his best friend Jason Street being unblocked, unprotected and now unable to walk for the rest of his life—screams it. Clear Eyes, Full Hearts, Can’t Lose. And that is the wholehearted opposite of how they’ve been living. Of how we all get to living—as if we’re entitled to what we long for. As if we were promised everything. As if life isn’t sure to be more tough things, more knock downs, more hard work than ease—as if it wasn’t so for every generation before us. How did we think we’d escape it?
As if it wasn’t always so much more about the team than about just us and our big plans.
Coach finally gets it through his stubborn head that Riggins is heartbroken and guilty and tells him it wasn’t his fault. He needs to let himself off the hook. Coach tells him over and over because Riggins needs to hear it, and because there is no good father waiting at home to say it.
And then in a blink, Coach tells Riggins that if he every walks out on a practice again, he’ll kick his ass off the team. Tells him to walk home and then they’ll be even.
And this is the rare chemistry I marvel at. I have had people be hard on me. Expect maybe more than I am capable of. And I have had people love me, see the good in me and go easy on me and support me unconditionally. But I am not sure I have had people who do both in the same breath. I’m not sure most of us have.
The fictional town of Dillon, Texas breeds those rare teammates who are not just pursuing a prize, but are instead sincerely investing in their relationships. To be a member of the Panthers or the Lions is to care about how your teammates live and grow and stumble or thrive or drown on and off the field. It’s about that ability to know when to critique and motivate and when to comfort. About being able to hold the criticism and the orders and the rage to be better and do better because we are able but not because we are not enough.
There are a handful of shows I ask everyone I talk to about television if they have seen: The Wire, Mad Men, Friday Night Lights. But when I ask them if they’ve watched and loved Friday Night Lights, what I mean is are you my kind of person? Are you all heart? Are you bothered by this 21st-century lack of earnestness, our abundance of irony? Do you wonder how we forgive and coach ourselves to do better? How we can strive again for valor and loyalty and daring and redemption?
I fear we are defaulting to needless negativity as some kind of social currency. But Friday Night Lights is the most earnest show I’ve ever watched. Not sentimental, however: these characters aren’t perfect. In fact, this show is incredibly astute at allowing humans to have stratums of complexity: to have character and occasionally act without it, and then to live in the mire of their own dumb choices. Do I adore Coach? Yes. Do I think, as Tammy says, he is a molder of men and a husband of fierce devotion? Absolutely. Do I also think he can also be a self-involved, sexist prick who values his career over his wife’s? No question.
Regardless of the scale of the battle, the stakes in Friday Night Lights are rarely phony or contrived. It’s about winning games, sure, but its scope far exceeds that. This is a show that tests and reflects commitment not just on the football field, but back in the locker room. And in Street’s rehab room, and Saracen’s grandmother’s living room, and Julie’s bedroom, and eventually out to Luke’s farm and Tim’s prison and Tammy’s dream in Philadelphia. This commitment is not about obligation, but something more sacred. Duty. The hidden gale that blusters and grows within us and makes us yearn to give someone else exactly what they need. Marriage, parenthood, friendship, teaching.
It’s stitched into Coach Taylor’s duty to the development of these boys – teaching them what it means to be men of integrity, when no one would blame him for leaving them soulless athletic husks. Machines.
It’s in Coach and Tammy’s duty to each other, a marriage so well portrayed that it somehow informs my real-life partnership. In Tammy’s ability to say the one right thing to Coach that stops his stubbornness, determined as an ocean liner, and compels him to slowly, achingly change course. Knowing how we disagree and commit. How I humble myself to you when it is my turn and, harder, when it is not.
It’s in Matt Saracen’s duty to his grandmother, drifting into dementia. His father’s lack of duty to him. Tyra’s duty to herself, when no one else has ever looked out for her. Lyla’s duty to Jason Street. Billy Riggins’s sad, constantly failing duty to Tim and Tim’s noble, resentful duty to Billy’s young family. Vince’s duty to his broke-down, resilient mother. Coach’s duty to the neglected potential of East Dillon over the tidy glory of West Dillon. Julie’s duty to her family, who is bigger than Texas and cannot be outrun.
The town’s duty to the team and the team’s duty to what is right first and foremost. (I won’t ever forget Saracen’s mea culpa to Coach: ”I think I got confused between what was right for the team and what was right.”) Balanced with a surprisingly progressive nod to gender and race issues, Friday Night Lights is, at its heart, an old-fashioned show. Where kids say Yes Sir and No Ma’am, and duty is more honor than inconvenience.
Imagine this: What if we weren’t alone on some existential tight rope? What if there was a sea below us, raging not in spite of our insignificance but in solidarity with our struggle? What if there was a sky yawning above us with a code of a billion stars? What if we remembered we weren’t all alone?
To me, Friday Night Lights is about the power of the binary. (The sum of Us being so much deeper and lovelier and harder and richer than the parts of just me and just you.)
And the richest encounters I’ve experienced in this life occurred when I struck down to the loam of community and was enhanced and nourished by others. (That raging sea. Those billion stars.) Even as I thought I was alone in Patagonia, there was the doctor who sat beside me on a creaking, cold old bus and talked to me for hours about Australia and education and life. The old fellows who welcomed me into their camp in Mali and made me dinner. Who were 20 yards away when I went to sleep flat on the red dirt of a cliff above Dogon Country and were 20 yards away when I woke up and said to me, “Come, have coffee with us.” Sure, I came in alone and I left alone, but for a day, we were a team. For a spell, we watched out for each other.
Some years, the profound truth of how we belong to each other is easy to see: marriage, best friendship, brotherhood. But I truly believe that the connections we make at less obvious times, with less obvious people—those that occur when we gather the courage to reach out through the randomness to someone we may never have seen before, and may never see again—are the ones that save us. The ones that carry us through the infinite loneliness of life.
Some years, you may forget our interconnectedness, you may doubt the arms waiting to catch the pass you’ve thrown into the void. But don’t ever forget that you have already made the team. You were always enough. And you are not alone.
Driving home all those Monday nights, I belonged to a team I couldn’t yet recognize. Years later, I know: I am surrounded by them.
Clear eyes. Full hearts. Can’t lose.
Erica Cantoni works in the non-profit world by day and writes by night. She believes in Radical Sincerity, aims to earn admission to the Travelers Century Club before she dies and reveres movies, books and things on the internet that make her cry in the best possible ways. She and her husband live in Los Angeles with their adorable cat.