With a mildly important football game on later today, this seems like a good time to talk about Friday Night Lights. A few years back Zach Gordon insisted that I watch the television series (I've never seen the movie), and this is one time that he was right. The show is a largely well-written, well-acted drama that is as much about life as it is sports. Schmaltzy at times, preachy at others, it somehow manages to make the afterschool special theme work rather than being too saccharine. There are a host of great characters, and we could easily talk about Coach Taylor, his wife Tami, Tim Riggins, and all the others. But today I want to look at my favorite. Number 7, quarterback Matt Saracen.
This is a kid who was the no-name backup to a much more pedigreed starter on a contending team. Working hard on his game, staying positive, never knowing when his chance would come. When that starter, the blue-chip, can't-miss prospect Jason Street, goes down with a severe injury, Saracen is thrust into the starting role. He ends up being far tougher and more clutch than anyone expects. Stop me if any of this sounds familiar...
Tom Brady comparisons aside, I like Saracen because of who he is off the field. He lives with his grandmother because his mother left and his father is a career soldier serving in Iraq. He works endless hours to help pay the bills, looks after his declining grandmother, and does it all with a weary stamina. He knows there is no pot of gold, no college scholarship, no finish line, and yet he quietly tries to do the right things, to have integrity. His relationship with Coach Taylor (and, at times, the coach's daughter) is one of the most real, textured relationships I've seen on the small screen. Saracen's best moments come when he sheds his cloak of reticence and demands that life give him a fair shake. There's iron beneath his morose demeanor.
The best episode of the series, and among the best I've seen on television, deals with his father's death in Iraq. Saracen struggles to grieve for a man he resents, culminating in emotionally devastating consequences. In that episode, Saracen shows a heartbreaking humanity and brittle dignity that trumps any heroism he ever displays on the football field.
Matt Saracen, of all the Dillon Panthers, best exemplified Coach Taylor's oft-repeated pregame maxim: Clear eyes, full hearts, can't lose.