Thursday February 28th, 2008

Scott Porter remembered the game. Asked Wednesday if he could recall the most heartbreaking loss of his junior season at Lake Howell High in Winter Park, Fla., the man who plays paralyzed former Dillon Panthers quarterback Jason Street on NBC's Friday Night Lights flicked on his mental highlight reel.

"In the regular season," Porter said, "it would definitely have been Lake Mary."

Porter, a high school receiver, then recounted how his team lost two top defenders to severe cramping late in the game. He also mentioned that their kicker missed three extra points. He failed, of course, to mention the real reason Lake Mary won -- the dominant play of offensive tackle Andy Staples.

OK, that's not true. Though I played a decent game against a defense that featured future New York Giant Kawika Mitchell, we won because of the only Friday Night Lights finish of my high school career. If you know the show, you know the Dillon Panthers win 90 percent of their games with fourth-quarter fireworks. And rarely does QB1 Matt Saracen lead a John Elway-style march; the Panthers typically win on a Hail Mary, a halfback pass or a fumble recovery for a touchdown.

Which brings us back to Don T. Reynolds Stadium on a balmy October night in 1995. Lake Howell led, 18-13. The Silver Hawks had the ball deep in their own territory, but they needed only two first downs to run out the clock. With a little less than three minutes remaining, running back Ellis DeJesus broke free. Only safety Donnie Casey -- think a sober, law-abiding version of Dillon fullback Tim Riggins -- had a chance to make the tackle. But Casey had this look in his eye. As he closed on DeJesus, we knew he had no intention of tackling him.

Instead, Casey ripped the ball away and ran 34 yards to the end zone. My Lake Mary team won, 19-18. "We also missed a field goal that would have won the game," Porter said.

Details, details.

I apologize for boring you with tales of high school glory, but I have a reason. I want to save the best show on television. Every time I watch Dillon pull off a miracle, I remember that night. The show feels so real. It stirs those memories so vigorously that for a moment, I can remember exactly how it felt to be a high school senior. I can feel the mix of elation and nausea that hit like a 280-pound defensive tackle every time I tried to talk to that blonde cheerleader I'd pined for since seventh grade. I remember what life was like before I had a mortgage. I wonder if I finished my physics homework.

Even if you didn't play football in high school, you'll feel the same way when you watch the show. And watch it you must, because if you don't, we might never see another episode. We might never know if Riggins managed to win cheerleader-turned-Born-Again-radio-host Lyla Garrity away from her rich, Bible-thumping beau. We won't know if tailback Brian "Smash" Williams honored his verbal commitment to Whitmore or if one of the football factories that recruited him before his unfortunate incident at the movie theater scooped him up on national Signing Day. We may never hear the entire Dillon student body chanting, "Tyra Collette graduates!"

NBC brass thinks we'd rather watch pablum like My Dad is Better Than Your Dad or the Knight Rider update instead of a show that makes us laugh, cheer, cry and wonder whether we could have won the love of the blonde beauty from the wrong side of the tracks -- with a heart of gold, of course.

Non-viewers may think this sounds a bit too much like a soap opera. It's not. The scripts are written so well and the cast is so good that even the most implausible plot twists seem grounded in reality. Because for every Hail Mary or meth dealer robbery, there's a mother-daughter scrap between coach's wife Tami Taylor (Connie Britton) and rebel spawn Julie (Aimee Teegarden) that reminds you of every argument your mom and sister ever had. So what if the Panthers never include the protection scheme in their play calls? They get everything else right, from the way actor Kyle Chandler (head coach Eric Taylor) grinds his jaw to the way Saracen and Smash limp from practice to the Alamo Freeze to make minimum wage slinging ice cream.

"I'm not going to mince words," said Porter, who plays a can't-miss quarterback paralyzed during the first game of his senior season. "It's really a shame when the network announces half of the fall lineup, and we're nowhere to be found. And as a matter of fact, the head of the network says that we aren't a show you should be paying attention to because nobody watches us in the first place. ... We don't feel that we've been given a fair shot."

In 2006, NBC threw FNL into the 8 p.m. Tuesday time slot opposite established hit Dancing with the Stars. Stars ended, but by the time February sweeps rolled around, FNL had to face juggernaut American Idol. In 2007, NBC dumped FNL into the 9 p.m. Friday time slot. This didn't make sense, because, in the fall, wouldn't some of the people who might watch a show about a high school football team be attending a high school football game on a Friday night at 9 p.m.?

FNL also faced another problem: purists like me. H.G. Bissinger book Friday Night Lights, chronicling a year in the lives of the Odessa (Texas) Permian High Panthers, debuted in 1989 and few pieces of sports journalism since have come close to matching it. Being so loyal to the book, I originally refused to watch the 2004 movie or the television spinoff.

Peter Berg, a relative of Bissinger's and the director of the movie, was equally loyal to Bissinger's book. When Berg made the movie, he couldn't properly delve into the issues (family pressure, racial tension) that made Bissinger's book so good. When he adapted the story for television, Berg corrected that injustice. The best example is the season-one arc in which Smash (the fictionalized version of former Permian back Boobie Miles) deals with the fallout from a boneheaded, seemingly racist comment by a Dillon assistant coach to a pair of reporters.

Porter said cast members realized they'd made something special after filming the pilot. After wrapping the episode, Chandler, a veteran of television and the movies, tried to make his young co-stars understand that Hollywood rarely gets it so right.

"We may never have a show like this again," Porter remembered Chandler saying. "Those of you on a show for the first time, appreciate it now, because you're never going to feel like this again."

And unless we viewers do something about it, we may never see FNL again. The writers' strike wiped away the final seven episodes of season two, and NBC executives have yet to decide whether they'll turn on Lights for a third season. They have shopped the series to other networks and kicked around the idea of broadcasting it on a cable network such as USA.

By the time they make up their minds, much of the talented cast may have better things to do. Porter is starring opposite Brittany Snow in Prom Night, due out in April, and he plays Racer Rex in the Wachowski brothers' (The Matrix creators) live-action version of Speed Racer that opens in May. Taylor Kitsch (Riggins) is playing Gambit in the X-Men spinoff Wolverine.

So what you we do to save FNL? First, you can watch it. Season one is available on DVD, and full episodes from both seasons are available at Second, you can help deluge NBC execs with plastic footballs. The folks at Save Friday Night Lights are accepting donations so they can send truckloads of footballs to NBC to demonstrate the passion of the show's fans. Even better, 15 percent of the money will collected will be donated to charity. One beneficiary was GridIron Heroes, an organization that helps young men who suffered spinal cord injuries while playing high school football.

So watch the show, send some footballs and hope for the best. According to Porter, the cast would love to kick off season three. "I know I'm biased," Porter said, "but it's the best show on television."

And Porter needs some good news. After reliving that gutwrencher on that Friday Night in 1995, his bruised psyche can only be healed by helping FNL pull off one more miracle finish.

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