Friday Night Lights and Leather Pants

Buzz Bissinger’s greatest stories.

Pulitzer Prize winner and author Buzz Bissinger attends the premiere of "Off the Rez" during the 2011 Tribeca Film Festival at SVA Theater on April 26, 2011 in New York City.
Author Buzz Bissinger in 2011

Photo by Michael Loccisano/Getty Images

Every weekend, Longform shares a collection of great stories from its archive with Slate. For daily picks of new and classic nonfiction, check out Longform or follow @longform on Twitter. Have an iPad? Download Longform’s app to read the latest picks, plus features from 70 of the world’s best magazines, including Slate.

Assuming you were anywhere near the Internet this week, you probably heard that Buzz Bissinger, the Pulitzer-Prize winner and author of Friday Night Lights, has spend more than $600,000 on expensive, and often bizarre, leather clothing. Read “My Gucci Addiction,” his sprawling, confessional essay published Tuesday by GQ, then read these amazing pre-Gucci Bissinger stories:

Friday Night Lights
Sports Illustrated
• September 1990

Before the show, before the movie, there was Bissinger’s tale of the 1988 Permian Panther football team and the small West Texas city of Odessa, where he lived with a family for a year.

“The faithful sat on little stools of orange and blue under the merciless lights of the high school cafeteria, but the spartan setting didn’t bother them a bit. Had the booster club’s Watermelon Feed been held inside the county jail, or on a sinking ship, or on the side of a craggy mountain, these fans still would have flocked there.

“Outside, the August night was cool and serene, with just a wisp of West Texas wind. Inside, there was a sense of excitement and also relief, for the waiting was basically over—no more sighs of longing, no more awkward groping to fill up the empty spaces of time with golf games and thoroughly unsatisfying talk about baseball. Tonight the boys of Permian High School in Odessa would come before the crowd, one by one, to be introduced. And in less than two weeks, on the first Friday night in September, the march to state—to the Texas high school championship finals—would begin with the first game of the season.”

The Killing Trail
Vanity Fair
• February 1995 

The story of eight gay men in Texas murdered by teenage boys.

“On a frigid night in east Texas in 1993, just a few weeks before Christmas, a 23-year-old gay man named Nicholas West is abducted from Bergfeld Park in Tyler. He is taken to a hilly isolated area of red clay nicknamed the Pits, a place where pleas for mercy evaporate under the cold shine of the stars. He is punched, kicked and slapped across the face with a .357 magnum. When he falls to the ground, utterly alone and helpless in that marrow of darkness, blood oozing out of his eye, his three abductors gather around him with their arsenal of loaded weapons. Then the shooting begins—so many entrance and exit wounds that by the time of the autopsy, West’s body looks like a stickpin doll. There are at least 9 bullets, the first in the abdomen, then several through the arms and hands, then at least 4 up the back in a pattern as neatly spaced as the buttons on a shirt. Eight shots at that point, but Nicholas is still alive, his breath reduced to a tiny gurgle, until the final shot is fired into the back of his head. Then he is left on that field of red clay, face down, without shoes or pants, his arms by his sides and his legs spread apart like those of a sleeping child, the bottom of his socks red from the clay, and his underwear soiled by a fear that none of us could ever know.

“After the murder, one of the killers rides around in the red Mazda truck that West had driven to the park that night. Impressed by the power of the truck, he squeals the tires the way the drag racers do it. Then he goes on over to the laundromat on Troup Highway in Tyler to do a load of wash.”

Shattered Glass
Vanity Fair
• September 1998

At 25, Stephen Glass was a reporter wunderkind, regularly filing incredible pieces for the largest magazines. When suspicion fell on his sources, things started to really get strange. It wasn’t just sources and organizations he was inventing, but whole stories.

“For those two and a half years, the Stephen Glass show played to a captivated audience; then the curtain abruptly fell. He got away with his mind games because of the remarkable industry he applied to the production of the false backup materials which he methodically used to deceive legions of editors and fact checkers. Glass created fake letterheads, memos, faxes, and phone numbers; he presented fake handwritten notes, fake typed notes from imaginary events written with intentional misspellings, fake diagrams of who sat where at meetings that never transpired, fake voice mails from fake sources. He even inserted fake mistakes into his fake stories so fact checkers would catch them and feel as if they were doing their jobs. He wasn’t, obviously, too lazy to report. He apparently wanted to present something better, more colorful and provocative, than mere truth offered.”

Gone Like the Wind
Vanity Fair •
August 2007

After one of the most decisive wins in Kentucky Derby history, Barbaro broke his leg at the Preakness, ending a promising career and beginning a herculean effort to save his life.

“But the problem for Gretchen Jackson was she did fall in love with a horse. She fell in love with him because when he was in his element on the racecourse there were moments he ran with such joy and abandon that he actually flew, all four feet off the ground. She fell in love with him because of the way he soldiered on after he was tragically hurt in the Preakness Stakes in May 2006, his sense of self so intact that he bit one veterinarian smack on the butt and ran a masseuse out of the stall. She fell in love with him because of the gleam in his eyes, still bright, during those dark days in July 2006 when both his rear lower limbs became a medical nightmare, and she wrote in the private journal she kept:

“It’s not good. Oh my God I am so concerned. Dear Lord we cannot let the bright light fade, flicker, die. We must conquer. Where are you God in my suffering? Are you holding my hands showing me full moons and breezy nights? Yes Lord, they are magnificent but my heart is looking at Barbaro. That is not the horse that won the derby.

“She fell in love with him because of the way he was trying to communicate, Don’t give up on me yet. She fell in love with him because of the way he rallied after that. And then she fell in love with him because of the way he died.”

To Bean or Not to Bean
Sports Illustrated
• March 2005

On the retaliation ethics of baseball.

“But once he is convinced of malicious intent, deciding how to respond is just as hard–an agony even worse for him than losing. ’The responsibilities and the consequences are huge,’ La Russa says. Thrown baseballs have ended careers; one player, Cleveland Indians shortstop Ray Chapman, died as a result of a beaning in 1920. In meetings with pitchers during spring training, La Russa issued clear guidelines: Any message had to be aimed at the ribs or below. Nothing above the shoulders would be tolerated.

“La Russa knows that over the years he has gained a reputation for being vengeful at times when vengeance did not seem necessary. He is also known as something of a headhunter himself, but La Russa asserts that he has never told a pitcher to throw at a hitter simply because the batter was too dangerous and needed to be quieted down. ’If a guy is hitting good against us,’ he says, ’I have never told a pitcher to go out and drill him. I have said, ‘Pitch the guy tough, pitch the guy different.’ If a pitcher does something on his own, I will take him out. You can pitch a hitter inside. You can try to open up the plate on him, get him to speed up the bat. But you do not drill him.’ ”

Buzz Bissinger: A Savior for the City
Sandy Hingston • Philadelphia Weekly • May 2010

A profile of Bissinger as he returned to his old stomping grounds, the Philadelphia Inquirer.

“In person, Buzz vacillates between prickly and pacific. There’s a pattern to how he answers questions; he starts out calm and rational and then shifts into irate gear. ’I am opinionated, passionate,’ he allows. ’I have strong feelings.’ And he vents them, in conversation and in his writing. He’s furious at Philadelphia politicians, at patronage, at the proposed soda tax, at his fellow Inquirer columnists, who never tackle local issues and don’t even live in the city, especially Rick Santorum, who so far as Buzz can tell dwells ’in a world all his own.’ That’s the simple explanation for why he said yes when Inky editor-in-chief Bill Marimow invited him back, 20-plus years after he last set foot in the newsroom. ’There was a void, a vacuum,’ Buzz says. ’Nothing ever changes in this city. I knew all these guys. No one was holding them accountable.’ So Buzz has taken on all comers. ’I am tired of defense attorneys using loopholes that have nothing to do with guilt or innocence,’ he wrote in December, ’and I wonder how these suckerfish can sleep at night knowing that all they have done is increase the already unconscionable probability that an innocent citizen will be robbed or even killed.’ He skewered ex-mayor John Street: ’[N]ever have I seen a human being who went so unfortunately out of his way to be remote, resistant, removed, repulsed by the sight of others.’ And he called the mighty out by name; in March, he eviscerated Foxwoods’ Lew Katz, Ed Snider, and Ron Rubin, saying they had ’the swag and swagger that come with always getting what you want because of who you know.’

“ ’That’s what the assignment is,’ says Buzz’s old friend David Cohen. ’To be tough and provocative, and advance the civic discussion of the city.’ But Buzz’s ’Half Empty’ column isn’t just a platform from which he can speak — well, scream — truth to power. There’s also the matter of Steve Lopez. Lopez wrote a column for the Inquirer back in the day, and though he moved on to Time Inc. in the ’90s and the L.A. Times the in 2001, ’The Inquirer still misses Steve Lopez,’ says PR kingpin Larry Ceisler, also a longtime friend of Buzz. Buzz allows that Lopez is one reason he came back, but frames it differently: ’I want to prove he isn’t the only columnist the Inquirer ever had. I want to eradicate the memory of Steve Lopez. Because I’m a competitive little shit.’ ”

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