Twenty-seven years ago, journalist Buzz Bissinger decided that he wanted to write about the big-time stakes of small-town high school football — he just needed to find the right town. At the suggestion of a college recruiter, he visited Odessa, a west Texas town with a high school football stadium capable of seating 19,000 — and a population of approximately 90,000.
"Odessa is just kind of a dusty, gritty place," Bissinger tells Fresh Air's Dave Davies. "And I see that stadium ... and it's like a rocket ship on the desert."
In 1988, he moved his family to Odessa so he could spend a year following the Odessa Permian Panthers, their families and their fans. The resulting book, Friday Night Lights, sold 2 million copies, and inspired a movie and a TV show.
Now, in a 25th anniversary reissue Friday Night Lights, Bissinger checks in on the players from Odessa's 1988 team to find out how they fared after their playing days were over.
"For a lot of kids, life peaks at 18 in Odessa, it just does. You're playing in front of 19,000 people, you're the god of the town, you're a rock star, but you don't spend the rest of your life being that kind of star," he says.
Bissinger discusses his own struggles following the success of Friday Night Lights, as well as his addiction to buying leather clothing and his recent Vanity Fair cover story on Caitlyn Jenner.
On the role of football in Odessa, Texas
When they would travel to the school, to the stadium there was a caravan of police cars, you would've thought it was the president, basically. ... When they flew to certain away games, particularly — Texas is a big state — chartered jet. I'm talking chartered jet. ... I think the year I was there it cost about $60,000 ... paid for [by] boosters and I think the school kicked in some money. More money was spent on getting rushed game tapes — so they would get them that Saturday overnight — than was spent on books and supplies for the English Department. ...
I heard that they preempted a national league baseball playoff game because the [Odessa] Permian [vs.] Midland Lee game was put on television, and on and on it went.
On the controversy of the book in Odessa and some of the town feeling deceived by him
I was there for a reason. I was first and foremost a journalist. They knew I was a journalist. ... Did they trust me? Of course. Did [I] want them to trust me? Of course. But when I heard the n-word used repeatedly, when I heard the n-word used to describe a tragic black running back ... who is now in prison, when I heard those things, what am I going to do? Not put it in? Issue a Miranda warning saying, "Don't say that anymore! Don't go there!" ...
There's total truth in the book and I've made my peace with Odessa. Frankly, I don't think they've made their peace with me. I'm going down there for the 25th anniversary edition and Odessa College and the university there said, "No, no, he can't speak there, it's still too controversial." I will not take back a single word of it. ... There's a lot of love in this book. There's a lot of love for the scrappiness of Odessa and there's a lot of love for those kids, the sacrifice, the burden, the pressure, and there's a lot of love for those games. I actually think it's a very even-handed portrait.
On the difficulties high school football stars sometimes face once their playing days are over
For a lot of these players [they have] sort of this glazed look in their eye saying, "What happened? What happened to the crowds? What happened to the attention?" Because no one is more lonely and isolated than a former player who comes back to the locker room. There's a pat on the back and the coach says, "Hey, it's great to see you, man," but then no one cares, nobody cares. They get shell-shocked.
On former running back Boobie Miles, who is now in prison
Boobie was basically treated as a football animal. He was pushed through school without any demands. He basically had a tutor who gave him the answer to all the questions. There was no attempt to educate him at all. I never saw him play because in a preseason scrimmage, in a silly play that was meaningless, his cleat got caught in the turf, he blew out his knee. ...
Boobie lived for football. He was told to live for football. His uncle who took care of him, he lived for football. That was his only persona in school and when he lost that I saw him dissolve. I saw him fall apart. I saw every dream he had fall to pieces and I saw that town, and I will never take this back, I saw that town turn totally against him after loving him and extolling him when they found another running back who was good or maybe better named Chris Comer and that's when the n-word came out.
"A big, dumb ol' n-[word]" — and that was a coach, that was an assistant coach who is a nice guy ... and I heard boosters laughing one day on the sidelines and sort of comparing Boobie to a horse. "What do you do when a horse is pulled up lame? You shoot 'em. You shoot 'em."
I saw this over and over and I've kept in touch with Boobie since the book in 1990 — for 25 years and I don't think he's ever, ever, ever recovered. The last time I saw him, it's in the new afterword, the last time I saw him [he] was wearing a white prison uniform. I think collectively, because of the way we view sports and the way we view African-Americans, we all bear responsibility.
On feeling like a "one-hit wonder" with Friday Night Lights
It reached a point that I hated hearing about Friday Night Lights. I heard about it all the time. I still hear about it all the time. People ask me, "What did you think about the television show?" I say, "I don't watch it." They say, "Why don't you watch it? It was inspired by your book!'
Because I didn't want to hear about it anymore, because when the book came out, writing the book was delicious, what I miss the most is that magic moment of being young and innocent and my kids are young and here you are, you know it's a great story. I miss that intensity of connection.
But the book came out, it was a big best-seller, it came out of nowhere, the reviews were incredible, it kept selling and kept selling and kept selling, then the movie comes out, and it sells more and more and more, about 2 million copies, but I've written other books! ...
I wrote a book about Philadelphia that I feel was my best book, A Prayer for the City. Friday Night Lights — 2 million copies, A Prayer for the City — about 42,000 copies. It was hard, it was hard, because I felt like a one-hit wonder. I felt like sort of the nonfiction equivalent of the high school quarterback. All these cheers, all these accolades. ... It got to me, it gnawed at me and that feeling increased where I felt an intense feeling of failure.
On his shopping addiction
It's a shopping addiction but it's a sexual addiction. ... It was leather. I have a leather fetish, which is fine, but my shopping became compulsive. I had to get packages. It's much better, but it's still there. Three, four packages a day. I bought a lot of women's clothing, and you know what? I like women's clothing. I've cross-dressed. I like cross-dressing. My wife knows it, my kids know about it. ...
I bought a lot of boots. I bought stiletto boots. I bought leather jackets. I had over 100 leather jackets, and probably close to 100 pairs of leather pants. I mean, in your lifetime you probably can't wear all that stuff. I spent over $500,000.
On how the leather addiction is a sex addiction
Leather has become kind of a sexual icon to me. The reason why? I became obsessed with it at a very young age. I had a difficult relationship with my mother, who always wore leather gloves. There was a teacher in kindergarten who wore leather gloves and thought I was stupid, so I fixated on that. Why? I don't know. But I fixated and I tried to repress it. And I did not wear a stitch of leather until I was 40 years old. I was very good at repressing things. And then I began when I was 40 and in my 50s it became completely out of control. It was a complicated sexual addiction — that was the diagnosis when I went into rehab ... and also I was going through an all-purpose breakdown. I was playing around ... with S&M by myself, wearing paraphernalia that could be very dangerous, could've killed me, and I didn't really care. I didn't really care.
On how his gender identity relates to Caitlyn Jenner, whom he profiled in Vanity Fair
I think I do have some gender confusion, but actually, in doing the Vanity Fair piece on Caitlyn Jenner I learned a lot about transgender men and women and I learned about various psycho-sexual conditions, because I remember asking Caitlyn Jenner, "Do you get a sexual charge from wearing women's clothing?" And [Jenner] said, "No, not at all. For me I was born a woman, I happen to be in a man's body, so to speak, but I was born Caitlyn Jenner."
So what [Jenner] is going through is much, much deeper. For me it is related to a kind of sexual turn-on. ... Do I have gender confusion? Definitely. Am I more open about this because I feel that we should gender-bend? I don't know. Men have women characteristics, women have men characteristics, I hate going to clothing stores and there's a men's section and women's section because you become stigmatized. I mean who the hell cares? ... It's very hard to be different in this country, extremely hard.
DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross, who's off this week. You might know our guest Buzz Bissinger as the author of a recent cover story in Vanity Fair about Caitlyn Jenner, the transgender woman who was formerly Olympic athlete Bruce Jenner. Or you might've seen a provocative piece Bissinger wrote about his unusual shopping addiction to expensive designer clothes especially tight-fitting leather. We'll get to that in a bit.
But Bissinger is best known for his first book "Friday Night Lights," a look at the town of Odessa, Texas, and its obsession with its powerhouse high school football team, the Permian Panthers. ESPN called it the best sports book in the past quarter century. "Friday Night Lights" became a best-seller, then a movie, then a TV series. For a 25th anniversary edition, Buzz revisited some of the players he profiled in the book - now middle-aged men - to see how they fared after the glory days of high school football.
Buzz Bissinger shared a Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting in the 1980s. He's currently a contributing editor to Vanity Fair and the author of five books including "Father's Day," an account of his cross-country drive with his special needs son, Zach. I should note that while we aren't close friends, I've known Buzz for many years since we were both journalists in Philadelphia. Here's our conversation.
Well, Buzz Bissinger, welcome to FRESH AIR. You wrote "Friday Night Lights" a long time ago. You were a newspaper reporter in Philadelphia. What made you want to go and spend a year in Odessa, Texas?
BUZZ BISSINGER: Well, I think this was something that was in my brain really since I was 13 years old, and I read a story in Sports Illustrated about a high school quarterback - I still remember his name, Jack Mildren - who played at Abilene Cooper. And the story was about - he was the god of the town, playing in front of 15,000 people and really not that much older than I was. And then it just stuck in my mind.
But it really hit. I was a Nieman fellow at Harvard and had some time off from the Philadelphia Inquirer and went across the country with a friend. And you take the southern route. You go through Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi and then ultimately into Texas, and that's where it hit me because you went through all these little towns, and they were dead economically. They had dried up. Everything was shuttered. And then you come to the high school football stadium, and they were beautiful, immaculate. You know, and I mean this - they would water the field in a drought and it just called to me. And I said, these aren't just stadiums. These are shrines. These are temples. These are palaces to people's hopes and dreams.
DAVIES: OK, and you moved out there with your family spent a year at Odessa Permian High School, which had a legendary football program. I knew of Odessa Permian. I grew up in south Texas hundreds of miles away back then, but I remember hearing about that team. Tell us some of the ways that you could see how obsessed Odessa was about the Permian Panthers.
BISSINGER: Well, I remember going out there in the spring of 1988. A lot of college recruiters or at least some - a guy from UCLA - when I was scouting for a town and a team said, you know what? Just go to Odessa. Just look at the stadium and then decide for yourself if this is the right place. And I remember driving. It was on Grandview Avenue, and I'm heading north. And you know, Odessa is just kind of a dusty, gritty place and I'm wondering, God, do I really want to live here for a year? And I see that stadium, and this is 1988. This stadium was built in 1985, and it's like a rocket ship on a desert - seats 19,000 people, artificial surface field, absolutely beautiful. And then I heard, you know, some games they get 22,000. Then I heard that they preempted a National League Baseball playoff game because the Permian Midland League game was put on television. And on and on it went. And I left saying, I got to do this and then went back and got permission to have access to the team and basically the town for the fall season of 1988 and lived there for a year with my family.
DAVIES: And when the team would travel from the school to the stadium? Yeah?
BISSINGER: When they would travel, you know, from the school to the stadium, there was a caravan of police cars. You would've thought it was the president basically - a caravan of police cars because you know, they'd need to be accompanied you know, by the police. They pulled into the stadium and inevitably people would be there, you know, cheering for them. And by the way when they flew to certain away games, particularly Texas is a big state - chartered jet - I'm talking chartered jet. I'm not talking commercial jet. I'm talking chartered jet. And I think the year I was there it cost about $60,000.
DAVIES: Mostly paid for by boosters these...
BISSINGER: Paid for boosters and then I think the school kicked in some money. You know, more money was spent on getting rushed game tapes - so they would get them that Saturday overnight - than was spent on books and supplies for the English department.
DAVIES: Now, you kind of embedded with the team for a year and floated through the high school, spent a lot of time with players and their friends, and you profiled several of the players in the book. And I - we get a very rich sense of who they are. And you know, teenagers -and especially teenage boys - aren't exactly self-aware. Did you get them to talk about their lives, what the game meant to them, or did you pick that up more from observation?
BISSINGER: You know, it took a while. I mean, look - I'm from the East Coast. I grew up in New York. I was working at the Philadelphia Inquirer. I lived a life of ridiculous privilege, so it took a while. I mean, I basically show up in a gray tweed jacket with elbow patches and loafers, so they looked at me like this guy is from Mars. Who the hell is this guy? But I found - and this is why I embedded not for just the season, for a year. This is why I brought my family - my two 5-year-old boys, Gerry and Zach, with me and my then fiancee. I was part of that town. I was there every day. I went to every practice, although journalistically there's nothing more boring than practice after the first two days. I went to every early morning practice, because they would practice on the school stage at 7 in the morning. And bit by bit the kids said, you know, this guy is for real. This guy is really doing it. And I've got to tell you, once you got them to open up, they opened up. I mean, that's why I love Texans because they have big personalities. And after a while you know, I really didn't have to squeeze it out.
DAVIES: You know, one of the things that I think makes the book so great a read is that you're hearing a lot of troubling things about football culture and the way it has distorted values in this town, but you learn to love the team and root for them. I mean, you describe the games, and they are terrific games, and you want them to win. You want them to get to state.
You were looking at both sides of this. And after the book was published, there were some controversy and some anger in Odessa - probably putting it mildly. And I'm going to play a clip that was from an episode of "60 Minutes" that was done about the book - in particular about Odessa's reaction to the book. We're going to hear Mike Wallace's voice first. Let's listen.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "60 MINUTES")
MIKE WALLACE: You're real angry about that book, aren't you?
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Yes, I am. And I read it from stem to cover. Buzz was in my home. I served him coffee. I served him cake. And I feel like he definitely betrayed all of us. He took pictures inside my home. He took pictures of my son and my son's girlfriend and my home. And he told us what he was going to write about, and then he turns around and he only shows a negative side of that book. I'm not saying there's lies in it. There was truth in it. But for every negative point he gave, he could've given a positive point and he chose not to do that.
DAVIES: OK, and that's from a "60 Minutes" episode about the book "Friday Night Lights," written by our guest 25 years ago. That's Buzz Bissinger. You want to talk about the issue that some of these people at least felt deceived? You know, when you're a journalist, you're not telling necessarily everything - all of your reactions, not sharing everything you're going to write. Is this a typical thing?
BISSINGER: Yeah. I mean, look - I was there for a reason. I was first and foremost a journalist. They knew I was a journalist. I was introduced to the town through a lot of stories and at the so-called watermelon feed - or feast, which is when the team is introduced in front of nearly a thousand people. And they're selling all this Mojo paraphernalia. I think I bought a Mojo purse for my wife.
So they knew who I was. Did they trust me? Of course. Did I want them to trust me? Of course. But when I heard the N-word used repeatedly, when I heard the N-word used to describe a tragic black running back - who is now chronicled in the 25th anniversary edition who is now in prison - when I heard those things - what am I going to do? Not put it in? Issue a Miranda warning saying, oh, don't say that anymore. Don't go there. I had access to the town, and you know what? I didn't know what was going to happen. I didn't know of the excess. And so I know this woman - I don't remember who she is, and I did have coffee and cake. And you know what it? It tasted damn good.
There's total truth in the book, and I've made my peace with Odessa. Frankly, I don't think they've made their peace with me. I'm going down there for the 25th anniversary edition, and Odessa College and the university there said, no, no he can't speak there. It's still too controversial. I will not take back a single word of it because as you pointed out there's a lot of love in this book. There's a lot of love for the scrappiness of Odessa, and there's a lot of love for those kids, the sacrifice, the burden, the pressure, and there's a lot of love for those games. So I actually think it's a very evenhanded portrait.
DAVIES: We're speaking with Buzz Bissinger. A 25th anniversary edition of his book "Friday Night Lights" is coming out. We'll continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, our guest is writer Buzz Bissinger. A 25th anniversary edition of his book "Friday Night Lights," which was a best-seller and was made into a movie and a TV series, is coming out. In that anniversary edition, he goes back and visits some of the players that he knew in Odessa, Texas.
One of the thing that I was aware of growing up in South Texas - where I don't think football was as big as it was in Odessa Permian, but it was big. And I observed the football players in high school who were stars had trouble afterwards because they weren't stars anymore. They had to face real life. These guys had the pressure of being in a terrific football program and then being profiled in a book and all. Did it change their lives? I mean, did they feel like their lives had ended when they graduated?
BISSINGER: I think it changed their lives. For a lot of kids, life peaks at 18 in Odessa. It just does. You're playing in front of 19,000 people. You're the God of the town. You're a rock star. But, you know, you don't spend the rest of your life being that kind of star. And for a lot of these players, there's sort of this glazed look on their eyes saying what happened? What happened to the crowds? What happened to the attention? 'Cause no one is more lonely and isolated than a former player who comes back to the locker room. You know, there's a pat on the back, and the coach say, hey, it's great to see you, man. But then, no one cares. Nobody cares. And they get shell-shocked.
Having said that, I think it did change their lives. I think, frankly, like me, for a period of time, they got sick of it. They were tired of hearing about it. You know, the book comes out and then the film catapults them even more. And I think there was resentment. One of the players - Ivory Christian - I felt there was a lot of resentment. But I think, like me, you know - 'cause I'm 60, they're now in their 40s - I think they're beginning to embrace it more, that you know what? This is amazing that I played football and that it's been documented and chronicled in this way. And I say that having, you know, recently seen them, and I hope I'm right.
DAVIES: At the heart of the story - I mean, one of the central figures of the book is an African-American running back named Boobie Miles. Tell us about him, you know, what his promise was and what happened in that season.
BISSINGER: I mean, to me, I think Boobie is the prime example of how many Boobies there are in the world in the world of sports. Kids, particularly African-American kids, who people only believe in because of their ability to play football or basketball. Having said that, Boobie was basically treated as a football animal. He was pushed through school without any demands. He basically had a tutor who gave him the answer to all the questions. There was no attempt to educate him at all. And tragically - I never saw him play because in a preseason scrimmage in a silly play that was meaningless, his cleat got caught in the turf. He blew out his knee. He played, like, six plays the whole season. Boobie lived for football. He was told to live for football. His uncle, who took care of him, he lived for football. That was his only persona in school.
And when he lost that, I saw him dissolve. I saw him fall apart. I saw every dream he had fall to pieces. And I saw that town - and I will never take this back - I saw that town turn totally against him after loving him and extolling him when they found another running back who was good or maybe better named Chris Comer. And that's when the N-word came out - a big, dumb, ol' N. And that was a coach. That was an assistant coach - who's a nice guy. That was an assistant coach. And I heard boosters laughing one day on the sidelines and sort of comparing Boobie to a horse. What do you do when a horse is pulled up lame? You shoot him. You shoot him. And I saw this over and over.
And I have kept in touch with Boobie since the book in 1990 for 25 years, and I don't think he's ever, ever, ever, ever recovered. And the last time I saw him - it's in the afterword - the new afterword - the last time I saw him was wearing a white prison uniform. And I think collectively, because of the way we view sports and the way we view African-Americans, we all bear responsibility.
DAVIES: Tell us a little more about what he's done in the last 25 years and what he looked like. I mean, he was a terrifically fit athlete when you first saw him.
BISSINGER: Terrific. When I first saw Boobie - I mean, Boobie was a man among the boys. I mean, he was perfectly proportioned. He was 200 pounds, 6-foot-2, tough, liked to hit and ran like the wind. I think he ran about a 10-200. And I saw tapes of him, and he would just fly. He would run with such joyful abandon. It was so exquisite to watch. Now, would he have made it to the pros? Probably not. Would he have made it to a major college? I don't know. He didn't have the academics. But he loved that game.
And when it was taken away, he knocked around at some junior colleges. He had a knee brace. It was totally clear that he had lost that millimeter of speed. He was no longer that good and basically spent much of his life - the past 25 years - knocking around - menial jobs, no stability, impatience and, I believe, still saying to himself, I should've been a star, I should've been a star. And when the movie came out in 2004, it was the worst kind of celebrity 'cause Boobie's now being asked for autographs at the local mall. A lot of people know who Boobie is. There's a rap song called "Boobie Miles" that is made. But he's getting nothing. He got nothing for...
DAVIES: You're talking about when the movie came out in 2005, was it?
DAVIES: Yeah. Yeah.
BISSINGER: 2004. And as I say, when the movie came out in 2004, you know, he was put on this false, ridiculous pedestal of celebrity. He's being asked for autographs. Now he's being sued by women who claim, you know, that he was the father of their child. There are rap songs, you know, being made about him. And he got nothing. He got a thousand bucks from the film producers - a thousand bucks. I supplemented it - not because I'm a great person. I supplemented it a lot. I could not forget what he had been through, and I felt a tremendous amount of guilt. But ultimately, it just didn't work. He was convicted of aggravated assault. He got a 10-year suspended sentence. Then he was picked up on a probation violation and is now in prison with the eligibility of parole in 2017.
DAVIES: You bought him a car at one point, tried to help him - what? - get into school. Did it make a difference in his life?
BISSINGER: It made no difference. And I realized that the danger of getting a car was fine, but paying for school and HVAC - he went - you know, he didn't do anything with it. I gave him lump sums. I wrote a e-book called "After Friday Night Lights" that was about Boobie, and we split the proceeds. It was fine with me. He got a lot of money and I realized - and he said this. It's in the afterword. You know, when I got that amount of money, I went crazy with it. I went to strip joints, you know? Possibility of drugs - I mean, I know - here's this money and I didn't have the discipline. And I realized it wasn't helping him. It wasn't giving him a sense of responsibility. And what Boobie really needed was someone in his life basically on a daily basis, and I couldn't be that person. I mean, I loved him as a son, but I'm not that person. I have three kids of my own. So it really did not help.
DAVIES: You know, Buzz, I have a theory, which is that football in particular really undermines mental health because you only play once a week. I mean, people get so excited about a game on Sunday or Saturday or Friday night that's three hours. And if the team loses, you're despondent for three days. You spend the next four days getting torqued up for the next opponent. You get up in the morning and start drinking - a lot of these fans do - paint their faces the team's colors. It's just a weird, manic way to appreciate sports. Whereas, for example, baseball - team plays every day. If they screw up, it's like your family. They'll be back out there tomorrow. And you'll forget about it. They'll do something good. You agree?
BISSINGER: I definitely agree in the sense that what happens is because it is once a week and because certainly you're not playing 162 games, you know, like in baseball. It's always do or die. It's always do or die 'cause every game counts. And you're talking about taking it seriously - the year I was there, this was a great team. They were ranked No. 1 in the state preseason. They lost two games by a single point. And going into the last game, there was a danger that they would not make the playoffs. There were letters written about what a lousy coach Gary Gaines was. There were for sale signs planted into the lawn of his house.
Everywhere you went, he was being condemned and condemned because it's finite. It's once a week. And people were terrified that the playoffs would come - and the playoffs, that's the nirvana. That's when it really gets exciting. That's when you're really hyped up. They were terrified that they would be deprived of that once-a-week fix and addiction and a religion because it was at that point.
DAVIES: Buzz Bissinger is a contributing editor at Vanity Fair. A new 25th anniversary edition of his best-selling book "Friday Night Lights" is out next week. Coming up, Buzz shares some personal stories, including his cross-country drive with his special needs son Zach and getting treatment for his shopping addiction to designer clothes and tight-fitting leather. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross, who's off this week. We're speaking with writer Buzz Bissinger, whose best-selling book about Texas high school football is out in an updated 25th anniversary edition next week. It's called "Friday Night Lights." We're also going to hear some personal stories from Buzz, including his treatment for a shopping addiction. That conversation will touch on his sexual history and interests - nothing explicit, but there will be some topics covered you may feel are not appropriate for children.
You know, we've talked about how kids that are high school football stars achieve a level of fame and recognition that they may never have again and that it's hard on them. And it's interesting to me that this was your first book. You've written several since then, but this is huge. I mean, it's been reprinted. People have called it one of the best sports books ever. Is it odd for you to have begun with something that was, you know, such an iconic work. Do you feel like you're always trying to meet that standard?
BISSINGER: Yes, and for a period of time, and it's gotten much better recently, frankly after I got out of rehab because I basically had a all-purpose breakdown. It reached the point that I hated hearing about "Friday Night Lights." I heard about it all the time. I still hear about it all the time. People ask me, what did you think of the television show? I said, I don't watch it. They said, well, why don't you watch it? It was inspired by your book. 'Cause I didn't want to hear about it anymore. Because when the book came out - writing the book was delicious. What I miss the most is that magic moment of being young and innocent and my kids are young. And here you are. You know it's a great story. I miss that intensity of connection.
But the book came out. It was a big best-seller. It came out of nowhere. The reviews were incredible. It kept selling and kept selling and kept selling. Then the movie comes out, and it sells more and more and more - about 2 million copies. But I've written other books. You and I know each other, Dave. We know each other from when I wrote a book about Philadelphia that I feel was my best book, "A Prayer For The City" - "Friday Night Lights" - 2 million copies, "A Prayer For The City" - about 42,000 copies.
It was hard. It was hard because I felt like, you know, a one-hit wonder. I mean this. I felt like sort of the nonfiction equivalent of the high school quarterback - all these cheers, all these accolades - you know, greatest football book according to Sports Illustrated, greatest - and I'm not bragging but - greatest sports book of the past 25 years, ESPN. I was 35 years old and didn't really know what I was doing except that I had something magical, and it got to me, and it gnawed at me. And that feeling increased where I felt an intense feeling of failure. 'Cause it was Fitzgerald who said there are no second acts in American lives. And what he was really saying is much of our lives, if you've had a great first act, is trying in that second act to replicate the first act. And I couldn't do it. I could not do it, and I'll never do it.
DAVIES: In addition to being a writer, you've - you're an interesting character, Buzz. (Laughter) You - you know, you've...
BISSINGER: I suppose you would know that, actually.
DAVIES: I would know that, right.
BISSINGER: In person, right.
DAVIES: Well, we know each other a bit. But, I mean, you're an interesting media figure. I mean, you've had a wildly entertaining and, at times, angry and profane Twitter feed.
DAVIES: You've certainly had some interesting television appearances. And for many years, you've been writing for Vanity Fair. And a couple of years ago, you wrote a really shockingly honest piece about what you call your Gucci addiction - an obsession with buying expensive designer clothes, particularly leather. You want to give us a sense of how deeply you were into this, the hold it had on you?
BISSINGER: The hold on it was enormous, like any addiction is. And make no mistake about it, it was a shopping addiction because - you know, it's a shopping addiction, but it's a sexual addiction. It's like any addiction. In my case, it was leather. I have a leather fetish, which is fine. But my shopping became compulsive. I had to get packages. And it's much better, but it's still there - three, four packages a day. I bought a lot of women's clothing. And you know what? I like women's clothing. I've cross-dressed. I like cross-dressing. My wife knows it. My kids know about it. But I would buy two of the same thing. I bought a lot of boots. I bought stiletto boots. I bought leather jackets. I had over a hundred leather jackets and probably close to a hundred pairs of leather pants.
I mean, in your lifetime, you probably can't wear all that stuff. I spent over $500,000. My wife was falling apart. I was very, very unhappy. I cheated on my wife Lisa, who somehow has stood by me, and our marriage is great now. She left. I was playing around with Percocet. I was miserable. I wanted to destroy myself. And I think writing this very honest story - although I believe much of what I said in it was - frankly, that was the way to ultimately destroy myself 'cause I knew that it would have terrible impact on Lisa and in particular my children, who did not know about the story before it came out.
DAVIES: There's a lot in there in what you just said. And why don't we just start with what you think drove this. You said it was not just a shopping addiction but sexual.
BISSINGER: You know, I mean sexual in the sense that, you know, leather has become kind of a sexual icon to me. And, you know, the reason why - I became obsessed with it at a very young age. I had a difficult relationship with my mother who always wore leather gloves. There was a teacher in kindergarten who wore leather gloves and thought I was stupid. So I fixated on that. Why? I don't know, but I fixated, and I tried to repress it. And I did not wear a stitch of leather until I was 40 years old. I was very good at repressing things. And then I began when I was 40. And in my 50s, it became completely out of control.
It was a complicated sexual addiction. That was the diagnosis when I went into rehab - inpatient rehab. And it also - I was going through an all-purpose breakdown. I was playing around - you know, and I'm open about myself - I was playing around with S&M by myself, wearing paraphernalia that could be very dangerous, could have killed me, and I didn't really care. I didn't really care. My last book, a very personal book written about my beloved son Zach, who you know, who was born with trace brain damage, and the complications of that relationship, that bombed. And once that bombed, I didn't care about anything. I didn't care about my career. I didn't really do anything. I think I really did sort of want to check out.
DAVIES: You know, you said you had this obsession with leather going back to your childhood. And you also said that you like women's clothes and cross-dress. Are these related?
BISSINGER: Yeah. I mean, I - you know, I sort of - I was thinking really yesterday - and not because I was going to be on the show - I said, how did I turn out so totally different from every member of my family, and how do I have these, you know, predilections? You know, I like wearing, at times, women's clothing. You know, certain men get a sexual turn-on from women's clothing. And it's - for me, it's not dresses. It's leather. It's tight leather. I still wear it with pride. It's a rocker look. It makes me look hot. And I wear - and I routinely will wear some piece of women's clothing. You may know it. You may not. But it's very, very exciting to me. And I think for me, it's an extension of creativity. I'm a creative person. Creative people need stimulation. Stimulation comes from all sorts of places. And, you know, it could be drugs. It could be booze. It could be self-medicating. And so in that respect, you know, leather's not such a bad thing, except it's still extremely expensive (laughter).
DAVIES: You know, you got a lot of attention for a piece that you recently wrote in Vanity Fair about Caitlyn Jenner, the transgender woman formerly Bruce Jenner. And you write in that book about how Bruce Jenner enjoyed wearing his mother's clothes when he was a kid. And do you think you have any gender confusion?
BISSINGER: I think I do have some gender confusion. But, you know, actually in doing the Vanity Fair piece on Caitlyn Jenner, I learned a lot about transgender men and women and I learned a lot about, you know, various psychosexual conditions. 'Cause I remember asking Caitlyn Jenner, do you get a sexual charge from wearing women's clothing? And he said, no, not at all. I mean, for me, it's, you know - I was born a woman. I happen to be in a man's body, so to speak, but I was born Caitlyn Jenner. So, you know, what he is going through was much, much deeper. For me, it is related to a kind of - not kind of - a sexual turn-on. You know, I don't know how else to be but honest. Where there's certain times in my life where I wondered, I don't know, maybe I'm a woman.
But, you know, I wasn't. I finally realized, David, you can't care about what other people think. You can't. You care about your family. But you should not be dictated by what others think. And, you know, my look has attitude. I think I pull it off really well. Just I think there are people who look at me when I'm dressed a certain way who said that guy's out of his mind. But, you know, I don't care. I don't care. Do I have gender confusion? Definitely. And am I more open about this because I feel that we should gender-bend? I don't know. You know, men have women characteristics. Women have men characteristics. I hate going to clothing stores and there's a men's section and a women's section 'cause you become stigmatized. I mean, who the hell cares? Difference is great. Difference is wonderful. It's very hard to be different in this country - extremely hard.
DAVIES: You know, you write in the piece that you got compliments from women, from gay men, from African-Americans, not from straight white guys. How did your wife, Lisa, react to the look?
BISSINGER: You know, Lisa is an extremely supportive person. I think there are times where she likes the look when I - you know, when I tone it down. And there were times when I would really, really amp it up. You know, I never wore a dress around her. I don't wear dresses 'cause I just don't have the - I don't have the body for it, and I don't have the appetite for it. And she tried to be really supportive because she is open. But I think there were times when she said, you know, he's really going over the edge and I don't really know what to do about it. And I frankly think there were times - I know there were times when my kids, you know, were embarrassed.
I mean, you're wearing head-to-toe leather, and it's very tight and, you know, boots with four-inch heel. And, you know, I know they were embarrassed. And I have toned it down, you know, so I look - I try to look more rocker. And I know in this day and age, the minute I say that, everyone will laugh and, you know, they'll say he's short, fat and stupid, and that's okay. But, you know, I know they were embarrassed. And I know Lisa felt, you know, what exactly is going on with Buzz? What exactly is his gender? Where exactly is he headed with this?
DAVIES: Buzz Bissinger is our guest. He's the author of "Friday Night Lights." A new 25th anniversary edition is coming out. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, we're speaking with writer Buzz Bissinger. His book "Friday Night Lights: A Town, A Team, And A Dream" is out with a 25th anniversary edition. For the book, Buzz has visited some of the players that he knew from Permian High School in Odessa, Texas. You know, I don't remember whether I read this or heard it, did you have your facial hair removed, your beard?
BISSINGER: No, I'm too much of a coward to do that because it's really painful. I had all my body hair removed. I had probably a year of laser and - God, I - this is like, are you a priest? This is like a confessional. What the hell's going on here?
DAVIES: I just read your stuff.
BISSINGER: I did have all my body hair removed through laser that was painful at times, and I liked it. I like not having any hair.
DAVIES: Chest hair, leg hair, tummy hair...
BISSINGER: No, no, well, you - there's always a residual of chest hair, and I will shave it. But, you know, you name it, there ain't no hair. And I'm talking about the whole bald wax except for my face.
DAVIES: Why did you want to remove your - remove the hair?
BISSINGER: Because I think there is a part of me that is very turned on by women. I think that women are sexy. Women are allowed to be sexy. They're promoted to be sexy whether that's right or whether that's wrong because, you know, you can objectify. You know, men - certain men are called sexy, but it's not because they dress sexy, it's not because they want to be sexy. There's really the sense that men aren't supposed to do it, and I like pushing the envelope. I mean, I do. If you're going to do it, you got to do it. If you're going to go do the book "Friday Night Lights," you go down for a year. You don't go in and out. You don't parachute, you know, in and out. And I like pushing the envelope to see how it feels, and I'm also very impulsive. And I got it in my head, I want to have laser. I want to have it from head to toe except for my face, and I said let's do it. Come on, let's push the envelope, and I did it. And I've got to tell you, Dave, my legs look really hot.
DAVIES: (Laughter) OK, well, you got treatment for the shopping addiction. Was it like AA? Did you have to, like, detox by not shopping for two weeks and then were you in rooms with people who had that kind of addiction or other kinds?
BISSINGER: The treatment is very much based on the principles of AA. There's no question about that. People are in there for all sorts of different things. You know, in my case - and trust me when I say this, shopping addiction was the least of my problems - 'cause as I said, you know, I was playing around with S and M toys that - you know, hoods, gags - if they popped or if I couldn't undo the zipper, I would've killed myself. But people were in for - you know, they had been molested as children. They were in for, you know, rampant use of prostitutes. People were in for all sorts of different things. The catch-all was sex addiction. And, you know, a lot of it is worked at in group therapy where a lot of it is the people you're with, calling you on things, observing things, challenging you. Basically, for me, rehab, you could not get away with anything. You have to strip yourself bare, and once you strip yourself bare, you build yourself up and you also learn, and I learned, about the source of, to some degree - and I'll never know completely - why I was the way I was.
DAVIES: Do you want to put that into words, the source?
BISSINGER: Well, as I said, I mean, I do think, you know, it's like everything in life. It goes back to early childhood. I was terrified of my mother. My mother, I thought, was beautiful. She had high cheekbones. I thought she was a dominatrix. She had a big temper. She was very non-nurturing. She went to work in 1957 or '56, which was not typical. I'm not sure she really wanted to have kids. Although later in life, she became a much better and wonderful mother.
But I was terrified. But you want to please. I mean, you're a kid. You want to please. And then, as I said, you know, she's wearing leather gloves. All her life she loved wearing leather gloves. She would wear leather gloves in the spring. And that becomes the talisman. That becomes, you know, the goblet. That becomes my fixation. And I don't want to weird people out, but in some ways, she became a dominatrix, and I became, in a sense, the supplicant. And it was intensified.
I was very shy. I was very withdrawn. I was terrified of life. I was terrified of everything, of everything. And then I go to kindergarten, and I didn't talk. I didn't know what to do. This teacher didn't like me. I think, and I'm not being facetious, she thought something was wrong with me mentally. And, you know, you're humiliated, but in some weird way, you like the humiliation 'cause that's how you get attention. And she's wearing these leather gloves. I mean, I'll never forget it, and that becomes another fixation and that, I know, became the source of why I was the way it was.
And also I knew I - the admission of the shopping addiction was just a, you know, a cover in a sense for some deep, deep-seated, you know, sexual habits.
I mean, I have indulged in S and M. I have - I had a long time - this is after my second marriage, before marrying Lisa - I had a longtime relationship with a dominatrix. You know, I've - look, I performed at S and M clubs in New York - push the envelope, see how far you can go. Right before I went into rehab, I began to experiment with men. I started taking poppers, basically, anonymous sex, which is also very dangerous, you know, pushing the envelope, and, I guess, the search for an identity that will probably never quite come, but I'm happy. I'm happier. Work is just work. Work, for me, was always how I identified myself. I always identified myself by work. What have you done lately? That was always in my household. What have you done lately? What have you done lately? You know, Upper West Side Jewish - very, very, very competitive. The parents are very, very, competitive and there are a lot of people who really excel. So that's another insecurity, and my life was guided by shame. My life was guided by shame. And that's what I learned most of all in rehab. I was ashamed of myself, so you find an addiction, but it's not enough, so you up the ante, you up the ante and you up the ante.
DAVIES: We're speaking with Buzz Bissinger. A 25th anniversary edition of his first book, "Friday Night Lights," is out with an afterword, in which Buzz catches up with some of the players that he wrote about back then. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, our guest is writer Buzz Bissinger. A 25th anniversary edition of his book, "Friday Night Lights," which was a best-seller and was made into a movie and a TV series, is coming out. In that anniversary edition, he goes back and visits some of the players that he knew in Odessa, Texas.
I want to talk a bit about "Father's Day," the book that you wrote about Zach, your son, who I know. You want to just describe Zach and his disability?
BISSINGER: Zach is a twin. Zach is the twin of Jerry. They were born in 1983, roughly three and a half months premature, at 27 weeks, 13 weeks early. And this was at a time - they're nowhere near the medical advances that have been made. Jerry weighed 1 pound, 14 ounces. Zach weight 1 pound, 11 ounces. Jerry made it through unscathed by some miracle. Zach did not. Zach had oxygen deprivation at birth. It was very hard for him to breathe without support. And when you have oxygen deprivation it, in a sense, crawls up to the brain and he had trace brain damage.
I don't want to exaggerate because Zach is 31 today. He is the most charming, delightful, centered person I have ever met. He's very verbal. He's ambulatory. He has no physical aftereffects, but his comprehension level, in some ways, is very low in certain areas. And he's also a savant, so I'm sure he knows your birthday, and he remembers...
DAVIES: He knows my wife's birthday (laughter).
BISSINGER: Well, see, it's spooky. And if you give him a date, like in the 1940s, he can tell you the day. I was just with him, and he's talking about things that happened in 1982 - the date, who was there - 1989. I mean, he was 6 years old. And, you know, I said, Zach, you got to stop doing this because I don't remember what I did four hours ago, you know, much less 25 years ago. And that is often a symptom of kids who are born - are sometimes a symptom of kids who were born prematurely. But it was a hard relationship for me at the beginning.
DAVIES: Well, you were so focused on your own career and, you know, you went to great schools and did great things and here's a kid who - and to the extent that one wants to live through their kid is, you know, is not going to meet some expectations. And that's something you write about in the book. The book is about a cross-country trip the two of you took. You want to tell us what your thought was?
BISSINGER: Well, you know, it wasn't that I didn't spend time with Zach because I spent a lot of time with Zach. I didn't spend a lot of time alone with Zach 'cause sometimes - he's doing fantastically now, he's even living independently - but he was hard to get through to one-on-one, and we do live through our kids. We all live through our kids. We want our kids to succeed, I think, as much for ourselves as we do for them.
And, you know, I'm having contemporaries. You know, my son's going off to Harvard. My daughter's going off to Yale. My ex-ex is going to Colby, and my ex is going to Bates.
Well, Zach's not - you know, he's not going to college. You know, he got a high school diploma, but he took no high school courses. He's never going to marry. He's not going to drive a car. And because of shame, because of my own narcissism, because I only really cared about my career, I didn't put Zach in the right perspective. But I wanted to break through, so we took a cross-country trip together. It was very difficult at the beginning. And what I learned was Zach was centered, was calm, was helpful and constantly, during the trip, he was the one who pulled me down from the ozone layer. I would get upset. I would get angry. I would lose my temper, and Zach would kind of pull me through. He's a savant with directions, and he turned out to be unbelievably delightful and special.
DAVIES: Buzz Bissinger, we're out of time. Thanks so much for spending some time with us.
BISSINGER: Thank you, Dave.
DAVIES: Buzz Bissinger is a contributing editor at Vanity Fair. A 25th anniversary edition of his best-selling book "Friday Night Lights" is out next week.
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DAVIES: On tomorrow's show, the extraordinary dolphin. They understand human syntax, count, grieve and sometimes rescue humans at sea. Writer Susan Casey will tell us about dolphins, threats to their existence and some unusual research, including dolphin-human cohabitation. Her new book is "Voices In The Ocean." Hope you can join us. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.