I just watched Friday Night Lights (FNL), and there are so many things you can praise.
Eric Taylor (Kyle Chandler) is more believable as a high school football coach than most guys who are actually standing on a sideline wearing a headset on Friday nights. Coach Taylor and his wife Tami (Connie Britton) provide one of the most honest portrayals of marriage ever put on screen. The show just feels authentic, from the settings to the stars to the supporting characters.
Perhaps the most impressive thing about FNL, though, lies in the relatability of Matt Saracen (Zach Gilford), the show’s most honest (and perhaps TV’s most honest) character. Everybody can relate to him, young or old, married or unmarried, rich or poor.
Matt Saracen is a human speed bump.
I was going to describe him as a human punching bag, but Matt Saracen doesn’t just take a few blows here and there. Matt Saracen gets completely run over by life, repeatedly, and he continues to get back up, knowing full well he’s going to get flattened once again.
It doesn’t take long for the show to introduce us to this painfully awkward/shy backup quarterback of Dillon High School. From episode one, Matt is fighting to keep his head above water. Not only is he fighting to keep his head above water, he’s fighting to keep his head above water with large anchors attached to both of his legs. You see, Matt Saracen is dealt the seven-two offsuit of life circumstances. To say he’s fighting an uphill battle would be a dramatic understatement.
Matt’s mother is out of the picture. His father is serving the US Military in Iraq, leaving Matt, a 16-year-old, to care for his dementia-ridden grandmother while he navigates the confusing waters of high school alone.
As if this wasn’t enough stress, Matt works a job at the local burger joint on school nights around homework, football practice and making sure his grandmother doesn’t inadvertently do something to harm herself or others.
As if the unfair starting position wasn’t enough, life does everything it can to throw Matt off-track, beat him up or crush him entirely.
Matt is immediately forced into the starting QB job at Dillon High when Jason Street, a generational talent, is paralyzed in the first game of the season. Matt inherits the unfair, unrealistic and unhealthy expectations that come with the starting job in a football-obsessed Texas town. Every move Matt makes will now be compared to the Tom Brady of high school quarterbacks.
Matt was already trying not to drown on his own, but now he’s in a position where one small mistake on a Friday night means the entire city of Dillon is ready to hurl insults and help him drown a little faster. Within a few episodes, he is completely discouraged and gasping for air.
But Matt manages to get back on his feet with the help of Coach Taylor and his teammates, and against all of the odds, he’s able to grit and grind his way up the sheer cliff standing in front of him, despite getting beaten up metaphorically (and physically) along the way.
Matt manages to keep everything going fairly well with his grandmother (with the occasional hiccup along the way). He handles problems at home when they arise and manages to navigate the ups and downs of dating Coach Taylor’s daughter.
And somehow, Matt is able to do just enough on Friday nights to help the Dillon Panthers keep winning football games.
Ultimately, Matt’s determination and perspiration lead Dillon to a state championship in dramatic fashion. It’s not easy, and it’s not always pretty along the way, but Matt reaches the mountaintop of high school sporting accomplishments.
This trend continues for five seasons. Life repeatedly runs over Matt with the force of a thousand double decker buses.
His girlfriend leaves him for “a better guy.” Coach Taylor takes a college job, leaving Matt feeling betrayed. Despite all his accomplishments, he loses his starting job to a freshman phenom. His father dies after stepping on an IED. His grandmother guilts him into staying home instead of going to school. I could go on, but you get the picture.
There are very few characters who remind us life is hard and messy and unfair like Matt.
We may not have as bad of a hand as Matt started out with (or maybe it’s worse, I have no idea what your story is), but we’re all going to be pulverized by life in certain seasons. That’s just a guarantee. At some point, things will get tough. Death of a loved one. Lost job. Bad breakup. Disease. Severe injury.
We can all relate to Matt in this way.
The most important thing about Matt is that he always manages to get off the ground after taking what seems like a knockout blow. Sometimes it takes him longer to get up; sometimes it’s with the help of others. No matter what the circumstances are, Matt always gets up.
When life gets hard, Matt works harder to keep going than life does to stop him. Matt may sulk for a brief period, but the trend we see with Matt more often than not is that when life hits him head on, he picks himself up (sometimes with the help of others), dusts himself off and starts putting one foot in front of the other.
This is where we can learn from Matt.
Life is hard. Life is messy. Life is not fair. You can live with your head on a swivel, but even having the range of motion of an owl won’t stop you from getting blindsided by life at some point. Life does not care if you had the odds stacked against you from the get-go or if you were dealt the perfect hand. At some point, life is going to hit you, and it’s going to hit you hard.
The next time I’m sitting squarely on my butt, I want to be like Matt Saracen and get up, knowing I could be knocked back down almost immediately.
Life is too short to spend a prolonged period sulking. We’re going to get hit. We’re going to get knocked down. We’re all going to spend time in the valleys of life. But much like Matt Saracen, I want us all to pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off and get moving in order to reach the top of the mountain from time-to-time.