I met one of my literary heroes last night. On a hot Thursday evening in North Texas I made the trek into the heart of everything that’s wrong with the city of Dallas to meet Harry Gerard (H.G.) Bissinger III. You might know him as Buzz. You definitely know him as that guy who wrote the Friday Night Lights book that spawned the movie that led to the television series. He was in town to promote his new book Father’s Day which chronicles a cross country trip he recently took with his disabled son Zach. Zach suffered brain damage during birth as a result of oxygen deprivation from being the second-born twin. By all accounts the book is great and I planned on purchasing it when I got there, but I also brought along my trusty first edition copy of Friday Night Lights.
If you’ve spent any time on my site, you know by now that I am perhaps the biggest sports dork in North America. My love of stats, obscure players, and any and all sports knows no bounds. I am perhaps the only person highly considering ditching the NBA and the NFL to become a die-hard European club soccer fan. I can sustain highly informed conversations on any sport not named NASCAR. More than anything in life, with the exception of my soon-to-be wife and family, I love a great sports story. This doesn’t just happen overnight though. It takes years of reading and dreaming and debating. In no way do I ever claim to be an expert about sports, but a dork? Absolutely.
In the moments before Bissinger arrived, I started to wonder why exactly I was there in the first place. Why did Buzz Bissinger matter to me? Why would I venture from the comforts of my air-conditioned apartment into the snootiest area of the snootiest city in the United States to get the chance to meet a writer face-to-face? Why was I scared?
I texted my fiancee and some of my fellow sports dorks to ask if they had any advice on how best to approach him. The reason? If they say nothing else about Bissinger, let it be known that he is intense. Incredibly intense. Overwhelmingly intense. Intense to the point that it can be scary. Watch him confront former Deadspin editor Will Leitch (another one of this sports dork’s heroes) about his feelings towards sports blogs [skip ahead to the 3:00 mark]:
He arrived casually enough. By my clock he was six minutes late to the 7:00 start time. He rode up the escalator with a woman I assumed was his publishing agent and quickly came over to the designated area. He successfully pulled off a “look.” He wore the patented black blazer he dons in almost every single television appearance along with a blue and white striped button down, damn near white denim pants, and pointy black leather boots. I felt his presence immediately and my internal nervous meter went from about a five to a 100 on a scale of one to ten. The obnoxious garlic smell of a fellow audience member’s dinner perpetuated my anxiety. There he was though. It was now too late to flee to one of the nearby aisles and spy on the event from behind the safety of an oak bookshelf.
Did I mention that only four other people in the entire DFW metroplex bothered to come meet this man and purchase his book? A setup that originally began with three long rows of chairs looking up to a podium was quickly rearranged to a semi-circle so that Mr. Bissinger could face us and interact with us on a personal level. Yours truly got stuck in the chair directly across from him, separated by no more than three feet, right in his sight line.
It was right at the moment before he began that it hit me.
A typical person, when asked to explain their emotions to others, often says something to the effect of: “words cannot describe what I’m feeling right now.” At some point or another in the past three years of writing on this site I picked up one of the best pieces of writerly, and perhaps worldly, advice in my life. The anecdote basically said that if you ever find our brain starting to say those dangerous words, stop, slap yourself, and then force yourself to explain it in words that do describe it. It sounds amazingly simple but it’s incredibly difficult. Try it sometime.
I struggled in the moments leading up to last night’s book signing to grasp why exactly I was nervous, but then I knew. Friday Night Lights is the single most influential book of my entire life. I was nervous because I was grateful. I was scared because I felt I owed a debt. It started with the movie back in high school, sure, but I eventually got to my senses and read the real thing. This eventually led to the remarkable television series, only my favorite TV show of all-time. Those three independently shaped my college choice, largely helped me come out of a state of depression halfway through college, and helped me make a decision in recent years about who I really wanted to be. I became comfortable with myself for the first time in my entire life. If these sound like big, important life decisions, it’s because they are. And the genesis of it all was this man’s book, for my money, the greatest sports book ever written (and easily the best football book).
So there I was five feet away and he got into his pitch about Father’s Day, reading some select passages that further reinforced my impressions that the book will be a success. The intensity radiated off of him, even as he read one of the more touching passages that described Zach’s birth, so much so that I made a mental note of how far back I leaned in my chair, as if a gale-force wind was blowing directly in my face. He also has this habit of flicking his tongue like a snake while he speaks. It adds to the persona as if to let unsuspecting audience members know that he is capable of unleashing venom at any time. The nervous meter was by then coming in at a 125 reading. Selfishly, the whole time I couldn’t help but think of what I was eventually going to say to him at the end though.
If you’re expecting some life-altering event or incredible meeting of the minds took place last night at the Northwest Highway Barnes and Noble, it didn’t. We essentially ended up having a group conversation about sports and I think I even impressed him with how much knowledge I possessed on each topic which varied from LeBron James to Tony La Russa to Boobie Miles, the focal point of Friday Night Lights. He explained that the director of the movie and the TV show, Peter Berg, is his cousin in real life, a fact that blew my mind because of the frightening amount of knowledge I possess about the franchise. He also discussed the large amount of alcohol he’d consumed the previous night with the show’s lead actor Kyle Chandler and how much fun it was to do so. If you’re wondering if I was jealous, I was. Scratch that, I am. I will be.
I still couldn’t think of any questions I felt were worthy of him.
I was second in line to get my book signed behind a man who brought every single one of Buzz’s sports books to the occasion. When it was finally my turn, I explained that my fiancee is eventually going to work with children like his son Zach after having received a Masters degree this past weekend. He signed the copy to her and eventually got to signing Friday Night Lights which I had him address to me. He politely declined my invitation to go out for a drink afterwards, citing an early flight the next day but most especially the previous night’s toll on his body, courtesy one Kyle Chandler. And just like that it was time to go. I found myself having an internal panic attack. Think the famous scene in Christmas Story when Ralphie can’t remember what he wants from Santa Clause and freezes when he gets on the big guy’s lap.
I found my legs carrying my body to a place my head didn’t want to be. And so I paused. I turned around. I interrupted the next person in line and simply thanked Harry Gerard Bissinger III. I thanked him for that book. I explained that it meant so much to me. I told him that it influenced me. It lasted all of five seconds but I felt the relief rush from my body like a recently unplugged bath drain.
Most people’s heroes are athletes, politicians, actors, or even fictional characters. My heroes are writers. I got the pleasure of meeting and thanking one of them last night which was about the coolest thing I did all week.
It might be the single most revealing thing a human being can do to bare his thoughts, emotions, and feelings in print for all the world to see. The majority of the human race can hide their insecurities in the deepest, darkest corners of their brain and, if they so choose, never share them with anyone. The writer does just the opposite, opening themselves up for deep personal criticism and public scorn.
If that’s not the definition of a hero, I don’t know what is.