The Beauty of Freshmanistan
The Meaning of Clear Eyes, Full Hearts, Can't Lose
It’s that time in Michigan: early season Friday night lights. It’s not Texas, but high school football here is damn serious: we have cool fall weather, local newspapers profiling players and teams, and cars parked outside huge stadiums for three-quarters of a mile down country dirt roads, alongside cornfields—at least in my part of the state.
I have vivid memories of my dad taking me to high school football games as early as 3rd grade. We’d park as close to the stadium as we could, then make what would often be a 10-15 minute pilgrimage to the field. With each step we took, the snares, the drums and the trombones of the marching band got a little louder, and the smell of the popcorn stronger. If we were late, I’d periodically hear the roar of the crowd as someone made a breakaway play; the cowbells would start ringing, and my heart would start racing. I’d sprint ahead of my dad and tell him to pick up the pace.
This is a tradition in my family. Even as a I write this, I’m looking up the best game in the area to go to tonight. To this day, watching high school football live is still one of my favorite things to do. The purity of the game is just not something I can find anywhere else.
It’s a wonder, then, that it took me until this summer to watch TV series Friday Night Lights, a drama about Texas high school football, with my wife (who loves it every bit as much as I do, if not more). There’s something refreshing and nostalgic about seeing a bunch of pre-smartphone kids in Texas struggle with all of the things that high schools kids have been struggling with for decades. And the show has a grittiness to it that I haven’t found on TV in years. The way Coach Taylor (the head football coach of the Dillon Panthers) treats and talks to his players like adults, or at least like a man who wants them to grow into adults, is like a masterclass. He’s not always right and he’s not always fair, but he cares. He cares in the way that we desperately long for people today to care—about anything.
And it feels to me like the series could only be a product of its time—no show produced today could grapple with things the way that it does, in such a raw way. There’s something pure about it—something true to experience that I’ve yet to fully put my finger on. I’ve had people who grew up in that environment in Texas tell me that the show is extraordinarily realistic; maybe it’s the Michigan football family that I come from that makes it resonate with me, too, in a kindred way, and see its realness.
The series ended right around the time that something fundamentally shifted in American culture in 2011. (Jon Haidt likes to date this change back to 2013, when he noticed his university classroom becoming different; but I distinctly remember a tectonic shift a couple of years prior, when the fallout over the Affordable Care Act was at its peak; it caused a fundamental fissure which felt existential to many people—and perhaps that existentiality was the first foretaste of what we now have today, except it is applied to absolutely everything.)
As anyone who has seen Friday Night Lights knows, Coach Eric Taylor has a motto: “Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose.” To my knowledge, he never explains what this means in the show—but then again, it doesn’t seem like any explanation is necessary. Everyone gets it: you look at reality clearly, you put your full heart into the game, and you pour yourself out for something greater than yourself. This is an approach that applies to a life well lived as much as to high school football. That’s why the show resonates with such a wide audience.
Nobody has given a more interesting analysis of this phrase than Ben Hunt of Epsilon Theory, where he sees it (rightfully) as a process. For Ben, “Clear Eyes” means: seeing the narratives, seeing the metagames, seeing the abstractions, seeing the estimations; “Full Hearts” means acting for reciprocity and acting for identity. (You’ll have to read his piece to see what he means by those things; I recommend it.)
Now I don’t have my own clear conceptualization of Clear Eyes, Full Hearts quite yet like Ben does (we’re only on Season 4, so bear with me…)—but I think Ben has made a great start. I do, however, want to share a few words about what this show says about the world of Freshmanistan, or the world of internally-mediated rivalries that every high school in America embodies. I believe any high school is the perfect “arena” to be in if you want to understand the nature of the battles playing out in our country today.
Most of the external conflict in our world is caused by internal conflict—internal conflict that prevents us from seeing, understanding, and knowing other people clearly and deeply, including ourselves.
The distortions of Freshmanistan are numerous, and
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