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— by Corey Moss

"Friday Night Lights" is about a lot of things. A team of underdogs that refuses to give up. A son who struggles to meet his father's high expectations. The economic and racial divides that exist in small towns. And — as Billy Bob Thornton's coach character explains in the final locker-room scene — being perfect.

More than anything, though, "Friday Night Lights" is about the obsession with high school football in Texas.

The movie, based on H.G. Bissinger's book of the same name, captures that fixation from beginning to end, whether it's the "Closed for the game" signs on all the stores or flocks of kids following around the Permian High School stars, asking for autographs.

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"[Director Peter Berg] could have gone further if he wanted to," said Thornton, whose dad coached a small-town Arkansas basketball team. "It's their way of life. It's the actual social life of some of these small towns. Everything revolves around it. The booster-club guys who suggest to me [in the movie] that I might want to win the championship, I can remember my dad getting those kind of hints."

Thornton related to the obsession from his own experiences with prep sports, but the other cast members had to see it firsthand to comprehend just how seriously Texans take their high school football.

"Friday Night Lights" was filmed in the same small town — Odessa, Texas — where the story is based, so the cast and crew had plenty of exposure to diners that refused to charge football players and radio analysts who dissected the games for days.

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"I was in a restaurant and I saw a bunch of parents sitting with nothing but high school coaches," recalled Derek Luke of "Antwone Fisher" fame, who plays Permian's star running back. "So that turned on the lights for me."

"When you're traveling around, you see all those signs in the front yards," said Lucas Black, who plays the quarterback (and who starred alongside Thornton eight years ago in "Sling Blade"), referring to huge wooden signs in the yards of all the football players that feature their names, numbers and team logos. "They support their kids. It's really great."

Jay Hernandez ("The Rookie"), who plays the college-bound brains of Permian's team, said locals talked about the Panthers constantly, but it was something else that caught his attention.

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"When we were flying into this town, you can see these expansive oil fields and it's very flat and you can tell it's a very small town," he said. "But once you get in there and you see that huge stadium for a public school — I mean, you see their dedication to the game and how much of themselves they put into it."

The 20,000-capacity Ratliff Stadium, which was the largest high school football stadium in the country when it was built in 1982, also made a lasting impression on country singer Tim McGraw, who, in his first movie role, plays a former state champion Permian player whose son is a back-up on the team.

"I couldn't believe that kids actually played high school football in a stadium like that," McGraw said. "I couldn't imagine being 15 or 16 years old, walking out on that field and having 20,000 people screaming, and those lights. I mean, I'd probably crumble. I grew up playing high school ball and stuff, but it was nothing like this."

To truly grasp the impact of the Permian Panthers on Odessa, author Bissinger lived in the town for six months before he started writing his book. Berg, a veteran actor who has also directed "The Rundown" and "Very Bad Things" (and is a second cousin of Bissinger's), spent months following the Panthers and another Texas football team before shooting even began.

It was when one of those teams lost a close game that he realized how serious it really was.

"The next morning, the coach had what they call 'films,' where he has to show the films [of the game] to the parents," Berg explained. "He has to go [through it] play-by-play and these parents start questioning his calls. He has to sit there and basically justify every single play, and this is to an auditorium with 150 people. It never got rabid. There's a whole sense of, 'OK, no one's going to lose their temper,' but it was intense. I could see the emotion, and it's the mothers and the fathers and that really stuck with me."

After all the parents left (the players were not allowed), one couple stayed to talk to the coach about their son's crucial fumble the night before.

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"You have no idea how hard these kids take it, and the parents were talking to the coach, thanking him for showing sympathy and understanding to their son," Berg recalled. "They were talking to the coach as if their son had just had a near-fatal accident. They were in this state of grieving and mourning.

"And, you know, there was nothing ridiculous or silly or unreal about it," the director continued. "It was very real. And as quickly as I could have made a judgment, 'Well, this is absurd,' I was like, 'You know what? People hang their lives on different things. These are parents that love their children deeply, [they're] maybe at times a little fanatical, but that's how life is.' We're all fanatical about something. And down there, man, it's intense. It really is."

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