Buzz Bissinger, Best Selling Author & Recipient of the Pulitzer Prize
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Buzz Bissinger, Best Selling Author & Recipient of the Pulitzer Prize

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Cleareyed, Full-Hearted, Unflinching Fatherhood
‘Father’s Day’ Is Buzz Bissinger’s Memoir About His Son

By DWIGHT GARNER
Published: May 14, 2012
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Buzz Bissinger’s first book, “Friday Night Lights” (1990), about high school football in Odessa, Tex., was a best seller that’s become an acknowledged classic of American sports writing.
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Alessandra Montalto
FATHER’S DAY
A Journey Into the Mind and Heart of My Extraordinary Son
By Buzz Bissinger
242 pages. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $26.
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Robert L. Smith
Buzz, left, and Zach Bissinger.
It became a pretty good movie starring Billy Bob Thornton and Tim McGraw. It was made into a far better television series, easily among the most sublime ever produced. The football team’s motto in that show — “Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose” — percolates through the culture. I’ve heard grown men chant it only half-ironically in beer gardens, as a prelude to an evening of assiduous consumption.

This is a rare kind of success for a nonfiction writer, and you might think it would bring a measure of calm and satisfaction to the book’s author. If you suspect that’s the case, you don’t know much about Harry Gerard Bissinger III, who is universally known as Buzz.

His new memoir, “Father’s Day,” is ostensibly about his relationship with his son Zach, now in his 20s, whose brain was deprived of oxygen at birth and who has an I.Q. of about 70. (His twin brother, Gerry, was born without serious complications.)

Zach’s mental capabilities are restricted in many ways — he can barely understand the concept of money, for example — but limitless in others. He’s a savant, with a startling memory that sometimes resembles Dustin Hoffman character’s in “Rain Man.” Still, Mr. Bissinger declares about Zach in a typically blunt formulation: “Why sugarcoat it? My son is mentally retarded.”

“Father’s Day” takes the form of a road trip that father and son make across America. Its real journey, though, is interior. It’s a barely guided tour through Mr. Bissinger’s own roiling anxiety, his depression, his narcissism and his profound insecurity, not to mention what he sees as his failings as a man, as a father, as a son and as a writer.

He sometimes tamps down his freakouts, as well as what he calls his “mild bipolarity,” with “a morning cocktail of Klonopin, Effexor, Wellbutrin and Lamictal that my wife Lisa makes sure I have taken, terrified of medicated-less consequences.”

He’s such a pitcher of fits, tormentor of editors, haranguer on Twitter and overall basket case that he also declares about his third wife: “Lisa has told me several times that she is determined to die first to avoid the misery of taking care of me.” He’s like a garrulous Saul Bellow protagonist with Tourette’s syndrome.

“Father’s Day” is riveting and a bit frightening; Mr. Bissinger wears his emotions close to the surface. I’m not sure it’s a good book, but it’s a brutal and vivid one, the work of a writer with an unflinching gift for honesty, and impossible to put down. I read it in two short gulps, occasionally through the cracks in my fingers.

Among the places Mr. Bissinger and his son visit on their road trip is Odessa, where “Friday Night Lights” was set. Some there still haven’t forgiven Mr. Bissinger, for portraying open incidents of racism among other things. But that’s not what sends him into a tailspin.

Being there reminds him, he says, “that after almost 20 years, I still have not topped” that book. It feels like a curse. He worries he is played out as a writer. Worse, he fears he used some of Odessa’s young men’s lives for his own gain.

In a line that’s as slashing as anything in Janet Malcolm’s book “The Journalist and the Murderer,” he says: “All writers silently soak up despair for our own advantage; like dogs rolling in the guts of dead animals, the stink of others makes us giddy. We deny it but we lie in denying it.”

He has attempted to expiate his guilt. He tells us he’s given, over the years, some $70,000 to Boobie Miles, an Odessa football star whose career-ending injury is explored at length in “Friday Night Lights.” (He has written an e-book follow-up on Mr. Miles.)

His journalistic insecurity is so great, even after the success of “Friday Night Lights,” that he writes: “I had pathetically stopped reading The New York Times Book Review five years earlier because of my raging jealousy of other writers getting rave reviews. Without hyperbole, the nonfiction best-seller list sent me into hours of depression and bitterness so I could not look at it either.”

Mr. Bissinger approaches his son through a portrait of his own childhood. His father was a bond-firm president and his family was wealthy, with an apartment in Manhattan and a summer house on Nantucket. The author attended Andover and the University of Pennsylvania. But his mother lacked warmth, he says, an - The New York Times


The average student gets nothing from football programs that remain sacrosanct despite tuition increases. (caption to photo)

In more than 20 years I've spent studying the issue, I have yet to hear a convincing argument that college football has anything do with what is presumably the primary purpose of higher education: academics.

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Ditching a Playoff to Save the Rose Bowl: Why the Big Ten and Pac-12 SHould Secede From College Football's Postseason

That's because college football has no academic purpose. Which is why it needs to be banned. A radical solution, yes. But necessary in today's times.

Football only provides the thickest layer of distraction in an atmosphere in which colleges and universities these days are all about distraction, nursing an obsession with the social well-being of students as opposed to the obsession that they are there for the vital and single purpose of learning as much as they can to compete in the brutal realities of the global economy.

Photos: A Legacy of Scandal

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Associated Press
North Carolina football coach Butch Davis

Who truly benefits from college football? Alumni who absurdly judge the quality of their alma mater based on the quality of the football team. Coaches such as Nick Saban of the University of Alabama and Bob Stoops of the University of Oklahoma who make obscene millions. The players themselves don't benefit, exploited by a system in which they don't receive a dime of compensation. The average student doesn't benefit, particularly when football programs remain sacrosanct while tuition costs show no signs of abating as many governors are slashing budgets to the bone.

If the vast majority of major college football programs made money, the argument to ban football might be a more precarious one. But too many of them don't—to the detriment of academic budgets at all too many schools. According to the NCAA, 43% of the 120 schools in the Football Bowl Subdivision lost money on their programs. This is the tier of schools that includes such examples as that great titan of football excellence, the University of Alabama at Birmingham Blazers, who went 3-and-9 last season. The athletic department in 2008-2009 took in over $13 million in university funds and student fees, largely because the football program cost so much, The Wall Street Journal reported. New Mexico State University's athletic department needed a 70% subsidy in 2009-2010, largely because Aggie football hasn't gotten to a bowl game in 51 years. Outside of Las Cruces, where New Mexico State is located, how many people even know that the school has a football program? None, except maybe for some savvy contestants on "Jeopardy." What purpose does it serve on a university campus? None.


The most recent example is the University of Maryland. The president there, Wallace D. Loh, late last year announced that eight varsity programs would be cut in order to produce a leaner athletic budget, a kindly way of saying that the school would rather save struggling football and basketball programs than keep varsity sports such as track and swimming, in which the vast majority of participants graduate.

“If you want to establish a minor league system that the National Football League pays for—which they should—that is fine.”
Part of the Maryland football problem: a $50.8 million modernization of its stadium in which too many luxury suites remain unsold. Another problem: The school reportedly paid $2 million to buy out head coach Ralph Friedgen at the end of the 2010 season, even though he led his team to a 9-and-4 season and was named Atlantic Coast Conference Coach of the Year. Then, the school reportedly spent another $2 million to hire Randy Edsall from the University of Connecticut, who promptly produced a record of 2-and-10 last season.

In an interview with the Baltimore Sun in March, Mr. Loh said that the athletic department was covering deficits, in large part caused by attendance drops in football and basketball, by drawing upon reserves that eventually dwindled to zero. Hence cutting the eight sports.

This is just the tip of the iceberg. There are the medical dangers of football in general caused by head trauma over repetitive hits. There is the false concept of the football student-athlete that the NCAA endlessly tries to sell, when any major college player will tell you that the demands of the game, a year-round commitment, makes the student half of the equation secondary and superfluous. There are the scandals that have beset programs in the desperate pursuit of winning—the University of Southern California, Ohio State University, University of Miami and Penn State University among others.

I can't help but wonder how a student at the University of Oregon will cope when in-state tuition has recently gone up by 9% and the state legislature passed an 11% decrease in funding to the Oregon system overall for 2011 and 2012. Yet thanks to the largess of Ni - Wall Street Journal


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Bio

Buzz Bissinger is among the nation’s most honored and distinguished writers. The winner of numerous awards including the Pulitzer Prize, Buzz is the author of the highly acclaimed nonfiction books: Friday Night Lights (#1 New York Times bestseller which sold over 2 million copies), A Prayer for the City, Three Nights in August, Shooting Stars (with LeBron James) and his first memoir about raising a son with developmental disabilities, Father’s Day: A Journey into the Mind and Heart of My Extraordinary Son. His book Friday Night Lights was made into a feature film and was the inspiration for the television series.

Buzz has been a reporter for some of the nation’s most prestigious newspapers and magazines. He is a contributing editor for Vanity Fair (Interviewed Gabby Douglas for October, 2012 issue), a columnist for The Daily Beast and Newsweek, and has been published by The New York Times Magazine, The Wall Street Journal, and Sports Illustrated, among others. He was a co-producer and writer for the ABC television drama NYPD Blue.

The Buzz Bissinger Show with Steve Martorano, airs weekdays on CBS radio 1210 WPHT in Philadelphia. He is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania. Visit http://www.buzzbissinger.com