It is entertainingly ironic—or maybe harmoniously fitting—that Arizona State's eagerly anticipated matchup versus Missouri will be portrayed as the featured act in front of a national ESPN audience this Friday night.
In the Friday Night Lights book by H.G. Bissinger, the focal area is the town of Odessa, Texas, home to under 90,000 Texans in the late 1980s, the time of the Bissinger's work. In general, Odessa is described as being a city stricken by economic woes, with high school football often times as the residents' only natural salvation from financial struggles and drug and alcohol dependency.
In addition to its die-hard high school football tradition, Odessa has historically been known for being a rollercoaster boom-or-bust community due to the volatility of its lifeblood oil industry. Local citizens would jubilantly rejoice during the highs of booming business, only later to be debilitated by the painstaking lows of recession—and have that cycle repeat over the years.
The comparisons and contrasts between Sun Devil football and the setting of Friday Night Lights are striking and perhaps never more relevant than during this time that precedes a major national showdown.
In stark contrast to ASU football and its surrounding community, Odessa (or the fictional city of Dillon, if you prefer the TV series) is an area that eats, sleeps, lives and breathes football—in many cases to severely excessive degrees. Sadly, few will argue that not only is Sun Devil football not the lifeblood of the general Phoenix area, even the Tempe vicinity lacks the passion to tangibly palpitate an unbreakable support for the hometown Sun Devils.
However, the main premise of the Friday Night Lights story is the idealistic concept of hope. In some scenarios, hope is likely to be actualized but the end result falls short of what is predicted, while in other situations the objectives appear bleak but are surprisingly achieved. With ASU on many recent occasions seeming to teeter on the cusp of grand success, hope, at times, has dwindled. But with the start of a new season comes the comfort of a clean slate; with the team's talent and experience comes a firmer confidence that this time—maybe this time—the Devils can right the wrongs of years passed.
It's only fitting to relate a drama such as Friday Night Lights to Arizona State football; over the past three years, the Sun Devils have shown a dramatic sense one would expect only to be created by a Hollywood scriptwriter or best-selling author. Whether it has been games against in-state or conference rivals or rare matchups with nationally prominent programs such as LSU, Wisconsin and Georgia, the Sun Devils have written themselves out of the script toward tragic results on many more occasions than fans wish to recall.
With ASU's bout with Missouri so close on the horizon—though only the second game of the 2011 season—there is a chillingly epic feeling that surrounds the anticipation. Much like a gripping season-finale in television or a novel's suspenseful final chapter, Friday's game is accompanied by equal shares of elation and intimidation.
Most bluntly put, the future is at the Sun Devils' front door. Moral victories, competitive "atta-boys" and "what could have beens" must either immediately become things of the past or become discouraging staples of a program that remains so close, yet so far away.
Would a win over Missouri automatically punch ASU's ticket to Pasadena or New Orleans? Of course not.
Would a loss to the Tigers corrupt the entire season? Not nearly.
The urgent issue, however, is the immeasurable potential this game provides the Sun Devil program—but it's a one-shot deal. The setting could not be better—ASU, decked in snazzy new uniforms and participating in the exclusive FBS game of the evening, is in the position to be marketed from coast to coast. At Friday night's end, viewers both locally and beyond will either adjust a preexisting view of Sun Devil athletics or birth a conception of what college football means in Tempe, Ariz.
On a national level, a win could bolster recruiting intrigue and distant public perception. More effectively, on a local scale, a victory—during the grandeur of the evening—could very well lay the foundation for the new generation of Sun Devils that will carry Sparky's torch for decades to come.
In a budding sports fan's life, there are distinct formative moments that create an indelible, irremovable passion that many of us have experienced. Being in attendance and enjoying the first-hand experience the hysteria on the newly-christened Frank Kush Field on Sept. 21, 1996—one day before my 14th birthday—immediately created a lifelong covenant to Sun Devil football within a previously casual Arizona State fan.
Few game environments at ASU blend all the elements needed to truly captivate a fan to the point of motivation. However, it only takes a single spark—pun intended—to ignite the spectacular love of college football and one's hometown team, but sadly recent flames have quickly been doused as far as ASU's encouragement is concerned. For the first time in a long while, Friday is the perfect opportunity for a feverish excitement to wave through Sun Devil Stadium and Tempe, and ultimately rejuvenate an otherwise generally dormant fan base.
In retrospect, the rockiness of the past three football seasons at Arizona State truly has made the span dramatically cinematic. Though Friday certainly does not mark the conclusion of the story, the climactic nature of the night's game has every necessary quality to direct the story into a tale that concludes with a resurrection of Sun Devil football back to prominence.
In late-1980s Odessa, Texas, the persistent theme was, amid hell and heartache, to persevere through obstacles, to band together despite painstaking challenges and—if only for one night each week and a few months of the year—that young men could tackle the challenges and actualize the hopes of a community that so heavily lives vicariously through their efforts.
At Arizona State in 2011, the hope is that the lessons learned from prior adversities can be victoriously applied, not continued, through the duration of the football season. Similar to how the Panthers' fan base grew increasingly agitated with perceivably lengthy state championship droughts, ASU's supporters have grown restless due to a recent lack of a presence in the national spotlight as well as in postseason bowl games.
Despite recent inconsistencies, there is zero doubt that the Sun Devil football program and its faithful have all sights fixated on Friday; whether in jittery nail-biting fashion or and exuberant lust for just one more shot at redemption, Missouri is the only thing in ASU's collective focus.
Also, the mix of emotion and dedication that has been shown by the team in this week's preparation, as well as with the fans that hopefully will fill Sun Devil Stadium clad in black, clearly exemplifies the still-present attachment fans have, when motivated to do so, for ASU athletics.
The assumptive hope, however, is that these intangible qualities can help lift the Sun Devils to a statement victory over Missouri. With a new season's swagger, ASU is poised to let the past rest in peace and script a new era of Sun Devil football. And many players and fans believe the timing and chemistry formulates the perfect opportunity for an incomparably gratifying win.
In essence…clear eyes, full hearts, can't lose?
We'll see this Friday night under the lights at ASU.