If the success of Friday Night Lights taught us anything it’s that America loves a good underdog story. Coach Eric Taylor (Kyle Chandler) and his players regularly fought against hardship in order to become better football players – and better men. But while the show focused on the drama of a small town obsessed with the game, plenty of action happened on the turf as well.
Between life-threatening injuries, brawls between teammates, Hail Mary victories, and soul-crushing defeats, the Panthers (and later, the Lions) weathered them all together under a coach who accepted nothing less than complete devotion to the game. Taylor hammered into his players a respect for time – 6 a.m. sharp means a quarter to six if you didn’t know – and effort. You didn’t have to be better than everyone else but you had to try. It’s the trying that makes the man.
These players proved that during their time sporting a Dillon jersey, overcoming incredible obstacles and defying unbelievable odds to become leaders on the field and off. Here are the five greatest underdog stories Friday Night Lights ever gave us.
As Slammin Sammy Meade would say:
“Feed the dogs, spit on the fire, lock up your daughters, sit down and shut up, because it’s game time, people!”
5. Smash Williams
Let’s get one thing out of the way; Smash Williams (Gaius Charles) is not your typical underdog. He began his career on Friday Night Lights as the cocky running back whose mouth matched his legs for speed who had a strange fascination with Tim Riggins’ (Taylor Kitsch) ex, Tara (Adrianne Palicki).
Smash was quick, he was talented, and he loved the spotlight, something that often got him in trouble, but though Smash enjoyed a gift for the game and an arsenal of athletic skills, he also faced opposition on and off the field. In season one, Smash made the mistake of using steroids in order to boost his chances of college recruitment. For all his talent, his size was often viewed as a disadvantage to the scouts interested in him.
In season two, Williams had to find a way to work with Matt Saracen (Zach Gilford) after the two clashed on the field. The running back had to humble himself in order to help lead his team to another state championship. In season three, with his hopes of playing for TMU crushed after getting into a public brawl with a white teenager over racist remarks, Smash faces more set back in the form of a career ending injury.
Instead of giving up the game, he decided to work harder to recover and rebuild himself as a player, putting in dozens of morning workouts with Coach Taylor in order to rehabilitate his body and return to the field.
4. Luke Cafferty
Luke Cafferty (Matt Lauria) may have had the only parents in Dillon who weren’t interested in their son pursuing a football career. The boy was set to work on his family ranch when he graduated high school, but, like everybody else, he dreamed of hauling ass out of Dillon the minute he graduated and football was his one way ticket. He worked hard to rise up from JV to varsity for the Dillon Panthers and made himself and easy target for JD McCoy’s (Jeremy Sumpter) impressive arm but when it was discovered that, because of rezoning laws, Luke was supposed to be playing for the East Dillon Lions, the young player struggled.
Faced with playing for a Coach who saw nothing special in him and a team that barely knew the basics of the game, Luke was forced to step up, filling in on both offense and defense for the Lions and, occasionally, as quarterback when Vince Howard’s (Michael B. Jordan) ego got the better of him.
Luke also grappled with injury during his high school career after hurting himself working on his family’s ranch. He had to battle back while fighting an addiction to pain meds in order to earn a starting spot on the team and though he decided to choose not to play college ball, his accomplishments on the field are worth remembering.
3. Landry Clarke
Landry Clarke (Jesse Plemons) might have started out as the nerd trying to convince his friends to join his Christian speed metal band but by the time Friday Night Lights ended, he had become a bona fide football player. Landry had no inherent knack for the game – he spent most practices being bulldozed by Tim Riggins and the rest of the team.
But what Landry lacked in skill he made up for in heart and effort.
When Smash Williams and Matt Saracen were at each other’s throats during season two, Landry bolstered team morale with a rousing, if not cheesy, locker room halftime speech. After the backup quarterback threw an interception during the second half of a game, he came up with a big block that turned the tide and helped the Panthers and the team’s star players get back on track.
Later, when Landry followed Coach Taylor to East Dillon, he found himself in an even worse position – as the start up team’s only choice for kicker. He didn’t have much experience in that area of the game either but by the end of the season, Landry was able to launch a season-ending game-winning 46-yard field goal to help his team defeat their rivals.
Too bad Coach Taylor was never able to get his name right.
2. Vince Howard
For Vince Howard, football was the only thing separating him from time behind bars. His choice to play for Coach Taylor on the newly minted East Dillon Lions was the result of a run in with the law. He had no experience with the game, but he could run fast and for Taylor, who was forced to build an entire team from scratch after getting ousted by the Panthers, having at least one player with some semblance of athletic prowess was a miracle.
Vince went from playing in the backfield and fighting with his teammates to becoming starting quarterback of the Lions and leading his men to defeating their biggest rivals, the West Dillon Panthers. He had natural talent, but he had to put in the work on and off the field in order to mold his abilities into that of a star quarterback. That meant motivating a team full of out of shape guys who could barely run thirty minutes worth of bleachers in the Texas heat and keeping his head on straight when recruiters eventually came knocking.
Sure, he faltered at times, but he always proved himself worthy of the trust Coach Taylor placed in him and his skills as a gunslinger were pretty impressive too.
1. Matt Saracen
Matt Saracen became the starting quarterback for the Panthers, not because he was Coach Taylor’s first choice, but because Jason Street (Scott Porter) became paralyzed after a bad tackle in the first game of the season. It’s tough following the town hero, a player people predicted might be the next Peyton Manning, but it’s even worse when the only thing you’ve been practicing so far during your high school career is warming the bench and fetching things out of the trash can for your coaches.
Matt had a rough road to being worthy of his QB 1 spot. He had to earn the respect of his teammates in order to become a leader on the field, win the adoration of an entire town still reeling from the loss of its golden boy, and gain the endorsement of Coach Taylor. It didn’t help that Buddy Garrity kept pushing replacements Taylor’s way. Anyone remember that jerk named Voodoo? (I mean, I know he lost his home and starting position at his old school to Hurricane Katrina, but damn man, telling your coach that your relationship basically boils down to an arranged marriage is still pretty harsh.)
In the end, Matt was able to lead the team to a state championship his first season, only losing a couple of games in the years he was starting quarterback, and when he was replaced by Coach Taylor in favor of the younger JD McCoy, he adapted and offered his services as wide receiver. Matt proved himself to be a team player on and off the field, so weak arm or no, he makes the top of this list.