The Pulitzer Prize winner reveals poignant details about the family dynamic surrounding his mentally disabled son, as described in his memoir, Father’s Day, and discusses life after Friday Night Lights.
Writer Buzz BissingerOriginally aired on June 6, 2012
Tavis: Buzz Bissinger is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and best-selling author of books like “Friday Night Lights” and “A Prayer for the City.” He’s also a contributing editor for “Vanity Fair” and a sports columnist with The Daily Beast.
His latest text is called “Father’s Day: A Journey into the Mind and Heart of My Extraordinary Son.” Buzz, good to have you on this program.
Buzz Bissinger: Hey, thank you, thank you.
Tavis: I suspect most parents think their sons, or daughters, for that matter, are extraordinary. That’s a heck of a title – “My Extraordinary Son.” Is that a little fatherly pride, or what’s the reason for calling your son extraordinary?
Bissinger: Well, I don’t – we all have fatherly pride, and I think that’s a good thing. I think my son is extraordinary because of his deficits at birth, his mental deficits, and the way he has fought and struggled, a lot of it through sheer will, to overcome them.
He’s really made a life for himself, when I frankly thought he would be very, very limited, to tell you the truth.
Tavis: To your point of your thinking he was going to be limited, at what point did you figure out that your son was, in fact, extraordinary in his father’s eyes?
Bissinger: The mere fact that he survived made him extraordinary. He was born in 1983. He was three and a half months premature. He weighed one pound and 11 ounces, and he was a twin. We knew the minute that he was born, if he survived, which was a big if at that point in time, there were going to be massive problems.
He was in the hospital for seven and a half months, and I do believe that he survived because of his own will and strength. So that made him remarkable, but as I saw him progress, and a lot of it took place on this road trip that we take where I really almost focused on him the first time I saw really how his mind works in a very extraordinary way.
Tavis: We’ll talk more about the trip in just a second here, but you mention he is one half of a twins set. How is his other brother? How’s his brother doing?
Bissinger: Well, the amazing thing is his other brother, Jerry, was the first one out by three minutes. He was one pound, 14 ounces, had no side effects. At that point in time, most male twins that size, that young, die. This was 1983.
Jerry had nothing. So I was faced as a father when you have Jerry going up the track, making progress, what all parents want, and there was Zach, who was struggling but is limited, and the gap just widened and widened and continues to widen.
Tavis: How does a father navigate that? So every father wants to have a boy. You’re blessed enough to have two of them.
Tavis: One normal, one challenged. As a father, how do you establish a relationship with and navigate that journey with this particular son, Zach?
Bissinger: Well, it was hard. It was hard because his communication was very limited when he was born. Look, I always loved him. It was never about love. But I think for a parent, one of the hardest things is you feel that you’re stuck with your child, and one of the problems with Zach, because of the way his mind is, it’s all in the concrete, we were stuck.
We would play the same games, really, for 20 years. I said finally, after 20 years, from five to 25, and I meant it, I said, “Zach, I can’t do this anymore, because I feel that we’re stuck. We’re not seeing any progression.” Then of course it’s enhanced by another son who, as I say, is just moving up the track.
Zach’s not going to live alone, obviously did not go to college. His mental comprehension is about eight to 10. He’s not going to get married. I don’t know if he’ll ever kiss. That was hard for me.
Tavis: So why then decide – I want to talk about this trip in a second, but something else occurs to me first.
Bissinger: Sure, sure.
Tavis: When you say to Zach, “I can’t play these games anymore,” it reminds me of a number of passages in the text where you’re pretty brutally honest. I expect that from your writing, you talk about “Friday Night Lights.”
Tavis: I expect that from your writing. I wouldn’t look for anything other than that. But there might be some who read this book who say “Man, Buzz is pretty tough on this kid.”
Bissinger: Well, people have said that. That was not my intention, but look, Tavis, if I’m going to write a book like this, it is like my other journalism. It’s also – I shined a light on Odessa, Texas in “Friday Night Lights,” and I shined a light on myself with the same standards.
I feel if you’re going to write – if you want to call it a memoir, that’s fine; it’s a personal story – you have to be honest. Honesty, I guess, is brutal. Otherwise, what’s the point? I’ve read memoirs and I have to tell you, I feel a lot of them are kind of jiggered here and jiggered there, and everything turns out happily in the end.
I didn’t want to do that, but I knew that some people would say, whoa, whoa, you’re really going deep here, and he’s a defenseless little boy. But I wanted to know how much he knew about himself, and I did want to tell him.
Tavis: When you shined that light on Odessa, Texas, there are things about itself – that is to say, the town -
Tavis: – things that Odessa had to face about itself that it might not have liked so much.
Bissinger: Yes, that’s true. (Laughs)
Tavis: That’s an understatement, of course.
Bissinger: (Laughs) I think that’s true.
Tavis: When Buzz shines the light on himself on Friday or any other day, for that matter, what did you see about yourself vis-à-vis your relationship with your son that you were unhappy with?
Bissinger: I saw the price that I paid for ambition, the price that I paid for the need for success. I came from a very high-power family where success was assumed. I bought into that very early in my life, really, from a very young age, five or six. I could not get off the track. I’m still on the track now.
The problem – it became an addiction. It was my addiction. That’s how I define myself. But like any addiction, you never get enough. You always want more. So as a result I’m in my head a lot. I’m brooding a lot. I’m comparing myself to others a lot, and that is going to create distance from your children, and particularly when you have a child who has severe mental disabilities, because it’s hard to get through to him.
Tavis: How did Zach’s challenges impact his brother, and how would you describe the difference in your relationships with either?
Bissinger: There’s no question my relationship with Jerry was easier. As I said, I love both boys. I felt close to them. But Jerry and I could have conversations. I’m a dad. Jerry played tennis. I love that. Jerry played soccer. I was the worst kind of athletic dad. I would interrupt him during his second serve and finally he banned me from watching him.
But I could communicate with him. We could have heart-to-hearts. I’ve never had a real conversation with Zach. He speaks in sort of short snippets, or if he expands, it’s always in the concrete. So my relationship with Jerry was easier. There was a flow to it.
Jerry’s feelings about Zach are complex. He was embarrassed by him growing up, which I understand. As he got older he got more mature. He’s now very, very protective, but there is no question – there’s two things. There’s a feeling of guilt – why was I the first one out by three minutes, why am I the one who has no residual effects.
But I also think he feels there but for the grace of God go I, because I think he was terrified that is my brother Zach somewhere within me, which I think caused him to work harder than ever to overcome some learning deficits that he had.
Tavis: What did Zach coming out three minutes later, what has that said to you, taught you, over the years about time and space?
Bissinger: Well, that’s a great question, because it really has taught me that -
Tavis: It’s just three minutes, but it changes everything.
Bissinger: Well, I almost put in the book – I just put it, I was going to put in, let’s count. Let’s count – 180, 179, let’s count three minutes. Three minutes define my son Zach’s life; it defined my life as a father. It blew every illusion I had of being a dad. It defined their mother’s life, it defined Jerry’s life.
That’s a lot of lives to be defined, literally, in three minutes. That’s all it took. We live long lives, but those three minutes defined all of us forever.
Tavis: So whose idea was it to take this road trip from Philadelphia to California? Your idea, Zach’s idea?
Bissinger: It was my idea. Zach’s mother’s family was going to Spain for two weeks. He doesn’t like to fly because he can get kind of antsy and ticcy, so I had him for two weeks, which was great.
I wanted to do something special, I wanted to something intimate, like I’ve done with my other children, so I came up with this idea of a road trip. I’ve done four of them. I got the idea for “Friday Night Lights” on a road trip. I fell in love with my present wife on a road trip.
I love the romance, I love being on the road. My thoughts go really deep, so I wanted to do it with Zach. Now, the only probably was he did say to me, “Dad, why don’t we fly,” so from the very beginning he was somewhat reticent, and then I had to structure the trip in a certain way that I thought would appeal to him.
Tavis: Zach ain’t that slow. (Laughter) He knows it’s better to fly than do a two-week road trip.
Bissinger: That’s the great thing about Zach. That’s the great thing about Zach. (Laughter) He may be slow in some areas, but I’m serious, man, he hits it.
Tavis: He said, “Two weeks in a car with you? I’d rather fly, Dad. I’d rather fly.” (Laughter)
Bissinger: Thanks, Tavis.
Tavis: No, I’m sorry. (Laughter) So tell me about the trip. The whole book is, in part, about this trip.
Tavis: But tell me, top-line the trip for me, what it meant to you and Zach.
Bissinger: Well, the frame of the trip is I decided that we had to go to places where we had lived before. Zach has a phenomenal memory. He’s a savant. His ability to remember events -
Tavis: Kind of like “Rain Man.”
Bissinger: Pretty much, in some ways. If you gave him a date within the span of his lifetime, he would know the day of the week. I don’t know how he does it. He says it’s just “In my head.” His recall of events from 20, 23, 24 years ago is shocking.
He loves going back to places where he’s been because he remembers everything. So we went to Milwaukee – actually, we went to Chicago first, where I’d worked. We went to Milwaukee where I’d lived, and then we did the Bataan Death March down to Odessa. It was pretty much the worst trip ever taken in American cross-country history, to tell you the truth. (Laughter)
Odessa was, like, 18 weeks getting down there, and then to New Mexico, Phoenix and then into L.A. So I think he felt that’s okay, because he doesn’t like scenery.
One of his deficits, natural beauty does not register upon him. His mother’s family took him to Yellowstone and he was baffled. He said, “There’s nothing here. There’s no place to eat. Where’s Taco Bell? What’s going on?” So I knew that doing the natural sights, forget it.
Tavis: What, to your mind, at least, or what did Zach tell you was his take-away from this trip?
Bissinger: Zach said, because I’ve asked him a lot, I think he liked it. That’s the way he would say – Zach basically says – I asked him, “How do you feel about it?” He says, “Pretty good.” That’s kind of the way he talks, because talking in the abstract and expanding is difficult.
I can tell you for me, I’m not going to say it changed my life and changed my personality; that’s too easy. That’s pat. That’s what memoirs too often do. It strengthened our bond, and when you’re on your deathbed and you’re thinking about life, this will be at the top. It was magnificent for me after some real, real bumps, because I did learn legitimately things about Zach that I never knew.
Tavis: Was that the most time that you and Zach had ever spent alone?
Tavis: Two consecutive weeks?
Tavis: Two or three times now, by my count, Buzz, you have referenced your current wife, your present wife, and your former wife, Zach’s mother.
Tavis: I’m going to assume – of course, I can cheat a little bit here – but I’m going to assume that that had an impact on your first relationship, your first marriage?
Bissinger: Yeah. I just – we had two sons who were severely sick. Jerry was in intensive care for two and a half months, but he got out pretty quickly and was breathing on his own. But there was some sense of relief, but you never know, he could go back in the hospital.
Zach, seven and a half months, every day – is he going to make it? Is he going to make it? You’re looking at those horrible monitors; his breathing rate is going up and down and up and down and up and down. The stress was A, enormous, which is going to really kill a marriage, I think, and I have to tell you, I still thought about success.
I still worried about who was getting ahead of who. I was with the “Philadelphia Inquirer” at that time. I couldn’t get out of my head, and I don’t say this proudly. I think my wife got tired of my neediness, and basically said, “You know, we got two kids who are really sick. We may have a son who is going to die.
“I don’t want to hear about your career. I don’t care where the play of your story was, whether it was on the front page or the metro section. I can’t do this.” I think it really began to bother her.
Tavis: Why do you think, in retrospect, that this kind of situation and condition couldn’t bring you closer as opposed to separating you? Because there are parents watching right now who have and have had these challenges and it brought their relationship closer as opposed to made it more disparate.
Bissinger: We all have dreams for our kids, we all have aspirations. I know because of my own background, maybe – not maybe. My dreams and aspirations were probably too high. I get frustrated easily. I can be volatile.
So instead of drawing us closer, which I think it has now, it did create a gap. I was very frustrated. I couldn’t really talk to him. As I said, I felt very, very stuck with him.
At one point, when he got into high school, I said to his mom, “You have to take him,” because A, it’s a better situation for him, and frankly, I don’t know what to do anymore. I can’t stand it that he’s on the couch watching a TV show that he doesn’t care about.
I feel helpless, I feel frustrated, and I think there are a lot of parents with these kids who do feel – you feel frustration, pain, rage, and are reluctant to express it because then other parents say, “Well, that means you really didn’t love your kid and you didn’t want your kid.”
That was never, ever the case, but I’m not going to lie – there was a gap. I remember people would say, well, my kid’s going to Harvard, my kid’s going to Penn, my kid’s going to Yale, and I bought into that. There I am with a son who’s going to bag groceries for the rest of his life.
Tavis: You’ve said a few times in this conversation, and I don’t doubt it, obviously, that you love Zach.
Bissinger: I do.
Tavis: As much as you love Jerry. But help me understand what the value is – I hear the challenges and the difficulties and the upheaval that Zach’s condition brought to your life and to your first marriage. I get that. But what’s been the value, what is the value, of having Zach as your son?
Bissinger: The value of having Zach at times when I became closer to acceptance and now there is full acceptance, you could not help but admire – struggle is not a good word, but his ability and his will to make connection with the world.
His friendliness, the way he picks up on vernacular. No day in Zach’s life is easy. He’s a creature of routine. I saw how he used his memory to make connections. He loves people’s birthdays. That made connection. Really on his own he has created a full life for himself, one that I didn’t think that he could, and that really is inspirational.
Tavis: So it’s pretty clear to the viewer now that you are a driven, competitive, comparative spirit.
Tavis: And you want to succeed at everything you do.
Tavis: So how have you navigated your life past “Friday Night Lights?” But I ask that for the obvious reason, which is once you write a book and it becomes a movie and it becomes a miniseries, somewhere in the back of your head there has to be the thought, “This may be my magnum opus.” All the way around – from the book, to the TV show, to the movie – I may never repeat this cycle again. This may be, again, my magnum opus.
But you’re such a competitive guy, so how do you get up every day working on this project or any other when you know, Buzz, that it’s going to be hard to repeat that? I’m not saying it’s impossible, but that’s – “Friday Night Lights” is pretty big stuff.
Bissinger: Well, it’s been really hard and at times it’s been a killer. As the book got more and more successful and it grew in sales, and as you say, the movie and the TV series, I knew, I knew in my forties – I wrote that book when I was 34 years old. I didn’t know anything about writing a book. I basically went down there as a lark.
It explodes, and I’m a guy who likes to move up. I said, “This is it. I will never – I may write something better; I will never, ever have the acclaim and the success that I got for that book.”
Tavis: But how’s a guy like you deal with that, though?
Bissinger: Well, I deal with it by trying to move forward and I have moved forward, but I won’t – it haunts me, and there are times where it really, really depresses me. People say, well, come on, how can it depress you? You were so successful with it.
I am what I am, and sometimes it becomes a noose around your neck because it’s like, what am I? Am I just a one-hit wonder? Was it accidental? How did it happen? It’s been hard to really get out of.
I didn’t watch a lot of the TV show. The TV show was great, but I was “Friday Night Lighted” out. I get a comment about – really, once a day, 22 years later, once a day, and I sort of feel like screaming, “Whoa, I actually have done other things in my life.” But they all recede into the background, except this, of course. (Laughter)
Tavis: Which is why you’re here. Are you happy with the fact that if that is the crescendo of your written work, are you happy that it was “Friday Night Lights?” I assume you’re comfortable with that as the product.
Bissinger: Yeah, I thought the product was a combination of luck and sort of having an innate skill to write a book and having an incredible story that was nonfiction that I could not make up.
Honestly, I wish I’d written it a little bit later in my life. I wish that I had written books before and then had that big one. I would have been older; I would have handled it better. The haunt of 34, am I done at 35? Am I like the high school quarterback that I’m writing about who has his big moment in high school and then sort of says for the rest of his life, “Where did the cheers go?”
I’m happy with the product, I’m happy that I exposed the hideous vein of racism that exists not just in Odessa but everywhere. I’m happy that I wrote with incision about the Black running back Boobie Miles, who I’m still in touch with, who was treated like a football animal at the age of 18.
He wasn’t a pro player. I’m happy that – it was hard, I knew these people, I spent a year with them – but I’m happy that at the end of the day I acted as a journalist should.
Tavis: How do you think you are regarded in Odessa these days?
Bissinger: I’ve been back a fair amount of time. Once the movie came out, Hollywood trumps everything, so I was like the has-been at that point. There’s still some people who hate me, but they’re school officials who have said, “You know what? We did hate you. This was a hideous look in the mirror. But you were right – we had to look in the mirror and we had to make some changes,” and they have.
There’s much more gender equality, the football team is not nearly as big as it was because they’re not winning nearly as much as they were, so they’re calmed down. I’ve stayed up with two of the kids, Boobie Miles, the Black running back, and Brian Chavez, who was the tight end who went to Harvard. I wasn’t in Odessa, but I was just in Kermit, Texas, where I saw Boobie.
Tavis: How’s Boobie doing?
Bissinger: Not well. When you’re treated as a football animal, when you’re considered that you cannot be educated, when you’re simply passed through because you’re playing high school football, when you’re actually given money to play, come on, you’re not going to study. You’re not going to study.
The proof of it was everything was fine, he’s getting As and Bs, until he hurt his knee and then he’s not playing anymore because he needs surgery, and now he’s flunking. He’s had a hard time learning responsibility; he’s had a hard time finding good jobs.
I have helped him out as much as I can and I think he’s sort of more settled, but I always wait for that phone call where he says, “Hey, I need some money, I had a domestic spat, I’m in jail.” It’s been really, really tough.
Tavis: Had Boobie not gotten hurt, no doubt he would have gone on to play college football, maybe at a major institution, who knows. But I read the other day you’ve got some pretty strong thoughts about college football.
Bissinger: I do, and I’ve got strong thoughts about a lot of things. I think – and I’m not saying this facetiously; I know it’ll never happen – I think it should be banned, or at least spun off – spun off into, like, a triple A team or its own entity and then you license with the university, they get a set amount of money.
No one, and I’ve read a lot and I’ve heard a lot and I just debated this, no one has made a good academic argument for why college football exists on college campuses. We are the only society in the world who looks to our colleges as primary sources of sports entertainment.
Universities, studies have been done, are more and more about diversion. Kids in the 1960s, and these are economists, studied about 40 hours a week in the ’60s. It’s down to about 13 hours today. They’re too much about diversion, and football is the biggest diversion of all.
The money that’s spent, they’ve done studies that when the team is doing well kids party more, their grades go down. That’s not what universities are for.
Tavis: So why spin it off? Why not do what Steve Spurrier and a few other coaches have now said – just pay them?
Bissinger: I think they should be – what I would do is I would spin it off and I would give players the option. You can take the scholarship money if you’re going to go to – if you want to go to school. Use it or take that lump of scholarship money and get paid.
I think that’s a fair system. I think, look, I think many of the kids who go, they have that dream that they’re going to play pro football. College football is their existence. I know graduation rates are up. I think they’re piped.
I also think because of the demands of the game they don’t have time to study. They don’t. It is a year-round commitment, and I think they are being terribly used. I don’t think it’s fair to Nick Savin to get close to $6 million. He don’t play the game. They play the game.
Tavis: Got a minute to go. Let me come back to the book “Father’s Day.” I don’t want to put you necessarily in a position of offering advice to parents of mentally challenged kids, but what’s your advice to fathers, though, who have sons who, for whatever reason, they’re struggling to establish a connect with in their relationship?
Bissinger: My advice would be, and I did not follow it all the time, is to seek both acceptance and reality, and then I think things will flow to you that you always wanted. There are all different ways of measuring success. It took me a long time to realize it’s not about going to an Ivy League school. It’s not about the kind of job you had.
I learned that character, because of Zach, is taking whatever you have within you and making the best of it to build a world for yourself. If you can get there, the love and the appreciation and the pride, I believe, will come.
Tavis: So character trumps intellect.
Bissinger: No question.
Tavis: The new book from Buzz is called “Father’s Day: A Journey into the Mind and Heart of My Extraordinary Son.” Buzz, congrats on the text. Give our best to Zach. Good to have you on this program.
Bissinger: Thank you. Well, thank you.
Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. You can download our new app now in the iTunes app store. See you back here next time on PBS. Until then, good night from L.A., thanks for watching, and as always, keep the faith.
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