Clear Eyes, Full Hearts: A Tribute To Eric Taylor, The Greatest Screen Dad Of All Time

I grew up in a sports household.

Perhaps this explains why Friday Night Lights has always occupied a rather sizable space in my heart (beyond the rather obvious qualitative reasoning). It amalgamates an incredibly singular storytelling style – taking the "fly on the wall" camera techniques Executive Producer Peter Berg employed on his eponymous 2004 motion picture – with a CW-ready teen melodrama that plays like a heightened approximation of my own experiences. If you transplanted these kids' struggles in life, love and games into Eastern Pennsylvania, made everyone a little (OK, a lot) less beautiful, and then had them play basketball instead of football, it'd hit so close to home I'd probably have to sue Berg for likeness rights (again, kidding). Playing for teams dominated my formative years, as I was part of a collection of brothers formed through competition.

But beyond all that, what Friday Night Lights provides is an idealized coach and father in Eric Taylor (Kyle Chandler) – captain of the ship for both the West Dillon Panthers and then (after being forced out by bastard parent Joe McCoy) the East Dillon Lions – who may just be the greatest screen dad of all time.

A career molder of young men, Taylor becomes the embodiment of the American everyman: hard working, stern, decent, and committed to his wife Tami (Connie Britton, expanding upon her role in Berg's movie) and daughter Julie (Aimee Teegarden). Above all else, his mission is to provide for these two women, along with their infant daughter, Gracie Bell (who's born during Season 2). If you looked up "family man" in the dictionary, you'd more than likely find his picture, grimacing while he processes new information regarding whatever small-town dilemma he's currently facing.

From the earliest hours of Friday Night Lights – most notably Ep. 5 ("Git'er Done"), where smoldering Applebee's waitress Tyra Collette (Adrianne Palicki) learns just how she's viewed by a cute outsider – we discover that West Texas is a region most of these characters can't wait to escape. Yet Coach Taylor becomes a beacon of hope in Nowheresville, and the love the show displays for both Eric and his people is what makes FNL's five seasons so special. It approaches the limitations of small town American life without ever condescending those who both endure and enjoy it. By the time we reach the end of this saga – the stadium lights extinguishing on a newly relocated Eric and Tami – Dillon has become our hometown, and Eric our father, throwing his arm around our shoulders and letting us know that, no matter how difficult life may get, he'll always be here, ready to hear us out, while offering some words of tough plainspoken wisdom that will hopefully help us move forward while wistfully looking back.

Kyle Chandler: Acting as Listening 

Kyle Chandler was riding a wave of career momentum by the time Friday Night Lights premiered on NBC in October 2006. While many still knew him from the short-lived psychic newspaper saga, Early Edition, he'd just co-starred as pretty, clueless movie star Jack Denham in Peter Jackson's King Kong remake. The next year, Chandler would appear in the underrated, Michael Mann produced, Middle East actioner, The Kingdom (also helmed by Peter Berg). With his deep chestnut eyes and boyish smile, he was a performer on the cusp of full blown movie stardom, requiring only a single role to catapult him to that next level of cultural omnipresence.

Coach Eric Taylor of the Dillon Panthers was that role. Few actors and material have been so perfectly matched in the history of television and film, as Chandler seemed like he'd been born with a blue baseball cap on his head and wrap-around Oakleys over his eyes. Chandler brings his own experience growing up in Social Circle, Georgia (Pop. 4,500) to Taylor, and his lazy drawl adds a layer of authenticity to his portrayal of the field general. We truly buy Coach as a man who's most comfortable being part of this community, attending church, and sipping beers with boosters like Buddy Garrity (Brad Leland) at wood paneled bars as they beat his ear about who's going to be starting at quarterback on Friday night. It's a symbiotic melding of personal background with fictional invention, crafting a character that feels truly lived-in and weathered by numerous victories and losses on the high school gridiron.

Yet one of the most remarkable pieces of Chandler's performance is his how he imbues Taylor with a coach's greatest asset: the ability to listen to all around him. So many scenes are structured around Taylor being confronted with a problem, or stumbling in on a conversation that should probably concern him (to that point that, by Season 3, these set-ups are exploited to hilarious effect). Chandler's eyes are always moving, as if he's researching every option in an instant, and Chandler allows us to see this procedure all over coach's face. It's a phenomenal trait, as Chandler continuously externalizes Taylor's emotions, allowing us to see just how he approaches each situation. We're often told – via hacky dissections or tutorials – that "acting is reacting", yet Chandler builds almost an entire performance out of listening, resulting in one of the great screen turns of all time.

Behind Every Great Man…

Though Friday Night Lights is primarily a sports drama, it's also a rather impressive profiling of a marriage, in which we get to peer in on the deliberations and decisions that Eric and Tami Taylor make together. These range in size from how many hamburgers or hot dogs they should buy for a team cookout at their suburban home, to whether Eric should finally give up football, so that Mrs. Taylor can pursue her career beyond being a high school guidance counselor or principal (making the leap into university admissions). The old saying goes, "nobody knows what happens inside of a marriage except for the two who are married", but Friday Night Lights looks to break this social idiom by placing us not only in the bedroom, but the kitchen, living room, office, and backyard with the Taylors as well.

Where Chandler is a revelation as Coach, Connie Britton is every bit his equal, challenging him to be a better man. The virtues of patience, understanding, and compromise are espoused, and Britton ensures Tami owns a gorgeous Zen calm that balances Eric's often bullish, stubborn masculinity. Together, they form a unit that can weather any storm – even QB1 Matt Saracen (Zach Gilford) dating and eventually asking for Julie's hand in marriage – so long as they truly hear one another's hopes and concerns for the future. The chemistry Britton and Chandler share is palpable; an entire bond built out of shorthand and simple gestures that only those who have spent 18 years in close quarters loving one another can develop.

Perhaps what's most righteous about the way Friday Night Lights represents the marriage of Eric and Tami Taylor is the fact that it's hard. The show never shies away from the fact that finding someone to love and then keeping that person by your side and invested in this union are two totally different tasks, their difficulty equally impossible to measure. However, we believe in Eric because Tami believes in Eric. That's not just her man, but the father of her child, and the person who she's entrusted all her hopes and dreams to. Building a life together takes just that: belief; the notion that the individual who you've joined hands with for the rest of existence has your back just as much as you have theirs. In an age where the divorce rate is much higher than success when it comes to nuptials, there's something comforting about a piece of mainstream entertainment depicting love as a constant process that's truly worth fighting for.

Clear Eyes, Full Hearts (Can’t Lose)

A great coach – of any sport, not just football – needs to possess the ability to convey authority, while also gaining the players' trust that he knows just what the hell he's talking about. On the field, Eric Taylor is no longer a papa, but a war chief; stalking the sidelines in his polo as he barks out plays. Should the boys disobey him or (God forbid) fumble the football, they damn well know they're going to hear about it once they reach the bench. Chandler does a phenomenal job selling Coach Taylor's consummate imposing professionalism, whether he's running practice or trying to win Friday's game against Arnett Mead.

With this command, Eric earns the admiration of his players, both on and off the field. Yet the way they look to him as a surrogate parental figure (even if their own fathers are still in the picture or not) isn't just based on how many wins or losses they chalk up together each season. No, it's because they trust Coach Taylor genuinely wants to see them succeed in life; whether it be heading off to college, or even showing up at a parole hearing, years after they've graduated and dropped out of an institution of higher education (as is the case with fullback legend, Tim Riggins [Taylor Kitsch]). Even the kicker – Landry "Lance" Clarke (Jesse Plemons) – goes from terrible Christian metal band howler to improbable pet in the eyes of "Coach", because there's an endless well of tough love that radiates off Eric. He may tell you to "get the hell out of here" at the end of whatever life lesson he bestows upon you, but those kids step foot on that field knowing that he's got their best interests at heart.

Above the door in the Dillon Panthers' locker room is a plaque inscribed with a simple message: "Clear Eyes. Full Hearts. Can't Lose." It's the slogan Eric ends each team speech with, often having the boys holler the final words back at him. The mantra is an expansion of a pep talk Coach Gary Gaines (Billy Bob Thornton in the film) gives during the State Championship to his Permian squad, which concludes with the assuring statement, "boys, my heart's full." On the surface, it seems like nothing more than a means to fire the troops up before heading out to battle, but it also doubles (much like Gaines' "Be Perfect" ethos) as a wasy to approach every situation in life: with a reasonable, optimistic outlook, and love in your heart. If there was anything that these kids took from their days playing for Coach, it'd be safe to assume that Eric Taylor would want it to be that. Because football is fleeting, but life is very, very long.

“Let Me Tell You Something.” 

Taylor's folksy insight is also why his players seek him out off the field for guidance in all matters, and often end up getting jobs as assistants under him (as is the case with both Tim and Billy Riggins [Derek Philips], along with paralyzed QB Jason Street [Scott Porter]). He's their model, as there's something of a father crisis occurring in Dillon. Both Tim and Billy had theirs walk out on them, Matt Saracen's deployed on multiple tours to Iraq, and East Dillon Lions QB Vince Howard's (Michael B. Jordan) father went to prison. Even the papas who stick around – such as Joe McCoy – are vicious s***s, hitting their kids when they don't perform up to their standards on the field. In all cases, Taylor has to step in and guide these young men along their respective journeys, becoming much more than just a school official, tasked with winning games.

So many times, Taylor's best lessons are preceded by the phrase "let me tell you something", to the point that the combination of words almost act as a trigger for the audience to perk up and take note of whatever's about to come out of Coach's mouth next. Yet the greatest message he imparts on the kids is one of understanding that life is going to be full of challenges, and that they must be strong enough to face adversity, without losing hope in both themselves or their fellow man. The pilot for Friday Night Lights concludes with a prayer delivered by Eric, which becomes the show's mission statement from that point forward:

"Dear Lord – Give all of us gathered here tonight the strength to remember that life is so very fragile. We are all vulnerable, and we will all, at some point in our lives... fall. We will all fall. We must carry this in our hearts... that what we have is special. That it can be taken from us, and when it is taken from us, we will be tested. We will be tested to our very souls. It is these times, it is this pain, that allows us to look inside ourselves."

For fans of Friday Night Lights, one of the hardest parts about seeing the show end was knowing you wouldn't have this family to return to next week. However, that made us even more like one of Coach Taylor's kids upon graduation. Our time spent together was meaningful, and he'd bestowed us the strength to head out into the real world and face whatever difficulties it had in store for us. You're not always going to have your dad around, as everyone grows up, and fathers grow old, and die, leaving us to try and take their teachings and gift them to our own children in a way they would approve of.

While there hasn't been another screen dad quite like Eric Taylor in the years since FNL reached its tearful conclusion in 2011, we can hope that one day, some screenwriter somewhere will try and take his impressive character and use it as a model for future movie or television fathers, so that new generations can have a fictional ideal to look up to. Until then, say it with me one last time: "clear eyes, full hearts, can't lose."