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 shits, 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.”

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