“The Lord gives both death and life; he brings some down to the grave but raises others up. The Lord makes some poor and others rich; he brings some down and lifts others up. He lifts the poor from the dust and the needy from the garbage dump. He sets them among princes, placing them in seats of honor. For all the earth is the Lord’s, and he has set the world in order.”(Hannah, I Samuel 2:5-9).
Matt Saracen stands at the door of his girlfriend Julie, his face caught appearing as if it is a mouse caught in a trap. She has just told the always-under-control former quarterback of their town’s championship high school football team that his father has been killed in Iraq.
In the television drama “Friday Night Lights’, Matt is the everyman, nonplussed while dysfunction reigns around him. He is concerned but unmoved while watching his friends from the team get in one fix after another.
Matt has enough to deal with on his own. Now graduated, the young man has held it together all during high school as he watched his grandmother fade away with Alzheimer’s, except he has done more than watch. The young man is her caretaker. Dad’s off playing soldier and his Mom is nowhere to be found most of the time.
Although both Mom and Dad make occasional forays into Matt’s life, he really doesn’t know either one of his divorced folks. They co-wrote the book on absentee parents.
Jimmy Stewart and Gary Cooper rolled into one, Matt is now the signal caller who is blindsided by an onrushing defensive end called “Death”.
In the aftermath of learning the news of his Dad’s passing, Matt still carries on– distant and in-check. Surely, he has just taken a hit of the kind Joe Theismann received from Hall of Fame linebacker Lawrence Taylor on national television during a game between the Washington Redskins and New York Giants. (The damage to Theisman’s leg shocked everyone and caused even he-men NFL players to gag.)
Yet, Matt sits at his Dad’s wake in silence. Julie tells him,”You haven’t moved from that chair in an hour.” Matt calmly replies that this is no problem because people are coming to him. That’s Matt Saracen: always in control.
He isn’t always staid, however. The rigidity in Matt’s demeanor begins to loosen when a representative of the military shows up to pay respects to his Dad. The impeccably dressed soldier tells the son that everyone says his Dad was quite a man, with a wonderful sense of humor. Matt walks away in a huff.
He goes drinking with his old football buddies and expresses to them how he feels about his Dad. Hanging out at night at a football field, Matt says:
“I gotta get up there in front of everybody and say good stuff about this man. And all I really want to say is, ‘Here lies Henry Saracen, his mother annoyed him, his wife couldn’t stand him, and he didn’t want to be a dad, so he took off to be in the Army because that’s the only way he could come up with to get out of here and ditch all your responsibilities, and no one could call you out on it, and that worked out great so you just decided to enlist four more times, and that ended up getting you killed, and now here you are. And all you left behind is a mother with dementia, a divorced wife, and a son that delivers pizza. Thank you for coming, 100 people I do not know.’ You know what the worst part is? Even if I did get up and say all that, I don’t even know if I’m saying it to him, because I don’t know what’s in that damn box. It’s a closed casket — might be someone else, someone funnier or a bunch of rocks.”
As a result of the push from his old pal, the loser alcoholic and immoral former fullback Tim Riggins, Matt insists upon reviewing his Dad’s remains. Saracen, the man whose emotions are so hidden that he appears to be without a face, begins to unravel when he sees that indeed his Dad truly does not have one anymore. For once, his eyes fill with tears.
The independent Saracen at least does the smart thing under cover of politeness. He runs for help.
Saracen keeps an appointment, even though he is late. Matt makes a late-night visit to Julie’s family, headed by Eric Taylor, his former football coach. Matt has been invited to dinner, but that isn’t why he is there. Picking at his food, Matt slowly reveals his true feelings in front of the caring and stunned Taylor clan.
At first, he reverts to form. Telling Julie’s Mom Tami that he doesn’t like carrots and the meat touching his vegetables, he stands up and apologizes for being rude. “I’m just having a ‘moment’ here. I’m just having a moment,” But he finally admits, “I don’t think I’m ok.”
Weeping and his profile marked by excruciating pain, Matt half unintelligibly tells Mr and Mrs. Taylor, as Julie watches in shock, “I hate him. I don’t like hating people. But I spilled all my hate on him so I don’t have to hate anybody else so I can be a good person…you know, to my grandma…to all my friends…to your daughter. That’s all I want to say. I just want to tell him to his face that i hate him. But he doesn’t even have a face.”
But that’s as far as Matt will go in revealing his emotions, at least in public. Saracen excuses himself and heads out the door into the night, sobbing as runs down the street.
Julie, crying, tells her Mom that she wants to go after him. But Erik Taylor, the tough yet inwardly tender coach, goes instead. Catching up to Saracen, and in his strong masculine voice yelling, “Matt!”, Erick gets the boy’s attention. “I’m walking you home,” he says. The two head down the street, with the normally unaffectionate Erik’s arm around Matt.
Somehow, Matt’s decision to open up to Erik, Tami and Julie pays off. He has a kind of epiphany.
The next day, at the grave site, with family, friends and military trappings surrounding him, Matt eulogizes his Dad. He tells a funny story about Henry Saracen, one he observed as a six-year old. Matt acknowledges that his Dad was indeed funnier than he let on.
“I guess he was private in that way,” says Matt. “But one thing he was not private about was his service.”
He was in the army for 20 years and that was something he was proud of. He missed some of my birthdays and he missed a lot of me growing up, but I think the point is I got to grow up. And I got to have those birthdays. You know, he went to do a job that many people don’t want to do. Because of that we all get to be here and we all get to grow up. And we get to have our birthdays.”
One by one, Matt’s closest friends kiss him, touch him and leave the scene. Only Saracen, Julie and a couple of soldiers and gravediggers remain. The latter begin shoveling dirt on the casket.
Matt stands up in his suit and takes the shovel from one of the diggers and begins to shovel dirt. Eventually, he is vigorously pitching dirt alone. Only Julie is there with him.
Matt is burying not only his Dad, but his own painful demons and past as the screen goes black.
This episode, called “The Son” was rated by Time Magazine as the best show of the 2009 television season. I can see why. I have never been so moved by a scene as I was when watching Matt at his Dad’s funeral. I admit to weeping over it, and I am not the only one.
Entertainment columnist Shirley Li wrote about the deep effect the episode had on her. In an article entitled “I’m Still Not Over…Matt Saracen from ‘Friday Night Lights’ in ‘The Son'”, Li notes:
“To be honest, you can just say the words Friday Night Lights to me, and I’ll probably start tearing up. FNL fans know what I mean: The series as a whole was just the perfect mix of heartwarming and tragic storylines, and as a crier, I’m particularly vulnerable. Coach’s “we will be tested” speech in the pilot? Sobs. The Mud Bowl? Waterworks. Tyra getting into college? Niagara Falls on my face.”
But nothing made me bawl more than season 4′s “The Son,” which centered on Matt Saracen and his struggles to grieve over the death of his father, a man he hated. I didn’t need a Kleenex for this one; I needed a towel.”
And I still do. Because anyone who has lost someone understands how hard it is to grieve and to go through the numbness that happens in the aftermath. And for Matt — awkward do-gooder Matt Saracen, number 7 and former QB1 — his father’s death doesn’t just numb him, it destroys him.”
Even as I wept, I was trying to get to the core of my feelings and learn why was I so emotionally affected by a cotton pickin’ TV show. What I have learned is that I could relate to Matt on so many levels.
I had my own absentee Dad and experienced the same emotions as Saracen did in “The Son” growing up. Yet I also, like Matt, have come to an understanding that my father made a contribution despite his imperfections. I continue to grow in admiration of him as I get older. Unfortunately, it’s too late to express my feelings to Dad, so I am left, like Matt, shoveling dirt on old pain.
On the other hand, I could also understand Henry Saracen, who I have seen alive dealing with his son on FNL. I have in some ways become Henry, and my own Dad. I am separated by hundreds of miles from my family as I give all my time to my job. The year before I took this position, I was at home but unemployed. The pressure on our already stressed family was immense. Finding no position that would support us locally after 9 months of unemployment, I left town in search of work.
The financial pressures have lessened, but my absence from my kids especially troubles me. They are growing up, as Matt Saracen did, without a father present in the home. I am afraid that they will have to go through the same experience that he did in “The Son”. I don’t want them to have to deal with that pain.
I just hope they stick with God, and me. I don’t have the answers. God does, though.
The Bible tells the story of a woman named Hannah who had a family situation that was not optimum. Her husband had another wife. Although Hannah was her husband’s favorite, she was childless. The second wife, who was fertile, made Hannah’s life miserable by trash talking about the latter’s barrenness, The other wife, Peninnah, did this to deal with her own pain over having to play second fiddle to Hannah in her husband’s affections.
The taunting brought Hannah to tears, and not just once. The Scriptures say she wept every time she experienced Peninnah’s attacks, and was so distraught during these occasions that she couldn’t even eat.
At the beginning of its discussion about Hannah, the Life Recovery Bible notes;
“Living in a dysfunctional family does not automatically mean that an individual will turn away from God. Neither does turning to God guarantee that the problems of a destructive family situation will go away. Reaching out to God, however, does ensure that we will have a far better chance of coping despite the devastating circumstances.”
If I were writing the sequel to “The Son”, I would have Matt Saracen on his knees in prayer. This is the action Hannah took in her grief. She prayed. God answered her prayers and gave her a son.
Yet, despite the answered prayer, Hannah still had to give up being physically present with her child. In fulfillment of a vow to God, she sent her son Samuel off to be raised in the Temple in Jerusalem.
As a result, in God’s plan, Samuel became the leader of the nation of Israel from all of this.
It’s hard to understand why the barren Hannah would have to give up a son when she finally gets one after years of pleading. But my experiences as an educator help me grasp it some. As a teacher, I occasionally tell my students when they question me,”I know what I am doing.” God tells us the same thing.
I don’t understand why I experienced the things Matt Saracen did as a child or why I have become Henry Saracen. It’s complicated.
But God has a plan, and He knows what he is doing. The Scriptures say He loves me, and I have to rely on that. But my response to my circumstances shouldn’t stop there. I have to do more than passively receive His love.
One of the most oft-quoted Bible passages of all time tells me how I should respond. Not only that, it tells me why.
“And we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them. For God knew his people in advance, and he chose them to become like his Son, so that his Son would be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. And having chosen them, he called them to come to him. And having called them, he gave them right standing with himself. And having given them right standing, he gave them his glory.
What shall we say about such wonderful things as these? If God is for us, who can ever be against us? Since he did not spare even his own Son but gave him up for us all, won’t he also give us everything else.” (Romans 8:28-32.)
God is a much better Father than Henry Saracen, my own Dad and me. I can trust Him to take care of my life and the lives of those I care about.