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Behind the Scenes of Friday Night Lights

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Brian "Smash" Williams takes the handoff.

Crack! A defender immediately levels him.

A confused, angry Smash shakes off the hit and looks around the practice field in defiance. Nearby, an assistant chants, "Hit squad, hit squad," high-fiivng players.

Cut. Actor Gaius Charles, a.k.a. Smash Williams, has some fake sweat applied to his arm and then does the scene all again.

According to the Dallas Morning News, this tackle is as close to real as it comes on television's Texas football-baes series, Friday Night Lights.

And the added layer of sweat is downright unnecessary as intense heat radiates on the Austin set on this September day as the critically acclaimed show fights its way into a second season, which premieres Friday on NBC.

Street Mentors Saracen

Nothing has been easy for Friday Night Lights, which suffered high expectations and so-so ratings its first season. Cast and crew were left hanging as network execs waited seemingly until the last minute to pick up the show.

"All of us expected to come back," says Scott Porter, who portrays Jason Street, a former star quarterback now in a wheelchair.

"We knew what we'd done quality-wise. We try not to pay attention to ratings, but we know we live in a fast-food world."

A resurgent Jason Street faces bigger challenges in Friday Night Lights' second season as some feeling returns to his hands.

"The new coach calls him the mascot," Mr. Porter says of his character. "He looks at him as handicapped and not as a real person. Street has recurring dreams of walking, and that sends him on a soul-searching journey."

The second-season pickup comes with other changes.

Producers say the show will focus more on character relationships and less on football. And six days are allotted to shoot each episode, rather than the eight days allowed during the first season.

"The style still has not changed. We're still on the fly," Brad Leland, a Dallas native and actor who plays sleazy booster Buddy Garrity, said.

"It's like we never left."

Indeed, the show has spread its roots at the site of the former Del Valle High School, which was closed and moved when a former Air Force base was transformed into Austin's airport a few years ago.

Action on Hermann Field slows as an airplane dips toward a nearby runway.

An end zone sign brags of the fictional 2006 state title and 55 consecutive games won, following on the tradition of state titles in '68, '78, '81, '82 and '98.

Ads tout businesses in fictional Dillon, Texas, such as Lucky Tie Cleaners. The plastic smell of the squishy artificial turf, which is interspersed with blades of dead grass and dirt, radiates in the blaring sun.

The crew hides from the sun whenever possible under a few umbrellas on rolling carts as a standing Porter escorts his wheelchair to the field.

"I told you he was faking," jokes star Kyle Chandler, the coach who leaves his team for a college job at the start of the season.

Nearby, Zack Gilford, who plays quarterback Matt Saracen, tosses a football to Jesse Plemons. Yes, the Dallas native's quirky character, Landry Clarke, is suited up for football this year.

"Is there water down there?" a crew member asks.

"That's the question of the day," another replies.

The camera tracks Benny Ciaramello as he runs back and forth on the field. Mr. Ciaramello is Santiago, a troubled kid trying out for the team.

The exertion got to him earlier in the day and Raigen Thornton, the set's resident paramedic, had to be called in.

"Every day there's someone who won't drink for 30 minutes and they get in trouble," Thornton says. "The biggest thing is to keep up rehydration."

Thornton is an example of what Friday Night Lights has meant to the Austin film industry, much as Prison Break has made an impact in North Texas.

He was working on an offshore oil rig in 1994 when he first noticed the listing in a movie's credits for a paramedic.

The former Odessa police officer, who also fought fires in Kuwait with Red Adair, has since worked on 72 projects, including 53 films.

"I'm sleeping in my own bed," he says of working on Friday Night Lights. "I get to see my wife and my kids growing up."

Cut to the field house.

Signs on the wall read "Tradition never graduates" and "Your opponent got better today, did you?"

In the head coach's office, game tape plays on a TV screen.

Issues of Texas Football magazine are scattered on the coffee table.

In the next room the season football schedule lists imaginary games against imaginary cities Harp, Brickhouser, Chicon.

On the wall is again the listing of Dillon's state championships with - oops - a couple more added for '58 and '62.

Coaches and players gather around the weight room as bad boy Ciaramello easily bench-presses 275 pounds. An assistant coach attempts to add more weight but fumbles with the latch.

"Coach, I don't believe you spend enough time in here," Chandler says with a grin. The added weight in place, Ciaramello huffs and puffs and hoists the barbell aloft. "Let's see if he can paint a house," Chandler says.

The weights are made of plastic, and the assistant coach is Charles Green, whose real-world job is in an Austin restaurant.

He answered an online Craigslist ad last year for extras and ended up as Chandler's stand-in and with occasional stints as an assistant coach.

"Almost everybody you see here was here last year," Green says, pointing at the other assistants, including shoe salesman Pablo Flores, who wears a bandage on his arm to cover a tattoo that came in handy in portrayeding a thug at a Dillon neighborhood party in season one.

"My goal is for this to be full time," says Green, who is trying to get an agent. "I joke that I'm just working on the show until my bartending career takes off."

The show's actual stars remain tight-knit
.

Porter shares a home with Gilford, and the cast is known to spend downtime together at Lake Travis or playing basketball. "We're from all parts of the country, but we are a family here," Porter says.

Matt Richenthal is the Editor in Chief of TV Fanatic. Follow him on Twitter and on Google+.

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Friday Night Lights Quotes

Billy: Texas Forever.
Tim: Texas Forever.

I've wanted to do that ever since you first showed up.

Matt [kissing Julie]

Friday Night Lights Music

  Song Artist
Muzzle of bees Muzzle of Bees Wilco iTunes
Song Evergreen The Brian Jonestown Massacre
Song Bang a Gong (Get it On) T. Rex
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