Want to know what’s great about high school? You learn at an impressionable age that rankings matter. The producers of Friday Night Lights certainly realized this back in 2006. Why else would they have kicked off the TV version of the Buzz Bissinger book by very clearly establishing that All-American Jason Street was QB1 of the esteemed Dillon Panthers football team while lanky, 5-foot-9 Matt Saracen was QB2? These guys played to win, not for a participation trophy. The pecking order was even more relevant and prevalent off the field—as well it should have been.
It’s been almost nine years since Coach and Tami Taylor (Kyle Chandler and Connie Britton) uprooted from Texas to Philadelphia in the series finale with their irrepressible clear-eyes, full-hearts, can’t-lose approach to life. And in those nine years, the cast has dispersed and embarked on their solo careers with various measures of success. Usually, we wait until a nice, round-numbered anniversary to reflect on the significance and afterlife of a top-shelf TV series. But our current moment demands that we revisit the cast now and take stock of where everyone stands. This Oscar season alone, three Friday Night Lights stars are appearing in high-profile films—Jesse Plemons in The Irishman, Connie Britton in Bombshell, and Michael B. Jordan in Just Mercy. And yet, as is true to life, other grads peaked in high school.
To devise this post-FNL power ranking, I considered any actor in possession of a four-episode-minimum and/or fleshed-out narrative arc. I then factored in IMDB résumés, public awareness, social media visibility, and miscellaneous X factors like “engaged to Kirsten Dunst.” Recent contributions outweigh appearances on the equally beloved but dearly departed Parenthood. Some of you will probably take umbrage with some of the results, but as Tami Taylor taught me early on, you can’t please everybody.
46. Madilyn Elizabeth Landry (Gracie Belle Taylor)
When a baby arrives mid-TV series, it’s usually a sign that said series needs to shake things up! But li’l Gracie Belle Taylor, bless her heart, essentially blended into the wallpaper of Chandler’s kitchen. Landry—it’s unclear whether she’s related to the legendary Cowboys coach—left the industry post-finale, which means we’ll probably never know whether she grew up to be a Mary-Kate or an Ashley.
45. Jeff Rosick (Buddy Garrity Jr.)
Ponder this: Had hot-headed booster Buddy Garrity named his son Sean or Rick, perhaps he would have chosen a different path. Alas, Junior grew up estranged from his dad, only to end up playing football at East Dillon in the last season, only to end up drinking and smoking pot in between games. In real life, Rosick has mostly stayed behind the scenes, producing and composing music for a few short films.
44. Timothy F. Crowley (Coach Crowley)
43. Russell DeGrazier (Coach Traub)
42. Aaron Spivey-Sorrells (Coach Spivey)
41. Blue Deckert (Coach Mac McGill)
The men who worked for Coach Taylor all earned their stripes pre-FNL. Behold Crowley’s bio: A professional football consultant, he supervises football officials for the Sooner Athletic Conference, was an original member of the Big 12 conference staff, and he’s been a college football official since 1984! And according to this interview, his easiest subject in school was English literature. Meanwhile, Deckert appeared in seven episodes of Walker, Texas Ranger. You’re all hired!
40. Gil McKinney (Derek Bishop)
We all make mistakes in college. Julie Taylor made hers about two seconds into her freshman year when she hooked up with her T.A. Though, to her credit, McKinney did have the wavy-hair, square-jaw features to be Prince Eric for two seasons on ABC’s Once Upon a Time.
39. Brandon Smith (Vice Principal Trucks)
38. Peter Malof (Principal Brecker)
37. David Born (Superintendent Dunley)
These leathery-looking character actors had the gravitas to consistently stick it to the revered football coach and his equally revered administrator wife. Since FNL, they’ve kept on truckin’ in bit roles. Born has 67 assorted credits since the turn of the century alone and still bills himself on his IMDB profile as a “licensed auctioneer and internationally recognized impressionist and stand-up comedian.”
36. Stacey Oristano (Mindy Collette Riggins)
Mindy married a Riggins, walking down the aisle to a lovely rendition of “Baby, I Love Your Way” in the Season 3 finale. They had twins! And memories! Then she was a nurse on three episodes of Grey’s Anatomy in 2018, which isn’t a bad gig, but it also isn’t that remarkable. A thing that you don’t realize is that every Friday Night Lights actor plays a doctor or nurse on Grey’s Anatomy. (Basically.) At least Chandler had the distinction of portraying a member of the bomb squad in the famous 2006 post–Super Bowl episode—but that was just before he nabbed the Coach Taylor role and before Grey’s jumped several sharks.
35. Matt Lauria (Luke Cafferty)
Lauria had already done time as a love interest on NBC’s wonky Sex and the City–wannabe Lipstick Jungle when he was cast as the good-guy running back forced to play for East Dillon because of pesky zoning issues. After FNL, he zipped right back into adulthood, taking prominent roles in a few series you’ve probably never heard of (Kingdom, The Chicago Code). He’s also featured in the new Hailee Steinfeld comedy Dickinson, which is about to premiere on Apple TV+. She gets top billing.
34. Adrianne Palicki (Tyra Collette)
This one hurts.
Look, Palicki has worked steadily for the past decade: A two-year run on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is respectable; feel free to make a case for The Orville. But, oh, what could have been for the onetime Tyra Collette, the blue-collar beauty who had the moxie to rip into her guidance counselor for suggesting that she didn’t have the grades to get into a top Texas college and later declared, “Now I can’t stop wanting.” Back in 2011, she was cast as Wonder Woman for a much-ballyhooed small-screen reboot of the classic 1970s series. David E. Kelley of Ally McBeal and Big Little Lies fame wrote the pilot. But NBC passed. Six years later, Gal Gadot took the golden lasso and ran with it. Palicki has said she’s made peace with the decision because “everything happens for a reason.” In Palicki’s situation, that translates to: “NBC didn’t foresee the superhero surge and so instead I got murdered in the first John Wick.” As is always the case with Tyra, you’re left wanting more for her.
33. Kathleen Griffith (Margaret Cafferty)
32. Angela Rawna (Regina Howard)
31. Katherine Willis (Joanne Street)
30. Liz Mikel (Corrina Williams)
29. Brent Smiga (Henry Saracen)
28. Merrilee McCommas (Pam Garrity)
27. Barry Tubb (Tom Cafferty)
We’ve now reached the parent portion of this list. Individually speaking, none of these actors are household names except in their own households. (Though please note that Tubb was Wolfman in Top Gun.) But together, these actors dispensed a healthy dose of concern and care and tough love. Since FNL, they’ve earned paychecks via assorted TV pilots and series: McCommas had a recurring role in Season 2 of ABC’s American Crime; Smiga showed up in an episode of The Leftovers in 2015; Tubb appeared in a 2014 TV movie with Lauren Ambrose … at least he was also in Top Gun, I guess?
26. Matt Czuchry (Chris Kennedy)
After dating Rory Gilmore, Czuchry dropped by Texas for an ill-conceived arc as a straight-laced Christian radio host who wooed Minka Kelly’s Lyla Gerrity. (It didn’t end well). The actor then fell upward to The Good Wife, where he needled Alicia Florrick (in a good way!) at Lockhart/Gardner. He’s now in doctor mode on the Fox drama The Resident. Bonus points for not doing his internship at Grey’s Anatomy.
25. Madison Burge (Becky Sproles)
Otherwise known as the lost soul who befriended Tim Riggins and hooked up with Luke and got pregnant and aborted the baby in Season 4. Tami Taylor was mixed up in all this, which led to her losing her job as the Dillon principal. It was a mess. After all that, the actress who played Becky changed her name to Dora Madison and enjoyed a 17-episode stint on Chicago Fire from 2015-16. Getting into the Dick Wolf business = smart move.
23. Grey Damon (Hastings Ruckle)
What’s a better Texas high school football name: Grey Damon or Hastings Ruckle? Anyway, Coach recruited Hastings during the end of his tenure at East Dillon, and he failed to make much of an impression on the show. But the guy was just getting started (or, at least relatively; if this exercise has taught me anything, it’s that the Friday Night Lights cast has not been universally successful in the last nine years). Damon now stars in the Grey’s Anatomy spinoff Station 19. In other news, there’s a Grey’s Anatomy spinoff called Station 19.
22. Aimee Teegarden (Julie Taylor)
Hey Julie. Teegarden, a former model, was just 16 when she was cast as the coach’s daughter. She inherited her parents’ bullishness and was far surlier than that cheerleading extracurricular activity would suggest. Teegarden went on to star in several short-lived TV series and appeared on The Ranch.
21. Gaius Charles (Brian “Smash” Williams)
The great Smash Williams was one of the stand-out characters during the early years of FNL. Talented running back, almost threw it all away because of steroids; would have languished at the Alamo Freeze if not for Coach Taylor’s assistance. As for the actor who played Smash, Williams booked a role as a medical intern on Grey’s Anatomy a few years ago and appeared on the NBC crime drama Aquarius in 2015 and 2016. Since then, he, uh, was on the Taken TV show and also briefly on CBS’s God Friended Me. In other words, the actor will continue to be ID’ed as Smash until further notice.
20. Emily Rios (Epyck)
There’s a solid chance you watched Rios play doomed single mom Andrea on Breaking Bad with an extra-emotional attachment because you’ve known her since she was Epyck in high school, Tami Taylor’s pet project in FNL’s last season. Andrea was a pretty good role for her.
19. Jeremy Sumpter (J.D. McCoy)
18. D. W. Moffett (Joe McCoy)
17. Janine Turner (Katie McCoy)
It’s probably not fair to lump the McCoys all together. Here’s what else isn’t fair: Conspiring to fire Coach Taylor because (a) he didn’t play your son in the state championship game and (b) he lodged a complaint to child protective services because you’re such an abusive monster. Ugh. To play the aggressive and conniving elder J.D. McCoy, producers turned to Moffett—a reliable onscreen jerk since the 1980s. He was recently killed off Chicago Med. Turner, his put-upon onscreen wife, will forever be known as the Alaskan Shiksa goddess to Dr. Joel Fleischman on Northern Exposure. She recently appeared in Patsy & Loretta, that Lifetime movie about Patsy Cline and Loretta Lynn. That leaves Sumpter, a child star and model who played the title role in an awful 2003 movie version of Peter Pan. He’s now a journeyman actor who has somehow not yet played a minor role in a Netflix romcom.
16. Louanne Stephens (Mrs. Saracen)
Dear Mrs. Saracen had a heart the size of Texas and single-handedly raised a gem of a grandson. When she fell ill, he became an emancipated minor so he could legally care for her. Chew on that, Riverdale Gen Zers. I’m only sorry that Stephens didn’t, say, slay a few dragons in the finale of Game of Thrones so she could rank higher on this list. A starring role as Ruby on Longmire a few years ago must suffice.
15. Zach Gilford (Matt Saracen)
You’ve got to appreciate that Saracen moved to Chicago to study art. This shy, sensitive jock was never going to make it in the NFL, let alone red-shirt it in college ball. For his part, Gilford has skipped around various series since he proposed to Julie in the series finale. And in a truly delicious off-screen twist, the actor who played a beloved character on a network TV series is married to Kiele Sanchez, who played a reviled character on a network TV series. (Nikki. Lost. Enough said.) They now have a daughter.
14. Derek Phillips (Billy Riggins)
I’d like to say that Riggins was a supportive and encouraging big brother, except he ran a chop shop and let Tim take the blame and sit in jail for the crime. Anyway! Phillips is one of those sturdy actors who looks familiar but you can’t quite place and makes you wish that someone would invent a Shazam app for TV. His credits include The Mentalist (2015), Chicago P.D. (2015), Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D (2015-16), Shooter (2018), and Criminal Minds (2018). Plus, the Netflix anime series Gods & Heroes is coming in 2020. Good for Billy.
13. Minka Kelly (Lyla Garrity)
Just imagine being Minka Kelly in 2011. Not only did the doe-eyed, sweet-voiced onscreen overachiever land a starring role in the NBC version of Charlie’s Angels (this was back when broadcast TV still mattered), she also was three years into a relationship with a New York Yankee named Derek Jeter. Both soon fizzled out. Her acting career has since been a bit of a curious grab bag, with roles on Jane the Virgin and Titans. Judging by her Instagram account—she has a robust 710,000 followers—she’s more attuned with promoting the nonprofit Able lifestyle brand than her acting. She recently designed a clutch for the company, which seeks to empower women as a solution to ending poverty. She’s also presumably not rooting for the Marlins.
12. Scott Porter (Jason Street)
It’s a testament to Porter’s affability as Jason Street that 13 years later, we still wish him well. His acting gigs have included Hart of Dixie, The Good Wife, Scorpion, and a recently completed three-episode arc as a baddie husband on the CBS All Access anthology series Why Women Kill. Good times! Please do check out his Twitter feed, in which he fundraises for charity and expounds on his NFL picks. Also his Instagram, in which he posted this photo with [checks long list of notes] Glen Powell, Glee’s Chord Overstreet, Winston from New Girl, Kelsey Grammer’s daughter, and Bachelor contestants (??) Kristina Schulman and Whitney Fransway.
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Here’s to good friends, livin large. Texas. Forever. Didn’t know how badly I needed a weekend like this until we were having it. Left the world behind for two days and acted like children again with my ❤️ and some incredible friends. What a blessing. #TBT to last weekend. #AdultSummerCamp
What an odd collection of sort of famous people.
11. Taylor Kitsch (Tim Riggins)
Let’s not kid ourselves here. Kitsch was poised to be the Jared Leto–esque breakout star of the FNL ensemble. That’s what happens when you inject a soulful personality into the role of a tormented ex-football hero constantly fighting his demons and cast a Canadian hockey player who can brood with the best of them. Kitsch also played Tim with depth and breadth, maturing as the series progressed. He should be collaborating with Darren Aronofsky or David Fincher right now. But almost a decade into his big-screen career, he’s still searching for The Role. Diving head-first into ham-fisted, big-budget popcorn fare like X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Battleship and John Carter was mistake no. 1. Chopping his hair was mistake no. 2. He atoned somewhat with the Vince Vaughn–Rachel McAdams iteration of True Detective, but his character is perhaps best known for looking at a bunch of documents and breathlessly saying, “These contracts ... signatures all over ’em.” So yeah, it has been less than great for Taylor Kitsch. But hey, next up is the drama 21 Bridges with Chadwick Boseman on Nov. 22. A little Black Panther magic can’t hurt.
10. Brad Leland (Buddy Garrity)
The former high school jock turned classically trained theater actor (!) admits he’s made a living playing “bad guys, rednecks, cowboys and all those sidekick-type characters.” Put ’em all in a blender and you’ve got Buddy Garrity, the pushy-yet-weirdly-endearing no. 1 football booster in Dillon. I choose to believe there’s more than a little bit of Buddy in Leland—he did, after all, also appear in the 2004 Friday Night Lights movie, albeit in a different role. And after the Lights went out, he refused to just kick back and relax with a beer. Witness: His brass-tacks 2016 presidential campaign . . . against one Selina Meyer.
9. Aldis Hodge (Ray “Voodoo” Tatum)
He appeared in just a few episodes in Season 1, but an arrogant high school QB nicknamed Voodoo sticks in the memory bank. He quickly exited Dillon without looking back, and Hodge himself moved in the same direction. After an acclaimed turn in Underground, he was cast opposite Kevin Bacon in the Showtime crime drama City on a Hill and will appear in the death-row drama Clemency (out December 27). Come February, you can catch him in the remake of The Invisible Man with Elisabeth Moss. I guess Voodoo did have the most promise after all.
8. Kim Dickens (Shelby Saracen)
7. Cress Williams (Ornette Howard)
Right, like I’d omit the Dillon parents that ostensibly deserve spots in the hall of shame. Recap: Shelby abandoned her son, Matt, in the wake of a divorce; Ornette was hauled off to jail on a drug bust and became estranged from his son, Vince. In real life, though, things have gone pretty well! Seasoned actors Dickens and Williams—who enhanced Lost, ER, Veronica Mars and Beverly Hills 90210 in their heyday —have gone on to carry their own Comic-Con-approved series with Fear the Walking Dead and Black Lightning, respectively. After those shows inevitably end, Williams and Dickens will continue to work in perpetuity.
6. Jurnee Smollett-Bell (Jess Merriweather)
The former child actress—her plucky character broke ground as the first female equipment manager for the East Dillon team—has been knocking on the door of stardom for decades. Now she’s finally lined up to be an overnight sensation thanks to her role as martial arts specialist Black Canary in the upcoming Harley Quinn–DC spinoff Birds of Prey, which has to be an improvement over Suicide Squad. She’s also a regular on the Jordan Peele–and–J.J. Abrams–produced, 1950-set drama series Lovecraft Country, set to premiere in 2020 on HBO.
5. Jana Kramer (Noelle Davenport)
Noelle dated Smash in Season 1, and if you tell me that you hold the character close to your heart, then you’re liar. The reason why she reached top-five status is because after FNL, she established herself as an American Music Award–nominated country music star who now has 1.8 million Twitter followers. Also, I can’t lie: Another reason she’s so high on this list is because she’s been jaw-droppingly candid about her checkered marriage to ex-NFL tight end and admitted sex addict Mike Caussin. Seriously, Google it. The woman is helping keep celebrity gossip sites in business.
4. Kyle Chandler (Coach Eric Taylor)
“Tell you what we are gonna do. We’re going to take this energy that we have and we’re gonna take this anger that we have and we’re gonna use it to kick their ass where it counts, on the field. Is that understood?” Yes, coach!!!!! Wise, warm, and unwavering, Chandler was so convincing in his Emmy-winning role that he’s become typecast as an authoritative figure in nearly all his subsequent films. Ready for the role call? Argo (chief of staff!), First Man (NASA boss!), Zero Dark Thirty (CIA!), Godzilla: King of the Monsters (doctor of science!), and Manchester by the Sea (responsible older brother and father!) Such a sweet relief when he unleashed his ne’er-do-well side in Game Night, though he even had a bit of authority in that movie since he played the older brother. Either way, my point is that Kyle Chandler has had a very solid post-FNL career, but also that someone should cast him as a villain.
3. Jesse Plemons (Landry Clarke)
Landry Clarke was a gawky academic and football misfit who never even should have made the JV squad. He also killed a guy. Yet, Plemons was so likable and so pure that we forgave him for nearly derailing the entire series. After FNL, Plemons used that good will to his advantage when he moved to Breaking Bad and, as psycho meth cook Todd, savagely offed innocent victims—including the aforementioned Andrea in a bit of a macabre Friday Night Lights crossover moment—with the casualness of ordering from Seamless. (Jesse Pinkman memorably described him as “Opie, dead-eyed piece of shit.”) Turns out that Plemons can do it all, from high-brow drama (The Master, The Post) to pitch-black comedy (Black Mirror, Fargo) and everything in between (Drunk History). You’ll soon see him play Jimmy Hoffa’s son in the Scorsese opus The Irishman. And he’s engaged to his Fargo costar Kirsten Dunst, and they have a son named Ennis. Plemons comes off like such an aw-shucks guy that he probably shrugs off his amazing ascent. Then again, he could just be fooling us.
2. Connie Britton (Tami Taylor)
The word “fierce” is thrown around a lot when it comes to describing a certain type of woman. Strong. Determined. Funny. Fearless. Instead, simply say “Connie Britton.” She’s made a career out of taking what could be thankless stock roles and giving them layers of humanity. Her Tami Taylor refused to just cheer from the sidelines, instead showing her verve as mother, wife, and guidance counselor turned principal turned dean. (Eric to Tami: “You know who I miss? The coach’s wife.” Her response: “You know who I’d like to meet? The principal’s husband.”)
Britton has proved her mettle again and again in the years since the show ended, effortlessly gliding from Nashville to American Horror Story to 911 to Dirty John. And for added oomph, that’s her as Roger Ailes’s salty wife Beth in the upcoming political-media sizzler Bombshell. This is the polished résumé of an in-demand actress who knows exactly what she wants.
1. Michael B. Jordan (Vince Howard)
Already a buzzy actor because of The Wire, Jordan used his two seasons on Friday Night Lights as a springboard to full-fledged movie stardom—to the point where the Vanity Fair cover boy made it acceptable for us to embrace two famous Michael Jordans in this universe. He accomplished this feat via a Ryan Coogler–directed trifecta: The actor showed vulnerability in the Fruitvale Station, expressed steel grit in Creed, and turned sinister in Black Panther. (Oscar pundits would insist that he just missed the Best Supporting Actor nomination cut for the latter.) In this December’s film festival favorite Just Mercy, he gets the chance to be idealistic as an attorney fighting to free a wrongly accused convict (Jamie Foxx) from death row. Thing is, Jordan illustrated all these attributes years ago as East Dillon quarterback Vince Howard. The slow-burn evolution from troubled teen headed for juvenile hall to noble leader on and off the field remains poignant redemption at its finest. But the show still needed a truly gifted actor to pull it off, and Jordan did so with aplomb. He will stay at the top of this power ranking for the foreseeable future—at least until Jesse Plemons shoots him in the head in some forthcoming Oscar winner.
Mara Reinstein is a New York City–based film critic and entertainment journalist who contributes to Us Weekly, Billboard, The Cut, HuffPost, and Parade.