For most of us, the hit TV show "Friday Night Lights" is escapist entertainment, a fantasy world featuring top-flight football and unimaginable pressure acted out by impossibly attractive actors. Matthew Stafford isn't like most of us. When the No. 1 pick in the 2009 NFL Draft tunes into the drama series about high-stakes Texas high school football, he's checking for accuracy. The former Georgia Bulldog and current Detroit Lions rookie QB lived Friday Night Lights and emerged from the pressure cooker a champ, leading Highland Park (Dallas) to the 2005 Class 4A, Division I state title as a senior. This past summer, the former Gatorade Texas Player of the Year took a trip down memory lane when he joined Kevin Durant as a presenter at the 2009 Gatorade High School Athlete of the Year luncheon in downtown Los Angeles. After watching Stafford mingle with a new a generation of prep stars, one thing was clear: "I still feel a little more comfortable with the high school kids than I do the pros," he admitted. "But that should change pretty quickly." Maybe, but all indications are that Stafford won't soon forget where he came from.
ESPN RISE: Is winning a Texas high school football state title everything we imagine it to be?
Stafford: It really is. It's up there with everything I've accomplished on the field. Playing high school football is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. You grow up with these guys. We all played football together from seventh grade on. Having the chance to win a Texas state championship with guys I've known for so long is something I'll never forgot. I still keep in touch with those guys. Some of my friends from college are still my good friends, but high school was special. I actually brought a high school buddy with me to the ESPY Awards this year, just to kick it. We had a blast, seeing Kobe and all the stars. I still get star struck. Next, I'd really like to meet Will Smith. He seems like a cool dude.
ESPN RISE: We'd like to hook you up, but we're not that connected. In high school, you graced the cover of [RISE] magazine. Is it possible to keep a level head when you're getting so much national recognition?
Stafford: Back in high school, I was just a typical kid. We played golf on the weekends, went to the movies and hung out like everyone else. But winning the Gatorade Texas High School Football Player of the Year, for example, was such a cool moment. It's a prestigious award. They brought it out during a pep rally, and I had a chance to hold it up in front of the school. Everyone was excited for me. Being on the cover of a magazine like RISE was always exciting, too. My mom would go out and buy all the copies she could find and send them to my grandmother and all my family. As a high school kid, when you're on the cover of a magazine, it's a pretty cool deal.
ESPN RISE: What was your postgame plan on a typical Friday night: pizza with teammates, hit up a party or head home with mommy?
Stafford: For me it was pizza with friends, mixed with a party (laughs). We'd grab the pizza and take it to a party. Is that an option? (laughs). I mean, it depends on the weekend, how big the game was and how big we won. After the state championship, it was a party for sure.
ESPN RISE: What sports were you into besides football?
Stafford: I played basketball my freshman year. I wasn't that bad. I could shoot a little bit. I probably had a shot at playing varsity my sophomore year, but I knew I wasn't going to be the next Kevin Durant so I hung 'em up. I was better at baseball. I caught and pitched and played shortstop on our summer league team and I started at short for our varsity team, but I quit after my sophomore season. It was time to focus on football.
ESPN RISE: What do you miss most about high school?
Stafford: That high school was just so easy. No bills to pay or anything like that. We only had two things to do: go to school and play football. And chasing girls would be the third (laughs). It was a great time, and you get to forge some strong relationships.
ESPN RISE: So, you did the chasing? Or did the girls chase you?
Stafford: Actually, it was probably a little bit of both.
ESPN RISE: What's your one regret about high school?
Stafford: Oh, man. I guess it's not throwing a touchdown pass in our state championship win. We ran the ball all over the place. Coming into the game, they knew we could throw it, so the defense dropped back. My buddy, Jake [Feldt], our running back, ended up tying Cedric Benson for most TDs in a championship game with five. And we won, 59-0, so I can't really complain, right?
ESPN RISE: When did you realize you had the potential to be a pro?
Stafford: I've always wanted to be a pro. I always believed I could do it. But I didn't let that affect my focus. It wasn't until probably my sophomore year in college, when I started to get recognition and people started saying I could be a high draft pick, that I knew I could play in the NFL.
ESPN RISE: What advice would you give high school athletes trying to get to that level?
Stafford: Just find something that inspires you and really makes you work hard. Maybe you're trying to improve your family's situation, moving them into a better area. Or maybe you're doing it for a coach who inspired you. Maybe it's proving somebody wrong. You just need to find a reason to get out of bed in the morning an hour earlier than everybody else, to work harder than everybody else.
ESPN RISE: You lived "Friday Night Lights." What's your review?
Stafford: It's pretty accurate. It's unbelievable the following you get playing football in Texas. It really does shut the town down. And it's great preparation for college. I mean, I was doing on-camera interviews in high school. It's just wild how much attention Texas high school football gets. They got that part right. The girls, too. Obviously, the ones in that show are Hollywood girls. But Texas does have some pretty hot girls.
Sam Alipour is based in Los Angeles. His Media Blitz column appears regularly in ESPN The Magazine and occasionally on Page 2. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.