"Friday Night Lights": Even Peyton is a fan

    EVANSTON, Ill. -- Zach Gilford, who plays the shy, awkward, coming-of-age quarterback on the best TV show on the planet, "Friday Night Lights," angled his Porsche 911 Carrera across two parking spaces, tossed the keys to the restaurant valet and paused to glance at his reflection in the just-polished basalt-black metallic hood of the German sports car. He wore aviator sunglasses, brushed suede pants tucked into his boots (ostrich skin?), no belt, a white Barney's logo T-shirt covered partly by an unbuttoned grey jacket, the Armani label easy to see as he tucked his BlackBerry into the inside pocket. He was 48 minutes late.

    "You Jim?" he said as I met him at the door.

    "Actually, it's Gene," I said. "From ESPN."

    "You sure? My publicist said Jim."

    "Uh, pretty sure. I can show you my company ID and everything."

    "They said Jim."

    "If it will help the interview, I can be Jim."

    Gilford didn't laugh. "Anyway, this is Arianna."

    I hadn't seen her get out of the car. Arianna was so beautiful my teeth hurt. She shook my hand with practiced indifference.

    "I've got a table in the corner," I said. "It should be quiet enough."

    Gilford scanned the restaurant. He was clearly disappointed.

    "Jim, here's the deal. We're going to have to reschedule."

    And then he was gone. Arianna's high heels clicked across the tile floor as she ran to catch up.

… No, not really.

I'm sorry, I couldn't help it. It's just that I've always wanted to write one of those Vanity Fair, having-drinks-with-the-TV/movie-star ledes -- you know, in which the writer finds profound meaning in the Cobb salad ordered by the celeb interviewee.

Yes, I did interview Gilford. He was back in his hometown -- on his own dime, by the way -- to help out his former Evanston Township High School volleyball coach, who now is the athletic director. ETHS just got stadium lights, so Gilford flew in for the first game and the ceremonial coin toss. His mom also works at the school, which has produced such notable alums as John and Joan Cusack, as well as Jeremy Piven.

And yes, we did meet at a neighborhood restaurant -- a cool little place with football helmets from each Big Ten school lined up behind the bar. Gilford pulled up in the same beater he drove in high school, a 14-year-old Chevy SUV with the sides of the tires scraped nearly raw. In fact, he was spending the weekend at his folks' house, in the same attic bedroom in which he grew up, with the same Cindy Crawford poster on the wall.

There were no Armani sightings. He wore jeans, a shirt, a pair of Jordans and a yellow LiveStrong wristband. There also were no Ariannas, although Gilford did mention his fashion-design girlfriend was back in L.A., where she works as a model on a TV game show. My first girlfriend worked at Arby's and wore a hairnet.

And just so you know, Gilford, 26, got his degree from nearby Northwestern but actually rooted for Michigan. (It's a long story.) He was raised on the North Side but would rather chug phlegm than see the Cubs win a World Series. Gilford is an Ozzie Guillen guy. A Bears guy (he owns an authentic Nathan Vasher Bears jersey). A Bulls guy (a high school friend tattooed "Pip 33" on him in honor of Scottie Pippen, and his dog is named Pippen).

Anyway, we were there to talk about him and "Friday Night Lights," a television series so achingly well written and well acted that it almost makes you want to go through high school again. Season 3 begins Oct. 1 on DIRECTV and again on NBC starting in February 2009. It isn't a perfect viewing arrangement, but it's better than waving goodbye to the series after Season 2.

Peyton Manning is a huge fan of the show, which chronicles the life and times of a small Texas town and its obsession with the high school football program. That's what Manning told Scott Porter, who plays Jason Street, the Dillon High star quarterback whose life is forever changed when he suffers a paralyzing spinal injury. Porter introduced himself to Manning not long after the Indianapolis Colts won Super Bowl XLI.

"I don't want to bother you," Porter said. "I just wanted to tell you congratulations on the Super Bowl."

"Hey," Manning said, "I just heard you got Season 2, so congratulations to you, too. I love that show. The only thing is, we never call the starter, 'QB1.' He's just the quarterback."

Here's the thing: Porter didn't tell Manning who he was; Manning just knew. And almost nobody in the cast uses the QB1 phrase anymore.

"If Peyton Manning says something about it, we can't do it," Gilford says.

There are a thousand reasons to watch "Friday Night Lights," and that's one of them -- the attention to detail. Plus, you can relate to the characters. I had a football coach like Kyle Chandler's coach Eric Taylor. I had a teammate like Taylor Kitsch's boozed-up fullback Tim Riggins. And nothing is more universal than the innocence, confusion and cruelty of high school years.

"On one show, they have more issues than we might face in three years," says Texas coach Mack Brown, who made a cameo appearance as a booster in Season 1 (he killed, by the way). "But they are real challenges that you can come across in a football program. People see the football each Friday and Saturday, but what they don't see is the life-changing experiences the kids have and the coaches deal with leading up to the game."

Gilford broke his leg playing football in eighth grade, and that was that. "I was never going to start on our varsity team," he says.

He went to nearby Northwestern, studied drama and education, got his degree, moved to New York, found a job making about $11 an hour selling outdoor clothing and gear, and gave himself two years to make it in acting.

The "Friday Night Lights" gig was a happy accident. Gilford initially read for the Tim Riggins part during a New York audition. During a later audition in L.A., the casting director asked him to read for the Matt Saracen part.

Gilford thought he was too old to play Saracen. Plus, the producers were trying to hire another actor for the part. But the other actor had a scheduling problem, and Gilford kept nailing the studio and network screen tests.

Weeks later, his agent called close to midnight as Gilford and a buddy were driving to Lake Tahoe for a cheapie ski trip. The part was his. Gilford celebrated by sleeping on a rental cabin floor for three nights.

The football is real. There's an A Team of former college football, Arena League and NFL players. "They hit hard, and they're good," Gilford says. And there's a B Team -- the players you see on the sidelines and in the Dillon High locker room.

Gilford, who went through a week of football camp before filming Season 1, has taken hits and made throws. His football double is a former college quarterback from Trinity University in San Antonio. And if you remember the episodes involving a character named Voodoo, well, his football double was former Texas quarterback James Brown.

Season 2 wasn't as compelling as Season 1. It was good, but it wasn't as good. There were plot twists that lacked authenticity. The Season 3 scripts, Gilford says, are much improved.

"It's middle-class America," he says. "That's what our show is. I think we do a great job of not caricaturing people. … The coolest thing is when people come up to me and say, 'I grew up in Texas, and that's exactly what it's like.'"

Some fans are smarter than others. Gilford's Saracen often talks in an eyes-down, halting cadence that has caused at least one fan to ask whether he stuttered in real life. Another fan asked whether Porter, whose character becomes a paraplegic in the pilot episode, is actually wheelchair bound.

About 30 minutes before kickoff in Evanston, I follow Gilford to the high school. By pure chance, he runs into the same buddy who tattooed "Pip 33" on him.

"Dude, I actually saw your show the other night," the friend says. "It's not that bad."

Gilford is introduced to the crowd and makes his way to midfield for the coin toss. The Maine West captain calls heads. Gilford's coin lands tails.

"Way to go, Zach," the public address announcer says as Gilford walks back to the sideline in a steady drizzle.

Gilford poses for cell phone pictures with the cheerleading squad. Three other girls ask him for photo ops. Teachers stop by for hellos and hugs.

It's raining harder now, but Gilford sticks it out. He finds his sister Eliza and his parents, Anne and Steve, in the stands and takes a seat on the wet metal bleacher.

It's something Matt Saracen would have done.

Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at gene.wojciechowski@espn3.com.