The sun has barely come up on this chill Monday morning in Dillon, Texas, a small town with one thing on its mind: football. In four short days, the Dillon Panthers face off against the Westerby Mustangs. The Panther's new coach, Eric Taylor, has a news crew following him around as he prepares for an early morning practice, which adds to the intense pressure he's already facing as the coach of Texas' number one high school team.
Backup quarterback Matt Saracen makes his grandmother her lunch before heading out to practice with buddy Landry Clarke, an insomniac who is not on the team. Across town, team running back Tim Riggins starts his day with a nasty hangover and some kisses from girlfriend Tyra Collette. Elsewhere, Panther cheerleader Lyla Garrity is off to her own practice with some words from her parents not to spend her entire night with boyfriend Jason Street, the team's star quarterback.
Coach Taylor and Jason Street have been linked ever since Jason played peewee football. According to a Notre Dame scout, Street might be the best player he's ever seen. But there are other strong players, players like the fast-talking Brian "Smash" Williams who will speak to anything, except his deceased father and allegations of racism on the squad.
At the local greasy spoon where the team hangs out, Matt and Landry approach Julie Taylor, the coach's aloof daughter. The boys ask to eat lunch with her, but she turns them away with a cold shoulder and an explanation, "I don't eat with football players." And no, it doesn't matter to her that Landry isn't even on the team. In fact, no one seems that impressed with Matt. Later in the day, even his grandmother doesn't looked pleased by his abilities with a football when she watches him practice throwing it through a tire.
Even though Matt and Landry struck out, it doesn't mean that love isn't in the air. That night, Jason Street and Layla share a private moment as Friday night looms ever closer.
All is not bliss in the Taylor home. Mrs. Tami Taylor wants to move into a better house but her husband is too preoccupied with football to really listen, while his distant daughter is hung up reading "Moby Dick," feeling that the novel is the perfect analogy for their town and its football obsession.
Coach Taylor learns from an assistant that Westerby plays a tough defense and that their front line is tall, which will make it difficult for the Panthers to follow the ball. Taylor is reminded that his only option is to win the game. With expectations at an all-time high, the only place for him to go is down.
It seems that the whole town, including the mayor, is out for the opening gala of a new automobile dealership. But what really makes the event memorable is an appearance by Coach Taylor and his entire team. Everyone is thrilled except for Tami and Julie - neither seem that excited about football or the whole scene. After the speeches, Tami is reluctantly dragged into the local wives' book club.
At the party, the mayor gives some football advice to Jason Street, the town's businessmen try to tell Taylor how to run his team, a middle-age woman comes onto Tim Riggens without shame, and Tyra does her best to persuade Street to leave his goodie-goodie girlfriend and taste something a little wilder. Later on, Tim isn't happy when he catches Smash flirting with Tyra.
The Thursday night before the game, most of the team assembles to throw back some beers and talk about the future - living large in Texas.
After a long, hot summer of anticipation, the big day arrives and the game gets underway. Dillon scores early but Westerby takes the ball to the end zone on their first scrimmage. Early in the second quarter, Dillon regains the lead with a perfect Street pass to Smash, who takes the pigskin to goal. But Westerby evens up the score almost immediately after regaining the ball.
The second half begins, and the Panthers look out of sorts as Westerby goes on the attack. Nothing seems to be working for Dillon as they look completely out of synch and Westerby takes the lead with only six minutes left on the clock.
Dillon regroups and Street calls the play. The ball is snapped, Street falls back and lets the ball fly, but it's intercepted by Westerby who runs it back toward the end zone. Street goes in for the tackle, colliding hard with the Westerby player who fumbles the ball. Street goes down... and he doesn't get up. The coach blows the whistle and medics race to the field as silence falls over the stadium. The medics get him on a stretcher and take him away in an ambulance as the crowd applauds for their fallen hero.
With the score 24 to 14 and Street off the field, a shocked Matt Saracen is called to lead the team into battle. With some help from Smash, Matt calls the play and takes his first snap. But they called the wrong play and Matt gets drilled by the other team.
Another snap. Matt takes the ball and lets a pass fly, hitting the back of one of his own player's heads. Taylor gives Matt some encouraging words and Matt returns to the field for the next play. He gets the ball and shuttle passes it to Smash for a first down. Matt calls the next play, takes the snap, and gets the ball to Smash, who takes it for a touchdown!
On the next play, Westerby turns over the ball and Matt's back in the spotlight. He gets the ball, drops back to pass, fakes, and hands it off to Smash for a first-down run. With the clock ticking down and the crowd going crazy, the ball is snapped and Matt gets off a perfect throw. The ball soars through the air and lands in Smash's capable hands. Smash runs it to the end zone. Panthers win!
But things aren't looking so good at the hospital. As doctors work on Jason, the team arrives with somber looks and wet eyes. Lyla breaks down completely as she and the rest of the team wait for news of Jason's condition.