The end of any game I ever played was always a little sad to me as an athlete. And so it is with Friday Night Lights, which begins airing its final season tonight on NBC (8 PM ET/PT). Many people have already seen its final episodes, either in firstrun on DirecTV or on the DVDs released two weeks ago, but this will be the last broadcast run of what some have called one of the best shows in television history.

I don't know if I'd go that far myself - as I've only watched the fourth season and part of season five - but already, I know that this is still a moment worth recognizing. I know that there's something special about this show.

Several somethings, in fact.

I love the fact that it takes place in small-town America. Dillon, Texas isn't the same places we see on television all the time. We're so used to Los Angeles and New York, and if it's not that, it's usually another big city like Miami, Chicago, or Las Vegas. Not to knock on big cities - I live in one - but they're not all that's out there. There are equally important life stories being written all over this country. And Dillon is a real small town, not one created by our stereotypes of what small-town life or life in Texas should be.

That's the heart of Friday Night Lights for me. It feels real. I played football in high school myself - not on my school's football team, of course, because I'm a woman, but enough to know that when those characters are on the field, their feelings are real. I understand the adrenaline, the fear, the things that motivate them. When I watch these characters play, I have the urge to grab a football and go throw it around. (Actually, I busted a stereo speaker doing that.)  The show reminds me of those intangible feelings that make playing sports so great.

On the whole, though, Friday Night Lights is less about sports and more about the people whose lives happen to be a part of it, not unlike my favorite series, Sports Night. What both shows do so well is use the platform of sports to tell compelling stories about people. That authenticity extends off the field as well. In these characters, I see aspects of myself or people I went to school with. (I was probably the Luke Cafferty in my group, at least personality-wise.) Friday Night Lights doesn't toss us the checklist of teenage stereotypes; it gives us fully developed teenagers, who grow up, who graduate, who sometimes succeed and sometimes don't. And I have a deep, deep respect for the characters of Eric and Tami Taylor. In a TV landscape where sex sells and relationships don't last, it's a beautiful thing to have two characters who are happily married, and whose marriage remains strong in the face of everything the show throws at them. It's the kind of relationship that I think many of us wouldn't mind having in our real lives.

The proverbial icing on the cake is that this is a show that people can watch with their families. I watch a lot of television, but very rarely with anyone else in my family, either because we have differing tastes or because of the content. Since I started watching Friday Night Lights and talking about it, I've heard from several people who watch the show with their families on Friday nights. I think there's something really awesome in that. There's so little mature programming that is also family-friendly. This is the show I want to hand over to all the critics who say that television has no redeeming value.

The show reminds me of everything I loved about playing sports, whether it was football or any other. It lets me revisit the rush of adrenaline, the family spirit that comes with being part of a team, how the victories and failures on the field made me a better person off the field. Those things were and are hugely important to me, but they're hard to quantify for anyone who hasn't also experienced them. Now I can point to this series and say, "That's what I'm talking about."

I'm lucky, because I haven't come to the end of my journey with the series yet. I have season five to watch on NBC, and I have the first three seasons on DVD to go through, so this might take awhile. But I know that for a lot of people, this is an important and bittersweet occasion, and I understand those people perfectly. If nothing else, Friday Night Lights is a unique series. I'm not sure we'll ever see one that so expertly combines heart, realism, and family ever again. And that is definitely worth being sad over.