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Faith-Based Football Print E-mail
By Brad Miner   
Monday, 25 August 2014

For many men, playing high-school football is a rite of passage, one usually more glorious in memory than it was when we actually played.

Some years ago, I was shaving in the locker room at the New York Athletic Club, when a man at the sink next to me – I recognized him as the head of the club’s Saturday Morning Program (athletics for the kids of members) – asked me:

“Don’t you think sports build character in young people?”

I paused to think, razor at chin level, and then said:

“It depends upon the Program.”

And that’s true, and it’s what you see in movies about high-school football, much of it bad (All the Right Moves or Johnny Be Good). It’s certainly what you see in college and pro football, much of it really bad.

But this is not what you see in When the Game Stands Tall, the new movie starring Jim Caviezel about the most successful football program in history: the men of faith (literally, the school’s motto is Les Hommes De Foi) at De La Salle, the Catholic high school in Concord, California.

Mr. Caviezel plays Bob Ladouceur, who was head coach of the De La Salle Spartans from 1979 (at which point the team had never had a winning season) until his retirement in 2013 – a period during which the Spartans were 399-25-3. And there was The Streak: at one point the Spartans won 151 consecutive games.

There’s plenty of simulated football in the film, and it’s done reasonably well, although the filmmakers missed one remarkable aspect of the real De La Salle’s on-field heroics, which I’ll get to in a moment.

To say that a movie about a high-school football team isn’t really about football would, in some sense, be silly, and yet the heart and soul of When the Game Stands Tall is character building, especially in the film’s lessons (sometimes sermons) about self-sacrifice and teamwork. It’s about brotherhood, humility, and love.

Proper preparation for the game is preparation for living a moral life.

 
Caviezel and Ludwig: faith-based football

Ladouceur tells his team that they’re not expected to play perfectly, but they should strive for perfect effort on every play. It’s a lovely message – and this is a message movie if ever there was one – and much needed in an era in which sports of all kinds and at every level have been corrupted by drugs, money, cheating, and (in the case of football) violence.

Coach Ladouceur, whom Caviezel portrays with remarkable restraint, also taught religion at De La Salle, and it’s utterly believable that he would call upon his Catholic faith as a coaching tool, something the filmmakers don’t really do.

Some of the best prep football teams in America come from parochial schools, Catholic and Evangelical. Why? Because they can and do recruit. Being private, they are not bound by catchments, and kids who play football for De La Salle (or Don Bosco Prep in New Jersey) often face long bus or train commutes to get to and from school. One understands why public-school coaches object to what – by their lights – amounts to the sort of wink-wink professionalism that is so characteristic of big-time college football, despite every program’s protestations of amateurism.

Still . . . no other program has ever piled up the wins as did De La Salle under Ladouceur. As Bum Phillips said about Don Shula (or was it Bear Bryant – or both?), Ladouceur was so good that “He can take his’n and beat your’n and take your’n and beat his’n.”

What the filmmakers missed is what America saw in 2001 when ESPN televised a game between the Spartans and another perennial California powerhouse, Long Beach Polys Jackrabbits – the then #2- and #1-ranked teams in the country. Never in all my life (and growing up in football-crazy Ohio, I’ve seen and played against some great football teams) – never have I seen an offensive line at any level fire off the ball with such fierce commitment as did the Spartans. Truly, your jaw dropped to witness it. And THAT is coaching: football, not life. And it’s not really in the movie.

Cal Poly, a much bigger school with much bigger players, was visibly stunned in that real game. Of course, it didn’t hurt that now NFL player Maurice Jones-Drew (who has a cameo in the film) played for the Spartans, scoring four TDs in the game, mauling Jackrabbits all over the field like a rabid grizzly.

The actor Michael Chiklis is fine as a combustible assistant coach, and Clancy Brown is convincing as One-of-Those-Dads: he’s only ambitious for his son; he’s sure the coaches don’t know the game half as well as he does. Alexander Ludwig (of TV’s Vikings – he looks like a Norseman) makes you believe he could be the star running back. In fact, he has the Maurice Jones-Drew role, except with another name and, obviously, he’s not black. Creative license.

Another thing the filmmakers left out is the Catholic Church. Twice we hear the boys recite the Lord’s Prayer. The word “priest” is uttered once, although no priest is ever seen. The Bible is quoted – and to good effect. One of the players says he’s Baptist. Nobody makes the Sign of the Cross. A crucifix is seen briefly. But the film clearly intends to target a larger Christian demographic, and thats fine. More creative license, I suppose.

There are certain films (Remember the Titans is one) that succeed despite the piling on of clichés, and When The Game Stands Tall certainly does. More than a million kids play football in America each year, and every one of them – and their coaches and parents – ought to see this film. They’ll love it. It’s about the game as it should be played: in football and in life.

 
Brad Miner is senior editor of The Catholic Thing, senior fellow of the Faith & Reason Institute, and a board member of Aid to the Church In Need USA. He is the author of six books and is a former Literary Editor of National Review. His book, The Compleat Gentleman, read by Christopher Lane, is available on audio and as an iPhone app.

 
 
The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.

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Comments (15)Add Comment
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written by Beth, August 25, 2014
My 2nd son, takes the field for his senior year this Friday. Looking forward to this film and hope it attracts more young men to the sport. Only 6, that's SIX, freshman stepped up to join the team this year. The soccer program is growing rapidly. All the fear and hand-wringing about injury in reducing our program to bare bones. It's sad and a darn shame!
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written by Mack Hall, August 25, 2014
Why are the producers ashamed of showing the Catholic faith in a Catholic school? The compromises any claim to artistic integrity.
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written by Brad Miner, August 25, 2014
@Beth: Similar problem in the town where I live (suburb of NYC), although I'm not directly involved, since both my sons are grown and flown. Part of the difficulty, as I understand it, is fear among many parents that the game is dangerous -- even though (again as I'm told) there are actually more serious and numerous injuries in soccer. And I suppose there are other cultural reasons (a certain kind of feminism) that sees such a manly game as not acceptable. Good luck to your son on Friday!

@Mack Hall: The answer (I assume) is as I stated is a desire to broaden the film's appeal to other Christians. It's disappointing but not the worse commercial decision ever, since the movies is uncompromisingly Christian.
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written by myshkin, August 25, 2014
@Brad
Football > Golf

@Mack Hall
I suspect they're not all Roman Catholics (some Evangelicals slipped in), so they had to compromise.
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written by Seanachie, August 25, 2014
Appreciate the review, Brad...sounds very much akin to a contemporary (high school) version of the 1940 classic, "Knute Rockne All American." Jim Caviezel is a highly talented actor and from all accounts lives his Catholic faith both on and off the set. Couldn't have a better actor than Caviezel portray the lifetime positive impact coaches have on players of all sports.
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written by Brad Miner, August 25, 2014
@myshkin: No doubt you're right, but I just looked at the IMDB profile of "Knute Rockne: All American" and among the top-billed actors were two playing priests. Times have changed, of course. American movie audiences (RC and Protestant) appear to have lost their affection for Catholics that was once so clear (in the Thirties and Forties) when every Irish-American actor (and many non-Irish), or so it seemed, had at least one role as a priest. I actually believe this film is weakened by its attempt to be generically Christian.
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written by Brad Miner, August 25, 2014
@Seanachie: Your comment came in just as I finished my response to myshkin. So . . . it's akin, yet not akin.
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written by Beth, August 25, 2014
To add another comment (yes, all I can think about is football these days!) is that we find when discussing the personal/spiritual growth in playing football in general all goes well but when talking Catholic High School football in particular, the conversation quickly goes to the "They recruit!" argument and then folks walk away grumbling. Yes, some Catholic schools do recruit players from a wide area, but only some. The success factor that everyone wants to ignore is that at a Catholic high school, and to some extent any school that charges a tuition fee, there is a higher percentage of parents who have high expectations of 1) their child and 2)the school they send them to. These high expectations result in higher attendance (being there is half the battle?), higher grades, winning on the field. It IS a major factor that others want to ignore and just blame our success on recruiting only the best players in the area. Our school does not recruit. Period. We have had several players attend because of the winning record but most of them leave when they realize they won't be coddled and the expectation is respect on and off the field, good grades and hard work on/off the field. Just too many names on the roster who have been on the roster generation after generation to think we seriously recruit; but year after year, we are accused of just that. So darn proud of the men on the field this year!
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written by Michael, August 25, 2014
Brad: We are so eager to see decent films that when one is produced I think we leave our film objectivity at the concession stand. This film certainly had a nice message but that was the problem the film had to many of them. This film was one cliched riddled scene after another. Anyone of those speeches could have ended the movie. And how horrible was Jim Caviezel. He looked like he was sleep walking through the film.
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written by Phil Haynes, August 25, 2014
Surely watching movies about college football is a sign of an already irremediably corrupted character; one imbued with the faux spirituality of a cheap sentimentality that regards "team players" leading "productive lives" as the apotheosis of "masculine Christianity"?

And what's this, Mr Miner: are you really suggesting that soccer is a less manly and more feminine sport than football? This would only be true if you defined manliness as pure brutishness, and the feminine as that which is exclusively skillful and beautiful.

Incidentally, in Luigi Scrosoppi soccer has its own patron saint. Has American football got one? If not, maybe Jimmy Cagney could be put forward. I'm sure he'd fit the bill.
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written by Brad Miner, August 25, 2014
@ Phil Haynes: Well, first of all, I made no aspersions about soccer or its manliness or lack thereof, so I'm not sure I grasp your high dudgeon. Second, my reference to injuries (in a comment) is valid: data show they are more common in soccer. Third, De La Salle is, as I wrote, a high school, not a college. Fourth, I suggested (also in a comment) that certain feminists dislike football precisely because it's a male sport, which, trust me, is true. Fifth, I coached soccer in the town where I live, but gave it up (despite a winning season) because I had trouble staying awake. As to having a patron saint for football . . . or baseball, basketball, bocci, boxing, or basket weaving . . . c'mon. What Big Time soccer needs is a patron demon for all the pretended injuries (lying that is) that so dramatically interrupt play.
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written by GY, August 26, 2014
Football is an idol in our culture. The Catholic media is trying to salvage a barbaric game and pretend it has some Catholic values. Please. The average person cannot name the 7Th commandment or the corporal works of mercy, yet they know the names and personal lives of some guys in tight pants throwing a around a ball to some other guys who can barely form a complete sentence.

The culture of sport is a mere diversion that so consumes our decadent culture we refuse to see the obvious.
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written by Beth, August 26, 2014
GY, because some folks have trouble finding balance in their lives the game of football (or any sport) is the problem? I would say that the 'Catholic media' is trying to show that as in any contest of strength, finesse or wits, there is much to be learned about the human condition. Have you ever played football? Oh yeah, probably not because you can complete a sentence.....
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written by Fr. Frank Permuy, S.J., August 27, 2014
As a priest and Middle-School football coach, I want to thank you sincerely. Here's the Football Prayer I pray with the team before football games which was inspired from my six years of playing as a kid, many years of coaching, and endless TV games... Our Father who art in the game, hallowed be thy name, thy kingdom come thy will be done, on the field as it is in heaven, give us this day our daily bruises, and forgive us our unnecessary roughness, as we forgive those who commit unsportsmanlike conduct, and lead us not into eye-poking, but deliver us from spearing, for thine is the blocking, the tackling, and the touchdown, for ever and ever, We Believe.
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written by Paul, August 30, 2014
when one considers the resources spent on sports and the actual percentage of a student body who can play it's amazing. be like if every high school got a electron microscope or a cyclotron for the AP Physics club. the one thing that can be said for academic programs that can not be said about most athletic ones is you will not be excluded from AP Chem or being a Mathlete based only on your physical size. i recall a piece by Chesterton where he had foreboding about the zeitgeist in Germany on the worship of health, physical size and prowess. the emphasis on the manly and martial aspects of culture and the diminished regard of intellectual or girlish pursuits. the marching band, cheerleaders, pep club, all exist merely to support the "übermensch" on the playing fields. i doubt Chesterton saw the logical extreme that worship would lead to in the notion of "Life unworthy of life." the echos of that time though still can be heard in sports programs. take a guess as to how many kids have been bullied by jocks as opposed to students in a calculus class? what do you think the ratio would be? 10 to 1? 100 to 1? 1000 to 1? how many heroic movies have there been about football or basketball teams as opposed to debate teams or science classes?

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