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.
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 Poly’s 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 that’s 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.