Mid-America at the Movies: Are you ready for some football?

Bridget Shileny and Robert Maharry with Craig Shultz
Mid-America Publishing

For three decades, the familiar strains of Hank Williams Jr. asked sports fans every Monday night if they were ready for another thrilling game of football. For those of us who love the sport, those words were a warm invitation to kick back and enjoy 3+ hours of crashing and smashing. While baseball might be “America’s Pastime,” football is still the most popular sport in the country from a viewership standpoint.


Not only do we enjoy watching games, but we love watching movies ABOUT football. Lucky for us film folk, there’s no shortage of great…and not so great…pigskin-centric big screen stories. So this week, in honor of the start of the NFL season, Rob and Bridget share their football film MVPs and of course sneak in an honorable mention. They are also joined by consummate football and movie fan Craig Shultz, editor of the Ogden Reporter and Madrid Register News, who couldn’t pass up a chance to join the team for the week.


So let’s get this thing kicked off!


Bridget’s Honorable Mention- “Invincible” (2006)


Starring Mark Wahlberg, the movie is based on the true story of Vince Papale who played for the Philadelphia Eagles from ’76-’78. This is a great movie about an everyman facing hard times and persevering in an extraordinary way.


Bridget’s MVP: “Remember the Titans” (2000)


“Everywhere we go, people want to know, who we aaaaaaare. So we tell them- we are the Titans, the mighty, mighty Titans.”


In the years after this movie came out, it’s impossible to determine how many high school teams used this chant, substituting their team’s name into it. It’s just so darn inspiring! “Remember the Titans” is another "based on a true story" sports movie that takes quite a few liberties with true events if people bother to research those. That notwithstanding, the movie is fun in its own right. It follows the football team at T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, Virginia in 1971. The school is newly integrated and facing difficulties combining the previously segregated football teams. Herman Boone (Denzel Washington) is soon named head coach over white coach Bill Yoast (Will Patton). Between that stressful situation and the fact that the players majorly resent each other, the first two-thirds of the movie digs into the racial tension within the team, the sport in general and the small town.


In the fashion of inspirational sports stories, you probably can guess how the movie progresses, even if you haven’t seen it. Though the eventual rah-rah hand holding in the movie is a bit cliché, the filmmakers manage to make it meaningful and interesting. If you aren’t moved during the scene when the team runs to Gettysburg National Cemetery and Coach Boone drops an amazing come-together speech, you must be made of stone.


Strong performances by the young actors who play the football team help add to the credibility of the film. These include Wood Harris, Ryan Hurst, Donald Faison and a fresh-faced Ryan Gosling. A pint-sized Hayden Panettiere is only mildly annoying as Yoast’s daughter. Denzel is of course his amazing self in the movie, but I really like the subtle turn as Coach Yoast by Patton. He gets a great goosebump-inducing speech late in the film that ends with, “You make sure they remember FOREVER the night they played the Titans!”


Another fun addition is the great soundtrack throughout the movie which includes tunes from Creedence Clearwater Revival, Bob Dylan, Marvin Gaye, James Taylor, The Temptations, and Cat Stevens. You find yourself singing along and tapping your foot.


The ending of the movie actually brings a few twists and turns as far as sports movies go. It ultimately becomes about more than just that big game, which pulls “Remember the Titans” back from total cliché-land. I assume that most people have seen this movie, but as football season starts again, it’s a great one to rewatch. After all, you don’t want to forget the Titans. 


Craig’s Honorable Mention- “Last Chance U” (2016-2020)


Before I begin with my selection for the best football movie of all time, I’ll go ahead and give you what I think is an honorable mention. Instead of selecting another football movie, this might be a little bit better, as it is a longstanding series on Netflix.


Last Chance U is a wonderful documentary series on Netflix that has spent time exploring the world of junior college football, following student-athletes who may have been big name recruits, but for one reason or another, things didn’t work out at their chosen university. The series ran for five seasons and followed three different schools. It’s real, raw and a blast to watch.


Craig’s MVP- “Friday Night Lights” (2005)


This was a difficult choice. I pretty much support any and all football movies I see. Even those sappy made-for-TV ones with a strong moral message. After digging deep, and maybe watching one or two just to see if I’m making the right decision, I have chosen my all time, number one, favorite football movie of all time.


While it’s not entirely a work of fiction, it’s based on the true story of the 1988 Permian Panthers football team as they try to bring a state championship to their town of Odessa, Texas. The book, which I also highly recommend, follows a group of young men on the football team and how they feel about the season and their futures in the sport.


The film does the same, albeit they switch a few positions around and a few of the key events, it’s a gripping drama which showcases the importance of a football team in a town that’s rich in tradition on the gridiron. It was directed by Peter Berg, who is the cousin to the book’s author, H.G. Bissinger.


The coach, Gary Gaines (played by Billy Bob Thorton), has to deal with boosters, know it all types who think they can coach better than he can, has to deal with the pressure put on him by the town. After one loss, he comes home with a plethora of “For Sale” signs in his yard.


We also see the pressure on these young athletes who have to deal with living in the shadows of those who came before them. At a fast food restaurant, the four main athletes we follow, quarterback Mike Winchell, defensive end Ivory Christian (he was actually a linebacker in real life), safety Brian Chavez (tight end in real life) and running back Don Billingsley, are eating some burgers as a former state champion player showcased his championship ring and told them to win one.


We also see the tragic tale of Boobie Miles, a senior running back with major collegiate offers, who sees how quickly he’s tossed aside when he tears his knee up to start the season (in real life it was a preseason game, not the season opener).


Through the film we learn to understand what each of these young men, their families and their friends are going through. Football is ultimately the only thing that matters to the town. In an early media day section of the film, Miles is asked what classes he does well in. His response is simple.


“I get straight A’s, I’m an athlete.” And after asked what subject? “Hey, there’s only one subject, football.”


So we see Miles’ cocky attitude in the beginning of the film, but towards the end of the season when he is with his Uncle LV in the car, he breaks down in tears because he says all he knows is football.


The rest of the main group of players focused upon have their own issues. Billingsley can’t hold onto the football, Winchell has anxiety, Christian is apathetic towards the game, and Chavez is getting out of Texas due to his Ivy League Scholarship.


The football games can feel a little Hollywood, as some of the games are switched around, along with how some of the opponents act. Their game against Dallas Carter is historically inaccurate, but the game they had in real life wasn’t as exciting so a little movie magic can work for the greater good, sometimes.


In the end, we want to see these young men triumph on the field and we want to see them be successful off the field. Of course the ending of the film has the text box of what they did after school to follow up.


This is a fantastic, gritty film about the world of high school football, and as someone who has covered high school football for a number of years, I can’t get enough of it.


Before I depart, though, I would like to give one dishonorable mention to the worst football movie of all time: Adam Sandler’s remake of “The Longest Yard.”


Rob’s Honorable Mention- “North Dallas Forty” (1979)


I’m constantly preaching the gospel of onetime Waterloo resident and son of an Iowa State football star Nick Nolte-- even if no one’s listening-- and I firmly believe that he’s the most underappreciated American actor of the last 45 years. On that note, it should come as no surprise that I absolutely love this thinly veiled satire of the ‘70s Dallas Cowboys starring Nolte as an aging tight end with a painkiller problem who just wants to hang up his cleats and live on a horse farm. The football movie didn’t fully come into its own until nearly two decades later, but this gem from director Ted Kotcheff of “First Blood” fame is well worth a look if you aren’t familiar. 


Rob’s MVP- “The Replacements” (2000)


I should preface this by clarifying that I think Oliver Stone’s bombastic football players as Roman gladiators epic “Any Given Sunday,” released just eight months before “The Replacements,” is probably the better movie-- it’s certainly proven to be more prophetic. If you haven’t seen Al Pacino’s locker room speech, get on YouTube and change that immediately. Only one of the two, however, was in my small rotation of about four DVDs that I owned as a teenager, and it’s drilled into my brain to the point that I can practically recite it verbatim. 


This is the story of Shane “Footsteps” Falco, and it’s the second time Keanu Reeves had portrayed an ex-Ohio State quarterback after his turn as aspiring FBI agent Johnny Utah in “Point Break.” Falco isn’t anywhere close to on the up and up, though: he’s living in a D.C. houseboat and replaying old games underwater over the sweet late ‘90s sounds of Lit’s “Zip Lock Bag.” 


But after the Washington Sentinels, led by cocky all-pro quarterback Eddie Martel (Brett Cullen), go on strike (“Do you have any idea what insurance costs on a Ferrari, mother--,” as one of Martel’s teammates so eloquently puts it), the owner-- played by screen legend Jack Warden in his final film role-- calls in his old coach Jimmy McGinty (Gene Hackman, who would retire from acting a few years later) to assemble a misfit squad of replacement players and finish out the season. 


And what a wild bunch of Bad News Bears they are: you’ve got Falco, a stockboy with lightning speed who can’t catch anything (Orlando Jones), a deaf tight end (David Denman, now best known as Roy from “The Office”), a Purple Heart recipient at linebacker (Jon Favreau, who’s gone on to direct several Marvel films), a Welsh kicker with a terrible gambling addiction (Rhys Ifans), a pastor who blew out his knee after one professional game (Troy Winbush), a sumo wrestler (Ace Yonamine), brothers who previously worked as bodyguards for a rapper (Faizon Love and Michael Taliferro), and an ex-convict (Michael Jace, who, in an unfortunate turn of events, was convicted of the real-life second degree murder of his wife in 2016 and is currently serving a prison sentence of 40 years to life). 


Of course, what would any of this matter without a love story? Brooke Langton plays head cheerleader and bar owner Annabelle Farrell, who also happens to possess an encyclopedic knowledge of football and an immediate infatuation with Falco-- it eventually comes to a head with a ridiculously schmaltzy scene set to the Police’s “I’ll Be Watching You.” The new team finds itself in all sorts of trouble after a bar fight with the striking players that leads to the memorable “I Will Survive” electric slide dance inside of a jail cell, and their on-field chemistry takes some time to develop, too. The in-huddle brawls between the linemen confuse everyone, including John Madden and Pat Summerall, and a series of unsportsmanlike conduct flags result in something like 50 yards in penalties on a single play for the Sentinels. 


Over time, though, they finally pull it together, and everyone (except for Martel) gets the ending they wanted. “The Replacements” wasn’t a box office hit upon release (it made $50.1 million on a $50 million budget), but it’s enjoyed a solid second life on cable and home video thanks to the charms of one Keanu Reeves-- or “the Internet’s boyfriend,” as he’s been called lately-- and its mix of slapstick comedy and earnest sports movie cliches. Although it suffers from a few blatant football inaccuracies (after recovering an onside kick, the Sentinels are forced to call timeout despite the fact that the clock would automatically stop anyway), they aren’t enough to dampen the emotional impact of that final montage set to The Wallflowers version of “Heroes.” I’m not crying, you are!


I’ll wrap up with words of wisdom from Footsteps Falco himself: “I know you’re tired, and I know you’re hurtin’. I wish I could say something that was classy and inspirational, but that just wouldn’t be our style. Pain heals. Chicks dig scars. Glory lasts forever.”  


Stay tuned for the latest edition of the column next week, and as always, send your feedback and/or topic suggestions to Bridget (news@wrightcountymonitor.com) or Rob (publisher@grundyregister.com). Thanks for reading! 



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