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“When The Game Stands Tall”

Affirm Films

David Ives - published on 08/22/14

Jim Caviezel plays the legendary high school coach Bob Ladouceur in a compelling film on football and character.

On August 14, 2014 at 6:00 pm EDT, a brand new faith-based cable channel joined the already crowded lineup of religious themed television offerings. I’m talking about, of course, the SEC Network, ESPN’s new channel devoted entirely to Southeastern Conference college sports, with a special emphasis on football. If you’re wondering why I call the SEC Network a religious channel, well, it’s because where I’m from there is a very fine line between God and the gridiron.

Don’t just take my word for it, though. In his book, SEC Football Religion Of A Region, author Kelly McKeethan wrote of living in the southern United States, “When you meet someone here, one of the first questions you are asked is ‘Where do you go to church?’ Certainly religion is a vital part of everyday life in the region I call home. However, if there is one question that usually comes before the one on Sunday morning attendance, it is ‘Who’s your favorite team?”

Make no mistake about it, we are a people who love our football. Second to the game itself, we love a good football story, and the tale of the De La Salle Spartans is one of the best. Between 1992 and 2004, under the guidance of head coach Bob Ladouceur, the Spartans won an unprecedented total of 151 straight games, earning their team the record for the longest winning streak in high school football history.You have to admit, that makes for a pretty good story.

The new movie “When The Game Stands Tall” doesn’t tell that story. Instead, it tells us what happened after the Spartans’ streak ended, and surprisingly, it’s an even better story because it does so.

Admittedly, it’s an unusual move for a sports flick. The typical plot for this genre normally begins with an underdog (individual or team, take your pick) and follows them through their struggles to reach the top despite near insurmountable odds. And why not? Such tales are often inspiring and uplifting.

In contrast, “When The Game Stands Tall” starts in 2004, a point in time in which the De La Salle Spartans couldn’t be any more on top if they tried. They weren’t just winning games, they were demolishing their opponents, often outscoring them by thirty to forty points. They were so formidable a  presence on the field that many of the teams in their district had begun refusing to play them.

But nothing of this Earth lasts forever. At the end of the 2003-2004 season, a number of key players graduated, leaving the team with a roster that was overconfident and not entirely willing to commit to the program which had ensured victory in the past. To make matters worse, Ladouceur suffered a heart attack, and his future as a coach became uncertain. Playing on such unsteady ground, the Spartans did something they hadn’t for over a decade; they lost.

Football teams lose games all the time, of course. But to be on the squad that brought an end to a legacy which had turned a small Catholic private school into a nationwide phenomenon had to be a crushing experience for the young men involved. Add to this the individual problems faced by the players, stuff like overzealous parents and the loss of loved ones, and it’s easy to see how the experience could become overwhelming.

Fortunately, the Spartans had a strong guiding hand in their coach. In an interview with the Bay Area Newsgroup, Ladouceur explained that in his interview for the head coaching position at De La Salle, the Brothers of the Christian Schools who ran the school “really didn’t ask me many football questions at all, they asked me mostly about education, teaching, and I kind of liked that in a way. I didn’t feel any pressure to succeed or win. They never put that kind of pressure on me to turn this program around or anything like that. They were more concerned with putting solid people out in front of their kids."

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