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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."
Ladouceur was a solid man indeed. The legendary Bear Bryant once said, “Mama wanted me to be a preacher. I told her coachin’ and preachin’ were a lot alike.” Coach Ladouceur, by all accounts, epitomized this notion. He set about rebuilding not just the skills of his team, but more importantly, their spirits. That’s the real story “When The Game Stands Tall” tells. Not just one about a team trying to win a game, but about human beings and how they respond to loss and adversity.
What makes the movie so effective is that, despite its religious backdrop, the film never preaches. Director Thomas Carter, known primarily for his television work, isn’t a flashy filmmaker, but he apparently understands one of the cardinal rules of his craft: show, don’t tell.
At one point during the film, Ladouceur takes his team to spend a day at the local Veteran’s Hospital. It’s never explained why, before or after. At no point does anyone face the camera and deliver a heartfelt speech about the indomitable nature of the human spirit. And yet, in the expressions of the boys as they interact with the disabled vets, and their subsequent actions after they return home, we know exactly what the team needed to learn and, better yet, that they did so.
The movie also never gets maudlin as it so easily could. Jim Caviezel as Ladouceur anchors the film with a quiet, serious performance (you can count on one hand the number of times he smiles), and the rest of the cast, including welcome turns by Michael Chiklis and Laura Dern, follow his lead. Everyone lets the story tell itself without any unnecessary melodramatics.
That’s not to say the movie is dull. Far from it. This is a football film after all, and there are plenty of moments filled with sublime athleticism and bone-crushing hits. You gotta love them hits. But as any true fan knows and this film understands so well, the game of football, or any other game for that matter, is about much more than just what happens on the field.
The reason we so often equate sports with religion is because, in its best moments, the former can exemplify the virtues we so cherish in the latter. We read in the The Epistle of St. Paul to Philemon, “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” This is true on the field or off, and “When The Game Stands Tall” gets that in spades.
In a world he didn’t create, in a time he didn’t choose, one man looks for signs of God in the world by… watching movies. When he’s not reviewing new releases for Aleteia, David Ives spends his time exploring the intersection of low-budget/cult cinema and Catholicism at The B-Movie Catechism.