He’s middle-agish, maybe a bit overweight, not particularly handsome. In fact, when they flash a couple of his childhood pictures on the screen, he bears a remarkable resemblance to Howdy Doody. He’s easily emotional, with a temper that flares quickly. But he also makes no effort to hide his affections, and once he’s for you, he’s all in. And that’s the trait that earns him the respect of these black football players from the hardscrabble side of town who are under tremendous pressure because of challenging home situations and a paucity of environmental encouragement. For some, the only possible ticket out of there is to become a football star. But that’s not easy, either. The Manassas Tigers have been a losing football team for years. Worse, they have the reputation of being undisciplined, disorganized and not mentally tough. Get ahead of them, and they just roll over. Put them in a tight situation, and they crack under pressure. Maybe they have individual players with talent, but they don’t play as a team.
Bill Courtney wants to single-handedly change that mentality. He brings in volunteer assistants (also apparently all white, but they’re mostly in the background anyway). He visits some kids in their homes (thus meeting the mom or the grandmom or whoever he needs to reinforce his rules). He runs drills in practice. He insists they make grades. He keeps preaching “team first.” None of this is new, of course. Probably every coach they ever had was trying to do the same thing. But a couple of fortuitous things happen at once to Manassas: this coach comes in who talks tough, but he seems to really care about his players. And three very talented eighth-graders decide to commit together to this team. And then they all start clicking.
At first, of course, the victories are few and far between. But coach Courtney quickly stops the previous practice of accepting money in order to drive to larger schools farther away and get creamed. He figures, rightly, that isn’t good for morale. He tries to raise some money another way, with a booster club, comprised not only of parents of the kids (most of whom don’t have any money), but also of some of his friends from the suburbs. Now they have both better equipment and a better self-image. And they begin to experience the confidence that only comes from success. And they start doing something they’ve never done before: come from behind to win. As if the adversity not only doesn’t defeat them, it actually motivates them.
But the road isn’t easy. One of the players is so prideful and temperamental that he fights with other players in chalkboard sessions. Another player has been so physically dominant for so long that he has to remember that his teammates can’t necessarily match his physical skills. There’s bickering in the defensive backfield on missed assignments, which the coach tries his best to squelch, and there are struggles with grades, and suspensions. But somehow, they start pulling together a magical season, and they seem destined for the playoffs, where no Manassas team has ever won.
It’s not all victory celebrations. At the end, his big stars having graduated, Courtney decides to coach his son’s team across town. He claims he’s been neglecting his family, although his wife’s cameo appearance indicates he’s certainly had her blessing and support. The film avoids telling us much about the Xs and Os, or saying anything at all about a star quarterback who labors in obscurity. But you’ll find yourself rooting for these guys.
And that’s some movie magic that few documentaries approach.
Ronald P. Salfen is interim pastor of St. Stephen’s Presbyterian Church in Irving, Texas.