The football season is officially over, and fans such as myself face a looming abyss of ... of ...
There should be a word for “lack of football,” but there’s not. Misery? Withdrawal? Eeek? Argh? Technically, one could watch classic games 24/7 on the ol’ DVR, from the glory days of the Giants and the Packers up to the Tide winning one of its national championships, but even those golden nuggets don’t quite scratch the gridiron itch the way that, for lack of a better word, “fresh” football does.
Seeing as you have read this far into the column, you’re (a) a faithful reader and probably (b) not allergic to football, and I dearly wish I could make up for your lack — and my lack — of fresh football in the Saturdays and Sundays that sprawl ahead. But even if I organized a backyard game here, most of my friends are as old and arthritic as I am, and I can predict that at some early point the game would have to be called off because of rain … uh, pain. However.
Thanks to my son, I’ve come across a football video that I can recommend without reservation, to help fill those lonely moments from now until the Tide’s A-Day game and beyond. It’s a documentary, a true story, and it’s called “Undefeated.” The bottom line is a middle-aged guy from Memphis named Bill Courtney, who loves football down to his bones. A former high-school coach, he still misses it, and after he’s built up a successful lumber business from scratch to support his wife and four kids, he offers to coach on a volunteer basis — no pay — at a nearby inner-city school. To say that the Manassas Tigers represent a coaching challenge is an understatement. In the team’s 110-year history, its number of winning seasons is precisely zero, and they’ve never been to a playoff game. The facilities are ramshackle, and the boys’ discipline and focus is likewise. Courtney tells the team they’re talented enough to do better, and if they buckle down, train hard, keep their grades up, and follow his plan on the gridiron, they can be a contender in their region rather than their current modus operandi of earning a paycheck from the highest-bidding teams for getting their rear ends kicked on the road. To say that there are roadblocks in Courtney’s well-laid plans is yet another understatement, and the film documents two hours’ worth of them. Being an authority figure for adolescents is a nightmare in the best of situations, and at Manassas the coach faces a team whose players are grindingly poor, come largely from fatherless homes, and who are in and out of trouble with the law.
One particularly effective scene early in the film shows a wide-angle view of the school’s hallways during class change, with students at their lockers, joking and horseplaying as kids will. From the left of the frame, two policemen walk through on either side of a young man in handcuffs, and it’s apparently such a common occurrence that none of the other students even notice.
Fortunately, Courtney ranks very near ol’ Job in the patience department, but he has limits. The documentary shows him warts and all, such as the afternoon he apologizes to the team for using so much profanity at the previous day’s practice. He knows how to switch to “tough love” when necessary, at one point suspending the team’s most gifted player for repeatedly defying authority. And, miracle of miracles, after an early defeat the team starts winning games they were expected to lose. They keep winning and winning, and the city’s football fans take amazed note of the Tigers 9-1 record, happening for the first time since the honorable William McKinley was president of the U.S.
Does Manassas make the playoffs? Does a coach cuss in the woods?
I won’t spoil the ending for you, but films like this are not about Hollywood endings, they’re about the wrenching human journeys along the way, of real people we come to cheer for and love. I’m generally not one for repeat viewings of anything. I’m more of the “been there, watched that” school of film fandom. But once my heart heals up from watching “Undefeated” the first time, I hope to watch it many more.
Did I mention that it won an Oscar for best documentary? Never was the little gold statue more deserved.
One note of warning: if you plan on buying Kleenex before you watch the film, you’re out of luck. I’ve already used up the Jasper supply. Maybe you can order some from Amazon.
Dale Short is a native of Walker County. His columns, photos and radio features are available on his website, carrolldaleshort.com. His weekly radio program “Music from Home” airs each Sunday at 6 pm on Oldies 101.5 FM, streams live online at www.oldies1015fm.com and is archived afterward on his website.