Thursday, October 17, 2013

Football as a Means: A Review of Undefeated

The best football movies focus on high school. The players still possess a raw idealism and capacity for self-sacrificing commitment. This visceral passion infuses the game with social power and camaraderie. High school teams are still anchored in real communities where people know your name. These loyalties and sacrifices erode at higher levels. High school players exhibit the devotion and attention to authority that makes 16-20 year olds ideal soldiers. High school movies rule supreme for capturing the power and complexity of football.

Undefeated, an academy award winning documentary, follows the Manassas high school Tigers in North Memphis for one season. The moviemakers earned a level of trust and invisibility that opens windows into the compelling stories and tropes that give football such a unique and compelling American narrative. While the documentary can sometimes feel like Blind Side and sometimes like Friday Night Lights, it follows the true and serendipitous story of a poor and downtrodden football team that had not won a game in 15 years and not won a playoff game in mover 100 years. The story unfolds neither as fairy tale or nursery lessons, but as an abiding portrait of what football can sometimes accomplish through community, authority and challenge to the characters of young men. 

North Memphis exists as an independent character. Roving cameras and inside homes reveal a profoundly broken community abandoned by its job generator Firestone. Dilapidated and abandoned houses, cracked streets and left behind people populate the background and foreground. The young men slouched in a team meeting when we first meet them are cast offs with no future and seldom a real family. Mansassas coach Bill Courtney announces at the meeting:

Starting right guard shot, one linebacker shot, two players fighting right in front of the coach, star center arrested for shooting someone in the face with BB gun. For most coaches that would be pretty much a career's worth of crap to deal with. I think that sums up the last two weeks for me."

When the team meets with an ex-NFL player Aaron Hayden and he asks how many of you have two parents who went to college, no hand go up. When he asks  “how many have a relative in jail” every player raises their hand. Welcome to North Memphis.

Six years ago Bill Cartney shows up as a volunteer coach. He throws himself into coaching and trying to save the young men of the Manassas team. He loves coaching; this is clear, and would gladly give up his successful wood products business to do in it full time. His passion drives him at home, and interviews with his resigned and exasperated wife and a few shots of home life with his kids reveal how consuming and costly his coaching obsession can be. One of the film’s untouted strengths is its no nonsense revelation of how hard on family committed coaches can be. I watched Cartney struggle with his own sense of not being there for his own kids. Cartney reflects on how his own father had not been there for him and his coaching other fatherless men help to redeem that absence. I am also reminded of associate head coach telling me, “I spent 22 years being a better father to my players than my kids.”

His coaching extends who he is at work and home. His blunt, outspoken tough love drills through to the abandoned and cast off players of his team. By accident he has become the only caring male model in their lives. He knows it and feels the responsibility deeply. So deeply it starts to undermine his responsibilities to his family.

When Courtney started Manassas had only 17 players. Although the school is brand new replete with state of the art security and metal detectors, the sports facilities are a weed spotted afterthough. A local reporter points out how the real money has flown to the private schools and suburbs, so none of the public schools, despite new buildings, has any real resources to face their massive task of rescuing generations of minority students left behind and cast aside by society.

The only way the team can finance itself is to sell itself to play fodder games with richer schools. They travel hours to go get a payday of 5,000 dollars to support the program. Just like an underfunded FCS team, they make themselves a punching bag for rich suburban teams for the money. After several early season slaughters, the team is usually broken physically and psychologically before playing their district games.
No external motives, no race fairy tales, not story of black white reconciliation here; just a committed guy who loves football and loves coaching.

He spends hours with the team and spends his own money and recruits other white well off assistant coaches to drill and plead for discipline. He organizes fund-raisers to get the team off the treadmill of early season games. He and his cadre of white assistant volunteer coaches truly believe that if the students let it, “football can save your life.” It sounds like the worst form of paternalistic coach-speak. But, in this case, football provides an identity, place of safety away from streets, sense of efficacy and above all male authority figures to young men who have none of the above.

When Courtney and his coaches lose a player, they believe they also lose a soul.
This infuses the football quest with a sense of urgency that all the best high school and college coaches carry—they “to build a platform of character” from which the young men have a chance to forge a life. Courtney and the film prove what players have known forever, what sounds like clichés to outsiders, becomes truth to insiders. Good leaders create mantras and repeat and model them endlessly until they become truths for the players and the coach. In Courtney and the team’s case:

"Young men of character and discipline and commitment end up winning in life. Football doesn't build character. Football reveals character."

It takes time, patience and endless passion pouring into what can seem like a black hole of emotional apathy and resignation in the team. But Courtney has been at this for five years now. He has a core of seniors who stayed with him and slowly committed and grew to trust this large passionate white guy from far away.

The team possess O. C. Brown a large easy-going and very talented player who could earn a scholarship. OC lives with his grandmother and as he says “I’m not very smart…Football is my way out.” But he struggles with grades and above all the dreaded ACT. Almost without noticing it, the film points out how he ends up moving in part time with an well off white assistant coach where he gets tutoring. In the end after failing the ACT once,  he squeaks by with the minimum 16 and earns a scholarship to Southern Mississippi. It felt eerily like scenes from Blind Side without the fairy tale aspect. The coach is direct and to the point, “if I were a piano teacher and found a great talent, I’d try to help.”

I kept expecting the black-white dynamic and subtext of the idea of well off white guys plying their coaching passion with a bunch of underprivileged black kids to dominate the story and reveal the insidious racial paternalism that this could represent. Courtney feels absolutely authentic with the kids. Certainly his blunt language and his “us” against them motivation about how the kids have to overcome the rep of inner city teams who “quit” drives home. We see him visiting the kids in their homes and hugging, cajoling, demanding and helping them keep together during the craziness of high school years.

In the case of Chavis Brown, a talented but troubled young man, the coach suspends him for attacking his own teammates. But Courtney literally chases Chavis to stay with the team and endure a suspension. Chavis does and in one of the profound and wrenching scenes complete with subtitles to help with the kid’s thick north Memphis accents apologizes to the team and gives the teams coveted “uncommon man” award to his teammate Money Brown.

Money is an undersized player who succeeds because of his “mental toughness.” He has a 3,8 but no money to get to college. Worse he injures himself and in scenes reminiscent of every football injury film ever shot. he meets with caring and honest doctors who tell him he cannot play but has a chance if he can rehab.

Money despairs and struggles with losing football and facing the inability to get into college for lack of money. He quits coming to school. Again Courtney’s mantra, “you can’t quite because you are frustrated,” matters. Courtney goes to his house and literally drags him back. Courtney demands and models to them all that “character is revealed in failure.” He knows there are not second chances in North Memphis, if the kids quit, it is all over not just for the team but for their futures.

Character and discipline and team before self. He desperately screams, yells, cajoles and loves them to internalize this in the  hopes they can carry that beyond the high school. At the end it all comes out in football where he yells, “Please remember discipline. Please remember character, and let’s go kick their ass.”

At the end the coach knows he has to leave coaching at the school for the sake of time with his family. His solution, ironically, is to coach at his son’s school and coach his kid’s teams. The documentary really reveals how coaches really are coaches. Coach-speak grows from deep inside and what people may consider clichés, remain deep truths when spoken by a passionate and smart and caring coach to young men struggling, “Success does not reveal character. Character is revealed by failure.” We all hear this ten times in the movie. The coach lives it and the players struggle with it and now and then understand and live it when Chavis returns and Money gets to college and plays in the last game. The team hears it after the first defeat in their first game.

Courtney believes that one way to cut through the apathy and despair is to “reach hearts through something you love.” In this case football is all  he and these young men have. The coach never stops demanding that the kids “get their heads on right” and pay attention to “character” and put “team before individual.” It slowly sinks in to the reluctant and cynical, no cynical is to optimistic, resigned team and to those of us who watch. The coach and team capture the real lesson of football at this level. In a close game, Courtney looks at the team and exhorts them to act with “mind with heart and bodies. Let’s finish this thing.”

The team loses the first game of the season. The team loses the last game of the season in the playoffs to one of the teams that used to pay them as mercenary punching bags. In between they win nine games and OC garners a scholarship; Chavis begins the journey to becoming a functional person and Money rehabs and plays in his last game.

The title reminds us that losing a game is not the same as being defeated. One’s heart and mind and spirit can remain unbroken and undefeated even amid defeat. The coach and players learned the lesson so dear to Courtney’s coaching heart—character endures. To repeat, the true test of character is “not success, but failure.” Character endures, character gets back up, character continues to work and achieve after set-backs.

For Courtney and the committed coaches of high school and college football, that remains the abiding truth, the end for which football is but a means. One hopes the kids when they leave and face that bleak unforgiving neighborhood can remember.


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    1. I loved this movie, and I completely agree: the coupling of the competition of sports and strong coaching leadership creates lasting character in student-athletes.

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