When The Game Stands Tall hits movie theaters across the country on August 22. It is not the first sports movie centering on a high school team, but will it be among the best? Here is our ranking of the 10 best within this category, led by Hoosiers, the classic tale of Indiana high school hoops.
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Note: These choices were based primarily on a feature that was published in 2004 by Student Sports Magazine and was written by long-time colleague Brentt Eads. Cal-Hi Sports was part of Student Sports at that time and Cal-Hi Sports editor Mark Tennis also was editor of the magazine.
Before we begin this task – of ranking the top 10 sports movies involving a high school team, player or coach – it’s critical for those like us who are planning to see the upcoming De La Salle of Concord football movie, “When The Game Stands Tall,” to know that every movie we’ve ever seen so far that is about a high school team has altered or fictional plot lines.
For those of us who’ve been around California high school football for many years – especially those who have seen the Spartans play for 25 years or longer – this knowledge that the movie you are about to see will not follow facts might allow one to enjoy it more. Screaming at the screen, “Give me a break, that didn’t happen,” will only be a waste of energy. Trust us, every movie ever made about a high school football, basketball or baseball team has fake stuff in it. Go to the theater with that in mind and enjoy the show.
The De La Salle-based film, which stars Person of Interest TV star Jim Caviezel as Spartans’ head coach Bob Ladouceur, was derived from a book written by former Contra Costa Times columnist Neil Hayes, who followed the team during the 2002 season. This was the season when De La Salle went to Hawaii to play St. Louis of Honolulu at Aloha Stadium, it was the season when the Spartans beat Long Beach Poly at Cal in a rematch of the two teams’ epic 2001 showdown and it was the senior season of current NFL star running back Maurice Jones-Drew (he went just by Maurice Drew then).
Based on trailers and early buzz, however, it’s obvious that the major plotlines in the film are from the 2004 season. This was the season when De La Salle’s 151-game win streak ended and when the team actually was sitting at 2-3-2 after seven games but came back to knock off an unbeaten team (Amador Valley of Pleasanton) in the CIF North Coast Section final. This also was the season that was preceded by the shooting death of 2003 first team all-state player Terrence Kelly and a heart attack that Ladouceur had suffered.
“When The Game Stands Tall” is directed by Thomas Carter, who previously directed Samuel L. Jackson in 2005 as Richmond High basketball coach Ken Carter in a movie called “Coach Carter.” Ladouceur therefore is not the first East Bay prep coach to be featured in a movie. “Coach Carter” centered on a decision by Ken Carter to lock the gym and wouldn’t let his undefeated team (at the time) back into the gym until grade and study requirements were met.
Sports movies are for the most part very predictable with the team winning a championship dramatically at the end. That’s not always the case, of course, such as Rocky in which Rocky Balboa goes the distance but loses by decision in his one-in-a-million shot against the champ or even in Friday Night Lights. Still, the best ones are able to tug at your heart and get that lump in your throat even though you know what is coming.
Note: This list does not include documentaries. If it did, arguably No. 1 would be Hoop Dreams, which follows the path of two players from Chicago as they go from junior high into their early college years. If you’ve never seen it, put it on your bucket list. It’s that good.
1. Hoosiers (1987)
One of the best movies of any genre, Hoosiers depicts a small Indiana basketball team’s march to the state finals in the days (1954) when schools of all sizes in Indiana battled for one crown. Gene Hackman is memorable as the coach as is Dennis Hopper as an assistant battling alcohol. The story of the small school winning it all is true, but many elements (including a star player who has to be coaxed into joining the team) were added by screenwriters.
2. Friday Night Lights (2008)
Going into this film, we thought for sure that the screenwriters would come up with an ending in which the Permian Panthers actually won instead of lost in their march for a state title. To their credit, the only change was that Permian lost in the final instead of the semifinal to Dallas Carter. For the most part, the film stayed true to the book, which was a gritty look at the often over-hyped world of Texas high school football. It also effectively captures the importance of football in the lives of these people. We’re not sure spending $20 million on a football stadium is perhaps a good way of spending money on education, but it couldn’t hurt to have more of that Texas passion here in California.
3. Remember The Titans (2001)
This was the true story of the 1971 T.C. Williams High football team in Alexandria, Va., the first integrated high school team in the state. It starred Denzel Washington as Herman Boone, brought in as head coach, replacing popular former coach Bill Yoast. The team did win a state title, but the plays portrayed were a bit ridiculous and did not happen. A player who got into an accident and was paralyzed in the movie actually got into the accident a few years later. We’ve always liked seeing the film, but probably would have liked it more if we weren’t from California. In our state, especially in 1971, we already had many integrated teams. It’s also interesting to note that Remember The Titans debuted on a Saturday night in 2001 at the Rose Bowl. That event, however, was diminished in importance on the Southern California football calendar because it was on the same night when Long Beach Poly played De La Salle at Veterans Stadium in Long Beach in a matchup of the nation’s top two ranked teams.
4. The Rookie (2002)
This is a baseball movie that cracks our top 10 and is the true story of Jim Morris, a 36-year-old school teacher and high school baseball coach in a small Texas town who told his team that if it won a district title that he’d try out for a pro team. They did and even though it was 10 years after he quit baseball, Morris tried out and eventually played in the big leagues. The film has a genuine affection for baseball in the same way that “Field of Dreams” did.
5. Best Of Times (1985)
This one probably hits us closer to home than others because we love Central Valley football towns like Taft, which is the setting for this film as Robin Williams and Kurt Russell portray two men who would love nothing better than to get one more crack at beating mighty Bakersfield. When they were in high school, Williams’ character dropped a sure touchdown pass from Russell’s character that would have won the game and he’s never been able to live it down. An alumni rematch game was staged and you get the picture. Since this film came out, similar alumni matchups or rivalry alumni matchups also have been played for real.
6. Radio (2006)
Cuba Gooding Jr. turned in Oscar-nomination worthy work with his performance in this film as Radio, a mentally-challenged man who hangs around the football team at schools in South Carolina. Ed Harris plays high school football coach Harold Jones, who becomes friendly with Radio. We think this film by director Mike Tollin was much better than one of his other films, Varsity Blues, which was filled with so many football stereotypes it doesn’t come close to this Top 10 list.
7. He Got Game (1988)
This is a Spike Lee-directed film and it is not for the easily offended since it includes profanity, racial slurs and nudity. Still, we all know how much Spike loves basketball so it’s not surprising he once made a film based on the sport. It wasn’t about the Knicks, either. Denzel Washington plays Jake Shuttlesworth, in prison for 15 years for accidentally killing his wife. His son, Jesus (played by a very believable Ray Allen of the NBA fame) happens to be the top basketball recruit in the country and a week before he is to pick his college, his father is given a temporary parole to try and recruit Jesus to attend the governor’s alma mater. Denzel later enjoyed high school sports in California as a parent with a son who played football and another son who played basketball.
8. Quiet Victory: The Charlie Wedemeyer Story (1988)
This was a TV movie but we liked it so much that we put it on this list. It was based on the amazing story of Los Gatos football coach and teacher Charlie Wedemeyer, who continued to coach his team despite the worsening symptoms of Lou Gehrig’s disease. Bob Ladoucuer therefore is not the first Northern California football coach to be portrayed in a movie, either. Michael Nouri played Charlie Wedemeyer with Pam Dawber playing Lucy Wedemeyer. We remember talking to Lucy once that Charlie had a blast talking football with Pam Dawber’s husband, Mark Harmon of UCLA football fame, during the making of the film. It’s also interesting to note that Kyle Chandler, who later played the head coach in the Friday Night Lights TV series, had a small role in the Charlie Wedemeyer movie.
9. All The Right Moves (1983)
Along with Risky Business of the same year, this was one of the films that helped launch Tom Cruise into being a major Hollywood leading man. It’s based in the Pennsylvania steel country near Pittsburgh that’s been so great at producing Hall of Fame quarterbacks and has had Texas-style passion for prep football. Cruise’s character is struggling to get out of the town to head for college and study engineering, but has difficulties with his head coach, played by Craig T. Nelson. Their heated conflicts are the key scenes in the film.
10. Love And Basketball (2000)
It’s amazing to this day how many girls basketball players will put on questionnaires that this movie is their favorite. Only one-fourth of it is really based on high school, but to us they’re the most important in the film since they show the huge differences between boys and girls hoops. We also once talked to director Gina Prince-Bythewood (a former track athlete at Pacific Grove) who said she did not want to use a fake school for the high school and after research decided to use Crenshaw of Los Angeles. At the time, Crenshaw was indeed near the top of the state for boys and girls. Former Foothill of Pleasanton soccer player Gabrielle Union had a role in this movie, which is appropriate because she now knows all about Love And Basketball as the future wife of NBA superstar Dywane Wade.
Five Other Films We Like But Not In Our Top 10
•Above The Rim (1994)
•Blue Chips (1994)
•Coach Carter (2005)
•Gridiron Gang (2006)
•Vision Quest (1985)
Some Other Films In This Genre We Avoid
•Johnny Be Good (1988)
•Teen Wolf (1985)
•Varsity Blues (1998)