Five Inspirational Football Films that Weren’t as Inspirational in Reality
Sandra Bullock’s The Blind Side opens tomorrow. It’s a football movie based on the real life of Michael Oher, and if you’re a fan of the NFL, you know how the movie ends. I suspect there are plenty of inaccuracies in the movie, but if you’re like me, you don’t want to know about them until after you’ve seen the movie. The reality, unfortunately, can often spoil an otherwise inspirational sports movie, all the more inspirational because it’s purportedly based on real events. Hollywood takes a lot of liberties for the sake of good drama, and in the context of sports films, I can’t say I blame them. A last-second touchdown is a lot more compelling than a 42-7 rout.
So with that, here is the real story behind five based on true life football movies. Cause I’m an asshole.
Movie Version: Vince Papale (Mark Wahlberg) was a 30-year-old bartender who’d never attended college or had prior organized football experience. After being badgered by friends in his bar league to attend an open tryout for the Philadelphia Eagles, Papali ended up making the team as a special teams player where, in his first game, he forced a fumble on kick-off coverage and scored a game-winning touchdown.
Reality: Papale actually attended college, where he was a track star. Additionally, he’d played two years in the World Football League, prior to bartending. Moreover, while the open tryout was not specifically created for Papali, he was one of the players the Eagles had in mind when they decided to do a open tryout. In fact, he was invited, and spent a great deal of time training for it. Moreover, though he did force a fumble during a game in his rookie season, he never scored a TD during his short career.
Remember the Titans
Movie Version: Herman Boone (Denzel Washington), also known as “Coach Coon,” is brought in to a newly desegregated high school and given the head coaching position over former head coach, Bill Yoast (Will Patton). Patton refuses to be an assistant coach, until the white players decide to boycott the team. He comes aboard to help unify the black and white players, and ease the racial tension. Coach Boone is told that if he loses one game, he’ll lose his job. The Titans unify and finish the season undefeated. However, Coach Yoast loses his chance to be inducted into the Virginia’s Football Hall of Fame after he calls out the refs for fixing the semi-final game (which the Titans win, nevertheless). One player is paralyzed after the game, and the team rallies on his behalf to win the championship.
Reality: In reality, while there was racial tension when the school desegregated in 1965, there was little residual tension in 1971, when the events of the film took place. Moreover, refs never attempted to fix a game; and there was no Virginia Hall of Fame. In fact, every other team the Titans faced that year was also desegregated, which is to say: The Titans weren’t abhorred by the rest of the state’s team because there were black players on it; there were black players on most of the teams. And while it is true that the Titans were undefeated that year (and 2nd in the nation), they were never an underdog, nor was there much threat that Coach Boone would lose a game. Over the course of the season, the Titans outscored their opponents 338-38. Finally, though there was a paralyzed player, he wasn’t paralyzed until after the season ended.
We Are Marshall
Movie Version: We Are Marshall details the story of the aftermath of a 1970 plane crash that killed nearly all of Marshall’s football players. In it, Jack Lengyel (Matthew McConaughey) is brought on as coach in a desperation hire, and to rebuild the team, the head coach had to recruit players from other sports and make a desperate plea for the NCAA to relax its rules on allowing freshmen to play varsity football. The big scene in the movie involved the Marshall Board of Trustees meeting in a room discussing whether to kill the football program when a huge crowd gathered around outside and began chanting, “We! Are! Marshall!” convincing the trustees to continue with the football program. Ultimately, the Marshall team ending up winning their first home game of the season (though they would win only once more that year).
Reality: The plane crash did kill nearly all of the players, though several of the characters in the movie were completely fictitious. Moreover, the character of Red (Matthew Fox), was depicted as being particularly upset about the plane crash because he had given up his plane seat to an assistant. While one coach did give up his seat to an assistant, it wasn’t Red — granted, Red did quit following the first year because he couldn’t cope with the grief of being around the team, as depicted in the movie. Additionally, Jack Lengyel was not a desperation hire — he was the school’s third choice — nor did it take any convincing for the NCAA to relax the rules on freshman players (it had, in fact, done so for other sports, and the following year, it allowed all colleges to let freshman play). Finally, that “We! Are! Marshall!” scene never happened, nor was there ever any threat that the school would shut down the football program.
Movie Version: Despite a lack of grades, money, and size, after the antagonism of his brother, the skepticism of his family, and the death of a close friend, Rudy Reuttiger (Sean Astin) overcomes several obstacles, attends community college, and eventually makes it onto the practice squad of the Notre Dame football team, where he shows an immense amount of heart. So much, in fact, that after the rest of the team threatens to refuse to play in the last game of the season, the ND head coach relents and allows him to dress, putting him in the final two plays of the game. In the final play of the game, he sacks the quarterback and is carried off the field by his team — the first and only time a player has been carried off in Notre Dame football history.
Reality: In reality, his parents were never unsupportive of Rudy’s desire to play football, nor did he have a antagonistic brother (he was, in fact, one of 14 children). Moreover, it was never a lifelong dream of Rudy to play for the ND football team; only to attend the college. Only once he got there and became a walk-on player did he form a desire to actually play during a game. Further, in reality, the players didn’t protest the coach’s decision not to allow him to dress for the final game; it was, in fact, the coach’s idea to allow Rudy to dress for the final game (prompted by a few player requests). Moreover, he wasn’t put into the game as a result of the crowd chanting his name; Rudy asked to be put in, and the crowd didn’t begin chanting his name until after he was put into the game.
It is true, however, that he did secure a sack on the final play of the game and is the only player in Notre Dame football history to be carried off the field in such a manner.
Friday Night Lights
Movie Version: The story of the 1988 Permian Panthers, led by head coach Gary Gaines (Billy Bob Thornton), culminating in a loss in the state semi-finals when the team comes up a foot short of the goal line. During the course of that season, Gaines is accused of overworking their star running back, Boobie Miles, who tears an MCL during a blowout win. To get into the playoffs that year, Permian had to win a coin toss against another team with the same record.
Reality: Boobie Miles actually tore his MCL on Astroturf during a preseason scrimmage game. Also, during the playoff semi-final, it was the opposing team who made a fourth quarter comeback, and Permian’s QB didn’t come short of the goal line — on the last play of the game, he threw an incomplete pass that was tipped by the opposing team. Otherwise, Friday Night Lights, but for a few number changes, some anachronisms, the fact that the coin toss was between three teams (and not two), and the Hollywood depiction of an opposing team’s coach, is fairly accurate, and certainly contains the essence of the truth.