Zelda and I each have a t-shirt from our high school that reads, “LCS Football: Undefeated Since 1915.” Technically, it’s true…on account of the fact that we didn’t actually have a football team. Our 198-person, largely female student body would have had some trouble fielding a team (for lack of numbers, not for lack of boys — girls can kick butt/pigskin too); we had better things to do anyway (see: Quick Recall). But even at our team-less school, high school football reigned supreme during the fall, with their college peers a close second. Without a team of our own, we got sucked into the legendary rivalry between the two biggest all-boys Catholic high schools in town, and their annual face-off was a huge event that drew us, and a stadium’s worth of other folks, to watch the Shamrocks battle the Tigers. So despite my school not fielding its own squad, my childhood and adolescence were still filled with many of the cinematic clichés that come when you grow up around the sport.
I’ve always been around football. It’s been a constant presence in my life since a tender age, and I love it in a nostalgic way that takes me all the way back to being a tiny, blonde (yes, I was blonde then) six-year-old in the stands of Commonwealth Stadium in Lexington. Those high school games also had an impact; even if I didn’t have any real investment in the outcome, the being there with my peers, sucking down Diet Coke that the more daring upperclassman would spike with something stronger, made the event bigger than the game itself. Football to me is childhood and tailgates, family and friends and family friends who are more kin than acquaintance. It’s the changing seasons and a start of a new school year and being a part of something bigger than yourself. And when the crackling of leaves and the faint scent of a charcoal grill get me all nostalgic for games gone by, I turn to the next best thing: football movies.
I am a huge sucker for sports movies. I love an underdog story with a good message and a triumphant ending, so it makes sense that I am a giant fan of movies that use athletic competition as their main plot device. Now that I reside in Brooklyn, football doesn’t fill up every nearby screen come fall. Plus, with age, I’ve become more enthused for the other football (America’s sport of the future, but more on that another time). So instead I turn to the fictional, or more often fictionalized, sports stories that can be found in my Netflix queue. When the leaves turn and the air goes crisp, I revisit my old friends at T.C. Williams or Permian High. These are seven of my favorite movies about football — a cinematic touchdown (with bonus, non-movie field goal) to guide you through the coming season.
Remember The Titans: “In Virginia, high school football is a way a life.” Sheryl Yoast, our narrator (played by a young Hayden Panettiere), opens the film with these words. While football is the guiding force behind the plot of this film, the story is really about life: race relations in the 1960’s South, a town divided, the understanding that grows as they are united by their first integrated football team. The best sports movies are about more than sports: They use sports as a metaphor, a reflection of life itself. Teams are a symbol of the community, a rallying point during hard times. Remember the Titans is about football, yes, but more so it’s about a town dealing with change and learning to come to grips with its past while stepping into the future. Also, Denzel Washington, Donald Faison, tiny Ryan Gosling.
The Replacements: So my absolute favorite Keanu Reeves-helmed sports movie is 2001’s Hardball (though Keanu’s performance leaves much to be desired), but this one comes in a close second (unless we count Point Break as a sports movie). Reeves stars as a washed up Ohio State quarterback recruited by Gene Hackman’s character when his pro players go on strike. While Keanu’s Shane Falco may not be as talented as the diva QB he replaced, he’s got more heart for the game, and that wins out every time.
Friday Night Lights (film): Based on a true story, and the book of the same name, this movie follows the Permian High School Panthers of 1988. It’s a story about an Odessa, Texas, team that tries to defy the odds, and the city that fanatically supports them. Like Remember the Titans, it touches on the social issues of the time and place — classism, racism, segregation, poverty — as the team overcomes athletic and personal obstacles to do the impossible (insert inspirational music here).
Friday Night Lights (TV series): Okay, I’m cheating a bit, but hear me out. The movie is good…but honestly I am more enamored with the television series (this may be due to my general tendency towards serial media: Tumblr LOVES this shit). I urge you to venture down the five-season rabbit hole into Dillon, TX. Get to know Saracen, Smash, Riggins, and the other good, non-football-playing folks of this Texas town, and you will root for the Panthers just as hard as the fictional town folk. Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose.
Varsity Blues: Another story of the high expectations surrounding high school football in rural Texas, this one stars a Dawson’s Creek-era James Van Der Beek as a back-up quarterback with Ivy League dreams and an overbearing, football-obsessed father. I love it for the clichés, for the fact that it’s spawned many a parody and a copycat, I love the late 90s soundtrack (Green Day, Foo Fighters, Aaliyah) and the pre-The Fast and the Furious Paul Walker. Bonus: It’s Regina George’s favorite movie.
The Longest Yard: Best viewed as a double feature, starting with the original starring Burt Reynolds as Paul Crewe, followed by the remake starring Adam Sandler in the same role. Crewe, a disgraced pro quarterback, is sent to jail and asked to form a football team from the rag-tag group of inmates. They embark upon the ultimate underdogs’ journey in an attempt to beat the highly-trained team of prison guards. I really love good remakes, seeing how things were changed to suit a new time period, different actors, etc. Chris Rock is a highlight of the Sandler version, as well as Nelly and Terry Crews. Plus Burt Reynolds returns to play the coach, Nate Scarborough, and brings the whole thing full circle.
EXTRA POINT A future film about one of these ladies: Theresa Dion, the first girl to play on a high school varsity team in the U.S.; Ashley Martin or Katie Hnida, two of the first girls to dress for and score in a NCAA Division 1 game; Erin Dimeglio, who took the field as the all-important quarterback at her high school in Florida; or Haley Abeyta, who’s showing her impressive strength as a linebacker. As much as I love the boys of fall, girls have got game too! And there are a disappointing number of films out there about girls sports, football or otherwise. Each of these stories deserves the cinematic treatment as much as the boys. Cue the poignant music.