The Dallas Cowboys did it again; they made an early exit from the NFL playoffs. So, as a Cowboys fan, what do I do now their season is abruptly over? Maybe the next best thing: watching movies about football. And that is precisely what I did. In this post, I will focus only on two—one based on actual events and one a documentary. (This post contains spoilers, so you might want to watch them first if you haven’t already!)
Watching 12 Mighty Orphans[i] (available now on Starz) reminded me of one of my best friends in high school. He was an undersized defensive lineman at about five feet ten inches and maybe 160 pounds. But pound-per-pound, he was the most formidable player around. In one game as a junior, my friend lined up across from an All-state center, who towered over him at six foot six. But using smarts and quickness, my friend constantly beat his larger opponent, making tackle after tackle.
12 Mighty Orphans tells the true story of a group of undersized orphans who became known as the Mighty Mites and captured the hearts of the nation during the Great Depression. Their coach, Rusty Russell, left a successful program at Temple High School to start a football team at the Masonic House—an orphanage in Fort Worth, Texas. But unfortunately, they barely had enough players to field a team and had no field to play on. In addition, they had no uniforms or equipment, and none of the twelve players had played football before. Ever. But worse, these young men were “throwaway orphans,” having no self-respect or hope that life would ever get better for them. Or as Doc Hall (played by Martin Sheen), the film’s narrator, says: “Orphans were stigmatized as misfits and outcasts and often referred to not as orphans but as inmates. It didn’t matter that they had done nothing wrong. Kids without parents were simply second-class citizens.”
How many of us spend too much time listening to what others think about us? Remember that what other people might think about me is none of my business. Or worse, how many of us repeatedly tell ourselves negative things about ourselves? Studies show that over 85 percent of what we tell ourselves is harmful. So why do we keep listening to those false narratives?
Coach Russell believed that football would help these orphans develop character. He told his players, “You’re better than most boys. You’re unique. You’ve dealt with some hardship. Now you’ve got something to prove, and that’s called motivation.”
At another time, Coach Russell told his team this:
“It’s tough to believe when all you’ve known is hurt and loss and abandonment. I know because I’ve felt it my whole life. I’m an orphan, just like all of y’all. I know what it feels like not to have a mother or a father cheering you on from the stands. I look at you boys, and I can honestly say I’m proud to be an orphan. I’m not ashamed, and I’m not worthless. I’m a mighty warrior. And you’ll feel the same way if you can believe in yourselves and believe in each other. You do that, you’ll be able to do what they all say is impossible. So say it with me. I am worthy. I am valuable. I’m a mighty warrior. I’m a mighty orphan.”
For the players to believe in themselves and each other, there had to be some success on the field. And how do you win against bigger, stronger opponents? You use some creativity and emphasize the abilities you do have. So speed became the name of the game for the orphans. Coach Russell revolutionized football by developing the spread offense, which relied on forward passes (rarely used in the game up to that point), sweeps around the ends and misdirection plays. And it worked. Soon, the Mighty Mites found themselves in the Texas Class A championship game.
The Mighty Mites found themselves down seven to zero at halftime in the championship game. Their opponents had figured out how to stop their spread offense and punished them repeatedly with hard hits against their much smaller opponents. The orphans were ready to give up, but then a player took over in the locker room:
The Mighty Mites battled back and scored a touchdown of their own but missed the extra point. And their final drive came up short, losing 7 to 6.
That was the same score as my friend’s high school football game. And even though the Mighty Mites and my high school lost those games. I considered the Mighty Mites and my friend the real winners because they accomplished so much despite the odds stacked against them. And isn’t that the correct measure of success?
Undefeated[ii] (now available on Netflix) is a documentary about the Manassas High School football team in Memphis, Tennessee. And like Rusty Russell in 12 Mighty Orphans, Manassas had a terrific coach. Coach Bill Courtney took over a program that had never won a playoff game in its 100-plus year history. Worse, the Manassas Tigers had not won a single football game in over ten years.
In the opening scene of the movie, Coach Courtney describes the state of Manassas High’s football program:
“Let’s see here. Starting right guard, shot. No longer in school. Starting linebacker, shot, no longer in school. Two players fighting right in front of the coach when he’s trying to make things work out. Starting center, arrested for shooting somebody in the face with a 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. And you know what? I know damn good and well what I signed up for every year. And I keep coming back because I love this program, and I feel very responsible to make sure that you guys have a football season—that you have a football program you can be proud of.”
Oh, and Coach Courtney is an unpaid volunteer coach.
I love Coach Courtney’s philosophy in his own words:
“The foundation has got to be a solid platform that you can stand on and speak to these kids and say, ‘This is the way you build yourself. If you build yourself this way, and handle yourself this way, and have character, you get to play football. And winning will take care of itself because young men of character, and discipline, and commitment end up winning in life. And they end up winning in football. Well, when you flip it, and the foundation of what you’re doing is football, and you hope all that other stuff follows—well, then you think football builds character—which it does not. Football reveals character.”
As you might expect, all did not go perfectly for the Manassas Tigers. Their first opponent beat them handily. But the life lessons Coach Courtney instilled in them started to pay dividends, and they learned through discipline and commitment they could do hard things, as evidenced in this clip:
Perhaps the best lesson from Undefeated is that we learn more from our failures than our successes. Watch this clip about how we should measure character:
The Manassas Tigers ended up nine and one for the year, earning a trip to the playoffs. As with many things in life, they fell short of their goal, losing their first playoff game by one point. Here is the scene following their heartbreaking loss:
I admit it; I shed a few tears along with Coach Courtney. And like Coach Courtney, in the two hours spent watching this film, I grew to love these young men—for the men of character they had become.
Who knew we could learn so much from a group of high schoolers?
As a postscript, I also recently watched the inspiring film American Underdog.[iii] Although I didn’t have room to write much about it in this post, being fluent in movie quotes, here are my three favorites from the film:
“Destiny belongs to the underdog.”
“Character translates anywhere.”
“Life is not about what you accomplish; it’s about what you become.”
I hope all of us can become people of character, discipline, and commitment. If we do, winning in life will follow us, regardless of whether we ever play football.
[i] 12 Mighty Orphans:
- Production Companies: Santa Rita Film Co, Greenbelt Films, and Michael De Luca Productions
- Director: Ty Roberts
- Screenwriters: Ty Roberts and Lane Garrison (based on the book by Jim Dent)
- Starring: Luke Wilson, Martin Sheen, and Vinessa Shaw
- Release date: June 18, 2021
- Production Companies: Zipper Bros Films, Five Smooth Stones Productions, and Level 22 Productions
- Directors: Daniel Lindsay and T.J. Martin
- Starring: Bill Courtney, O. C. Brown, Montrail “Money” Brown
- Release date: August 3, 2012
[iii] American Underdog:
- Production Companies: City on a Hill Productions, Kingdom Story Company, and Lionsgate
- Directors: Andrew Erwin and Jon Erwin
- Screenwriter: David Aaron Cohen (based on the book by Kurt Warner and Michael Silver)
- Starring: Zachary Levi, Anna Paquin, and Hayden Zaller
- Release date: December 25, 2021