Today we continue our look at classic football movies through the decades with pictures from the ‘70s, ‘80s, 90s and 2000s. Unlike Take 1 of this article, I had a harder time narrowing down the films to just one per decade. Maybe because they came out in my lifetime, or because there’s just been more pigskin-related output from Hollywood with football’s rise in popularity. Either way, I hope you’ll agree with my selections and that they will spark some good memories.
Classics from the 1970s: Brian’s Song (1971), The Longest Yard (1974)
Brian’s Song is a notable item on this list because it actually was a made-for-TV movie, or telefilm. Inspired by the memoir of Bears legend Gale Sayers, I Am Third, this poignant tale recounts the true story of Chicago Bear Brian Piccolo. Making the team as an undrafted free agent in 1965, he worked his way from the practice squad to earning the role of starting fullback in 1969. Bears legend Gale Sayers was the starting tailback and the two became fast friends. In that season, Piccolo was diagnosed with embryonal cell carcinoma. The disease spread quickly and he died on June 16, 1970, at age 26. Brian’s Song was an ABC Movie of the Week the next year and was told through the experience of Sayers, who was played by Billy Dee Williams; James Caan was cast in the role of Brian Piccolo. The movie was so critically acclaimed that it was briefly shown in theaters. The movie won three Emmys—for Best Dramatic Program, Best Teleplay and Best Supporting Actor—and Williams and Caan both earned nominations for their performances.
In stark contrast is the other seminal football flick from this decade, The Longest Yard. This comedy stars Burt Reynolds as a former NFL QB Paul “Wrecking” Crewe sentenced to a short prison term for stealing his girlfriend’s car. He’s cajoled by the overbearing prison warden into coaching in a game pitting a team of the athletic and sociological underdogs—a reluctant team of prison inmates who Crewe must coach—against a team of prison guards who form a semi-pro team managed by the warden. Hilarity ensues as Crewe tries to mold the overmatched inmates (several played by actual former NFL players) into a cohesive team unit. I won’t tell you how it ends, but you can probably guess. The Longest Yard, which won a Golden Globe award for Best Motion Picture (Musical or Comedy), inspired a remake in 2005, starring Adam Sandler as the former QB and Burt Reynolds as a fellow prisoner who volunteers to coach the inmates.
Classic from the 1980s: All the Right Moves (1983), Wildcats (1986)
These ‘80s films are noteworthy more for their stars than their subject matter, but are respectable football films nonetheless. All the Right Moves features a young Tom Cruise playing a frustrated high school defensive back. This was Cruise’s third movie released in 1983; the first was his first leading role in Losin’ It and the second was his breakout film, Risky Business. Cruise’s character, Stefen Djordjevic, lives in an economically depressed town in Pennsylvania and is desperate to earn a football scholarship to escape. His goals pit him against his head coach, played by Craig T. Nelson.
Wildcats features comedy icon Goldie Hawn as Molly McGrath, the daughter of a famous football coach who dreams of coaching a team herself. She finds her “dream” job at an inner-city high school where she has to battle both racism and sexism—not to mention a scheming ex-husband—to earn the respect of her players and community. Though not met with critical acclaim, the film is a good example of campy comedy used to address sensitive social issues. It also happened to be the film debuts of Wesley Snipes and Woody Harrelson.
Classic from the 1990s: Rudy (1993), Any Given Sunday (1999)
No list of football movies would be complete without Rudy, a sentimental, but powerful, look at the real-life story of Daniel “Rudy” Ruettiger, played by Sean Astin. Rudy is the ultimate underdog—he’s small, not terribly talented and comes from an economically disadvantaged family. Despite all his shortcomings, Rudy’s undying dream is to play football for the University of Notre Dame. Unable to gain admittance to the prestigious school, he manages to be admitted to a small junior college close to the university and gets a part-time job on Notre Dame’s groundskeeping staff. Being a Hollywood movie, it shouldn’t be a surprise that his dreams are realized…in a way. The plot may sound like a cliché, but believe me—this is a movie even guys will admit to crying over.
I’m including Any Given Sunday in this decade’s list to provide a stark contrast to Rudy. Whereas the latter is a sentimental look at the relative purity of the college game, Any Given Sunday is a gritty attempt to look inside the business of professional football, which can be ruthless at times. Directed by Oliver Stone, the movie features an ensemble cast, including Al Pacino, Cameron Diaz, Dennis Quaid, James Woods and LL Cool J. Several NFL players also appear, including Lawrence Taylor, Dick Butkus (who also appeared in The Longest Yard and Brian's Song), Emmitt Smith and Johnny Unitas. The plot pits a struggling team of aging, ailing players (and head coach, played by Pacino) against team ownership, personified by an aggressive woman (Diaz) who has inherited the team from her father.
Classic from the 2000s: Remember the Titans (2000), Friday Night Lights (2004), The Blind Side (2009)
Our classics from the last decade are all based on true stories. Remember the Titans took place in Alexandria, Virginia, which was still struggling with integration in the early ‘70s. Denzel Washington plays a man hired to be the new head coach at T.C. Williams High School; the current coach, who is white, will be moving on. However, he reluctantly decides to stay on as an assistant coach to help Washington navigate the racial tension that is still rife on the team and in the community. Fighting through continuing resentment, and competing personal agendas, the two ultimately find ways to unite the players as teammates.
Friday Night Lights was based on the book, Friday Night Lights: A Town, a Team and a Dream, written by H.G. Bissinger. Bissinger chronicled the story of the 1988 Permian High School football team in Odessa, Texas, a town absolutely devoted to the game of football. The movie spawned the wildly popular NBC television series of the same name. Themes of socioeconomic strife and racism run in the background of both the book and the movie. Actor Billy Bob Thornton plays coach Gary Gaines who has to balance the health and maturity of his players with the enormous pressure to win brought upon him by school administrators and the community.
|Oher with his adoptive parents at Ole Miss|
I hope you enjoyed our look at classic football movies—and that your Netflix account is current!