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“When the Game Stands Tall” Falls Short

by Marisa Marcellino | Posted on Monday, June 30th, 2014

So, I’ll start by saying this: I love sports.  Ipso facto: I love sports movies.  I grew up idolizing “Rudy.”  My friends called me “smalls” from “Sandlot”.  I’ve been “Ice Box” from “Little Giants” for Halloween countless times.  Embarrassingly enough, it was even my middle name on Facebook for a little while.  I grew up flapping my arms like I was PJ in “Angels in the Outfield” and I’ve been known to say “It could happen” more than a few times.

My favorite sports movie of all time is of course, “Space Jam” and I still listen to “I believe I can Fly” at least once a week.

Again, I love sports movies.  Many of them defined my childhood.  So when I was headed into the screening of “When the Game Stands Tall” on Thursday night I was pretty excited.  I was predicting a “Friday Night Lights” (which is what the press release compared it to) meets “Remember the Titans.”  Sports are unpredictable, I should have known better.

“When the Game Stands Tall” is based on the book by Neil Hayes.  It is the story of the De La Salle High School football team from Concord, California that held the longest winning streak in sports history.  The Spartans won 151 games during “The Streak” as it was repetitiously referred to throughout the movie.  “The Streak” came to an end on September 4, 2004 when they were defeated by Bellevue High School from Washington State.  Let the drama ensue…

The movie opens with the Spartans demolishing teams, game after game and cruising to another undefeated season and state championship.  The team is led by Coach Bob Ladouceur, played by Jim Caveziel, who preaches the “perfect effort from snap to whistle.”  Team meetings are held in what appear to be the coach’s backyard in which teenage boys stand up willingly to share their feelings (because that’s realistic).  They emotionally read out loud their fellow teammates’ weekly goals and accomplishments on what they call “Commitment Cards.”  One player even references his cancer-stricken grandfather who can no longer attend games but everyday waits for him to get home just so he can know how the team is doing.  It is a love fest through and through with one player saying, “We will never experience anything like this ever again our lives.”

The rock of the team, Coach Ladouceur, suffers a heart attack shortly after “The Streak” lives on for another season.  It is revealed that the infallible role model has taken up smoking and never sees his family.  The façade of “the perfect effort” being all that matters, was simply that, a façade.  It really meant much more to the coach, the team and the town (Is this supposed to be shocking?).  The coach is sidelined for months and he starts devoting time to his family which he has neglected for years (he learns to barbeque, it’s really heartwarming).

The next season arrives and “The Streak” ends.  The team is sobbing in the locker room and it seems that the town’s whole world has crashed down.  The assistant coach tells the team: “Don’t let a game define who you are.”  Even though that’s clearly what they all have always done.

When it rains it pours… a player who had just graduated and was heading to the University of Oregon to play football on a full ride is shot and killed.  They continue to lose games.  A player’s dad physically threatens him if he doesn’t break the state touchdown record in front of the whole town.

So what happens to make all right with the world?  The religious influence in the movie really starts to pick up as we realize that Coach Ladouceur also doubles as the religion teacher at the high school.  The team sits and reads passages together and they also pay a visit to the veteran’s ward at a local hospital. They bathe amputees and the coach’s son races a man with a bionic leg on a treadmill while the whole ward watches (the men with the bionic leg wins, don’t worry).  And as you guessed it, things start to turn around!

The team starts winning after opening the season 0-2.  They win the state championship and beat the best team in the country.  They come together as one to honor their coach with an odd raising of hats and helmets as the clock ticks down in the final game.

My issue isn’t with the story, it’s a great story.  But it didn’t need the added drama or the continuous lines of perfection, being a family and doing what’s right.  Less talk, more action.  There was so much lip flap of “give and it shall be given to you” but all we really saw were tire pulls at practice and players and coaches being emotional.  I could never really figure out what was so innately special about the team or its culture besides “The Streak.”

I wanted to believe, I tried to believe, but in the end I couldn’t force myself to be indoctrinated into the church of De Le Salle football.

The movie hits theaters in August but save your cash and catch it when it comes out on video.  If you are looking for an August sports flick, catch “Little Giants” under the stars in Queens on August 26th.  It’s free and there is complimentary popcorn.  Double win.  Plus, the “Ice Box” will be there. Trifecta.

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