Undefeated (2011)

Directed by Daniel Lindsay & TJ Martin

Usually when I compile movie marathons, documentaries on the subject are excluded. There isn’t a great reason, although I guess with some things there would simply be way too many options on the subject to include them all. So I either have to decide to include way more than I’d like to, or just keep them all out. But when I was putting together my list of football movies, one documentary stood out as important to me, and having not previously seen it, I felt it was a great opportunity for me to finally see the Academy Award winning documentary Undefeated. After finally seeing it, I am very glad I included this special film on my list. It has very powerful moments and stories to tell, not unlike the seminal basketball documentary Hoop Dreams. It is a real triumph in football, documentary filmmaking, and the human spirit.

The Manassas High School Tigers football program has been a laughing stock in the Memphis and Tennessee football landscape for years, until volunteer coach Bill Courtney took over as head coach. He, along with budding freshmen Montrail “Money” Brown, O.C. Brown and Chavis Daniels, begin to turn the inner-city school around, turning the Tigers into winners. But the process is not without its bumps in the road. Money is an academic star too, hoping to escape the slums of Memphis for a college education. O.C. is a great football player, hoping to escape on the back of a college scholarship. Chavis, meanwhile, struggles to remain connected and focused despite his talents, but finds solace in football and his inclusion on the team.

Youth coaches are always the most underappreciated. They more often than not are volunteering their time to spend with our children, teaching them not only a game, but core values of leadership, teamwork, resiliency, and what it takes to win while also being a good sportsman. They aren’t all created equally however, just as every youth coaching job is not created equally. Bill Courtney is an incredible figure for the tireless work he took on with these young men at Manassas. A tremendous amount of patience and caring went into what he was able to do with the Tiger football program, and his dedication and enormous heart really shines through in this film as a beacon for all youth coaches and how they should approach their relationships with their players. No matter their backgrounds, Courtney is able to represent the core tenants of what makes a great coach, on and off the field.

By limiting the focus of the film to three main players on the team, each with a different story to tell, filmmakers Daniel Lindsay and TJ Martin are able to really bring a sense of balance to the film, offering multiple points of view, while keeping it focused enough to not paint in too broad of strokes in telling the Manassas Tigers’ story. It did leave me a little bit wondering about the stories of the other players on the team, but I think that sensation is a direct result to how much I was made to care about the stories of Money, O.C. and Chavis. Surely, theirs were the most striking stories on the team and that is why they were focused on, but I also imagine the other players on the team could tell similarly moving and inspiring stories of broken homes, broken dreams, and the hope of escaping the reality of East Memphis, Tennessee.

There is so much heart in this movie. Heart from coach Bill Courtney in volunteering his time, driving his team to succeed, and most importantly driving his players to succeed in life. Heart from the players in their ability to respond to what Courtney is driving them towards, becoming strong young men who can do more than just make a tackle or score a touchdown. There are so many incredibly touching and moving moments sprinkled throughout the film, it would take a truly tough cookie to not be moved to tears at some point by the stories of Courtney, Money, O.C., Chavis, and the rest of the Manassas Tiger football program.

★★★★☆ – LOVED IT

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