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'When the Game Stands Tall': Time for Another High School Football Movie

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Every few years, Hollywood feels compelled to offer a high school football movie.

Some are fictional dramas meant to showcase rising stars, such as a young Tom Cruise in 1983's "All the Right Moves," or James Van Der Beek in 1999's "Varsity Blues." Others are comedy-dramas with a fish-out-of-water theme: "Wildcats," with Goldie Hawn as the boys' football coach in that 1986 release, and "Lucas," from the same year, with Corey Haim as the 98-pound weakling who goes out for the varsity football team to try to win the affections of a girl.

But the best high school football movies have been those based on, or at least inspired by, real events. "Remember the Titans," from 2000, told the true story of a Virginia high school struggling in 1971 with integration it its classrooms and its football locker room, (though some have suggested that that film deserved a penalty flag for taking liberties with the truth). "Friday Night Lights" was the engrossing 2004 adaptation of the H.G. Bissinger book about the 1988 Permian High School Panthers of Odessa, Texas, a place that takes its high school football seriously.

On Friday, the latest entry to the list opens nationwide in the form of "When the Game Stands Tall." Among the above-mentioned films, it is closest to "Friday Night Lights," though it falls a touchdown short of equaling the quality of that work.

The new release is about the legendarily successful football team at De La Salle High School in Concord, Calif., a Roman Catholic school run by the De La Salle Christian Brothers order. The film is adapted from the 2003 book of the same name by Neil Hayes, who at that time was a writer for the Contra Costa (Calif.) Times.

As the film opens, the De La Salle Spartans are winning another state title in 2003 and bringing their unmatched winning streak to 151 games. The star is Coach Bob Ladouceur (Jim Caviezel), who amid the glory of the streak tells a well-wisher: "Winning a lot of games is doable. Teaching kids there's more to life—that's hard."

So we know there is some teaching along that line coming. But even winning games becomes a little less doable for De La Salle, amid a series of setbacks and tragedies.

The school's conference opponents grumble during an off-season meeting that the De La Salle is stacking its team "with cherry-picket talent," as another team's coach puts it. 

Meanwhile, Ladouceur, who sneaks a cigarette now and then, suffers a seizure and ends up with five heart stents. He won't be on the sidelines for a while as the new season nears.

But the school and the football team are beset by even worse tragedy as a top player is cut down by inner-city violence. 

Cavaziel played the lead (or perhaps we should say, the Lead) in Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ." He is sometimes so stoic as Coach Ladouceur, I half expected him to start speaking to the team in Aramaic.

It is nice to see a high school football coach in the movies have classroom teaching duties. Ladouceur teaches religion at the private school, and one of his Gospel lessons will have a real impact on one of his players later in the story.

As in many of the other high school football movies, if not most sports films, there are some obligatory cast types. There is the supportive wife (here, Laura Dern as Mrs. Ladouceur), who coaxes her husband to consider some of the college coaching offers that come his way and to spend more time with his family. (One of their sons in on the football team, and he still has trouble connecting with his dad.)

There is the pudgy, balding assistant coach, which every football film seems to have. Here, it is Michael Chiklis ("The Commish," "The Shield") in a relatively low-key but partially comic role.

And there has to be at least one overbearing parent who takes athletics too seriously. In this movie, it's a father who pushes his son to pursue an individual touchdown record without regard for what that means for the team.

Finally, there are the sports announcers, whose play-by-play keep the audience in the game in sports movies. There's a much-anticipated clash between De La Salle and another powerhouse California team. The announcers declare that it is the first nationally televised high school game in the country. That may or may not have been true in 2004 (I think there were some earlier efforts). But in a testament to the place of sports in our society, there have been national high school football and basketball rankings for years, and the ESPN channels air at least one high school football game a week. The horses are definitely out of the barn on this one.

One of the film's most moving scenes is when Ladouceur organizes a team trip to the local Veterans Affairs hospital, where the players get to meet some people struggling with rehabilitation for lost limbs and other war injuries. Of course, there are some light bulbs that go off in the players' heads about putting things in perspective. 

Films such as "When the Game Stands Tall" tend to inspire group outings for real high school football teams. Here's a suggestion for coaches: Yes, take your team to the movie. It will be a good bonding experience. But Follow Coach Ladouceur's example and take your players to the local VA hospital, too.

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