I’ve always been a big fan of films based upon true stories, and if they happen to be about sports, so much the better. Thus, “When the Game Stands Tall” was one of the very few movies I was looking forward to seeing this summer. Adapted from Neil Hayes’ 2003 book of the same name, this is the incredible story of the De La Salle High School football team in Concord, Calif. Under the leadership of Coach Bob Ladouceur the Spartans recorded an astounding 151 consecutive victories from 1992 to 2003.
When I first saw the trailers for this film, I immediately thought of “Friday Night Lights,” which I consider one of the best series in the history of television. “When the Game Stands Tall” definitely had the potential to take its place beside such classics as “Hoosiers,” “Remember the Titans,” “Rudy,” and “Miracle” as one of the finest inspirational sports movies ever made. Sadly, it falls short of that distinction because of just one flaw, but it’s a major one.
Quite simply the film picks up the De La Salle story at the end of the 2003 season with the 151st win and chronicles several tragedies that befall the team before an opening season loss in 2004 snaps the streak. First Coach Lad (Jim Caviezel) suffers a heart attack requiring surgery and putting his coaching career in jeopardy. And then one of his former players who had just been awarded a scholarship to Oregon was murdered.
The coach ultimately recovers his health to the point where he can resume his leadership of the team, but the Spartans lose their first two games of the 2004 campaign, and the heart of the film is how the head coach and his defensive coordinator and assistant coach Terry Edison manage to turn things around while teaching the team members some valuable lessons about life in the process.
As a sports movie “When the Game Stands Tall” has a lot going for it, not the least of which is that it’s based upon a the true story of one of the most amazing winning streaks in sports history. And just for the record, that unbeaten string was no fluke because during his 34 years as De La Salle’s head coach Ladouceur compiled a record of 399-25-5 for a stellar .934 winning percentage. At the end of the film a graphic erroneously reports that Ladouceur still is coaching at De La Salle, but he retired in January 2013.
In addition to telling a great story, the film offers some of the best game sequences I’ve ever seen in a movie like this. You will become so involved in what’s happening on the field that you’ll completely forget you’re watching a movie. The superb camera angles and the sound editing for the hitting going really put you in the middle of the action.
Whereas the game sequences are excellent, one of the best scenes in the film occurs when the coaches think their players need some inspiration, and so they take them to visit the patients in a veterans’ hospital. Watching the De La Salle team members realize what constitutes real courage as they talk and interact with true heroes who have sacrificed so much in defending their country is at once powerful, moving, and awe inspiring.
For the most part the acting in the film is quite good, and this is particularly true of all the young performers who portray the football players. Their interaction on and off the field is consistently believable, and Matthew Daddario, who plays Coach Lad’s son Danny, and Alexander Ludwig as star running back Chris Ryan are exceptional.
Other notable performances include Chiklis as the fiery assistant coach and Clancy Brown as Chris Ryan’s obnoxiously selfish father who wants his son to break the state record for touchdowns purely for his own aggrandizement.
Of course the driving force behind every successful athletic team is the head coach, and Ladouceur’s remarkable record is indisputable. So what kind of a man can produce winning football teams year after year. In the film’s production notes producer David Zelon revealed Ladouceur’s philosophy.
“Coach Lad’s philosophy was that if the kids truly believed in one another, made a solid commitment and then gave a perfect level of effort on every play, then all that mattered far more than talent. And that was his genius. He didn’t need to start with great players because he coached them to understand what greatness is.”
“Commitment. Accountability. Perfect effort. And finally love. This bond is what has led countless Spartans to achieve far more than anyone, including themselves, believed they were capable of. — Coach Bob Ladouceur
Now before we continue discussing the film, please allow me a brief digression. I have been around sports most of my life. I played both high school and college football (Not particularly well I might add.), and my father was an assistant college football coach for a time. In fact I even dabbled in coaching football as a volunteer for Coach Bob Roe at West Liberty early my teaching career there. The point is I have either known or been exposed to quite a few coaches in addition to observing others during televised games, and I firmly believe if Ladouceur is really the way Caviezel portrays him, his teams would not have won a game!
After I saw the film, I did some research on Ladouceur, and I also watched videos of some of his speeches, and I will admit that the guy is a bit low key for a coach, but he certainly is more animated and emotional than he appears to be in the film. In fact Caviezel imbues his character with all the enthusiasm of a somnambulistic zombie. In the production notes, Cavieszel discussed his approach the role.
“It’s hard to play someone who’s living,” he confesses, “because everybody wants to see if you got it right. But I didn’t set out to get every single detail of Bob right. What I wanted to get right was the spirit of the story — which to me is about how Bob was able to teach young men what it means to give full effort and to be dependable to others. He was teaching them to be great leaders in their own communities one day, and it was never about winning. The winning was just a byproduct. It was always about loving each other; it was about the brotherhood. And that was something inspiring to me.
“The biggest challenge was to give the talks he gave on another kind of wavelength, to capture how he engaged kids by speaking directly from the heart. The way Bob speaks, he brings the personal fire of these kids to life. He lays it out there, but there’s no rah-rah. His motivation is all about his dedication to his players and not about the show.”
“It ain’t about the football. It ain’t about scoring touchdowns. It’s about moving you in a direction that can assist you and help you to grow up…so that when you take your place out in the world and out in our community you can be depended on.” — Coach Bob Ladouceur
Caviezel’s performance in this film is so lackluster that it would have earned him a failing grade at the Keanu “I-Can’t-Act” Reeves School of the Performing Arts. I don’t know what speeches of Ladoceur’s he watched, but they certainly weren’t the ones I saw. All the way through the movie I found myself wishing that Kyle Chandler (“Friday Night Lights”) had been cast in the part of the coach. But despite Caviezel’s pathetic showing, I loved this film and very easily could sit through it again because of what it teaches about life and coming of age. The ending is so effective that it induces chills or tears or both. “When the Game Stands Tall” should have a final grade of 10 because it definitely scores a touchdown, but it gets a regrettable nine. Caviezel’s fumble cost it the extra point.
“I truly believe that life’s most impressionable lessons are ones when something bad happens to you or something challenging confronts you.” — Coach Bob Ladouceur