Football, a brutal sport symbolizing man’s primal quest to conquer territory, offers humor as compelling as the viciousness of Dick Butkus, the grace of Lynn Swann, and the agility of Walter Payton.
Necessary Roughness exemplifies the underdog theme, a common focus in sports films. Film critic Roger Ebert noted, “I fell for it again this time, because it was well done, and because the movie doesn’t try to pump itself up into more than it is, a good-humored entertainment.”
Starting from scratch after a corruption scandal, which includes recruiting violations and steroid abuse, forces the firing of its coaches and the expulsion of its players, except one, the Texas State Fighting Armadillos hires Coach Ed “Straight Arrow” Gennero. A lack of players forces him to rebuild by employing “iron man” football, where the same players take the field on offense and defense.
At the heart of the team is a player who might have ranked with Joe Montana, Dan Marino, and Terry Bradshaw as one of the best quarterbacks ever. Paul Blake, on the verge of entering college, quit football to take care of his family’s farm after his father died—a decade and a half ago. To pass the time, Blake throws footballs at a scarecrow that he dresses with a football jersey.
Necessary Roughness utilizes the device of gathering misfits coming together to win the game against a superior opponent. Blake throws the winning touchdown to Charlie Banks, the only player remaining from the corruption-laden squad.
Little Giants, too, relies on the underdog story, pitting the O’Shea brothers—played by Ed O’Neill and Rick Moranis—against each other. Kevin O’Shea is a former Heisman Trophy winner, hence, a football legend in his hometown of Urbania, Ohio. Now a pee wee football coach, Kevin prides himself on leading the best players Urbania has to offer. Danny, meanwhile, strives to lead the misfits cast off by Kevin. During halftime of the climactic game between Kevin’s Little Cowboys and Danny’s Little Giants, Danny tells a story about how he beat Kevin racing their bikes down Cherry Hill, an iconic part of Urbania. It only happened once, but it proves that you only need “one time” to score a victory.
A trick play called “Annexation of Puerto Rico” helps the Little Giants defeat the Little Cowboys, despite the latter’s superiority.
The Replacements told the story of the fictional Washington Sentinels during a players strike. Shane Falco finds another shot at football stardom when he replaces Eddie Martel as the Sentinels quarterback. A college phenom, Falco suffered an ignominious defeat in a bowl game, burned out quickly in the professional ranks, and wonders what might have been. Jimmy McGinty, the newly hired coach, recruits Falco along with other players who, under other circumstances, would never get a second look. Or a first one, probably.
Martel crosses the picket line, though the players don’t have the same respect for him that they do for Falco. McGinty sends in Falco, the Sentinels win, and another underdog football story ends in victory.
Gene Hackman, Keanu Reeves, and Brett Cullen played, respectively, McGinty, Falco, and Martel.
On his web site www.brettcullen.com, Cullen revealed his awe at standing on the field at Nextel Stadium—which served as the Sentinels’ home stadium—with the film’s location manager.
“I call him the first night I got into Baltimore and said, ‘Let’s get together. I’d been there for a day,” Cullen explained. “So, we had dinner at McCormick and Schmidt’s and after dinner we got in his car and he said, ‘Come on, I want to show you something.’ We drove over to the stadium, which was completely dark. We went around to the back entrance and he flashed his badge to security and they let us in. We walked onto the field and out to the 50-yard line in the Ravens stadium, and you look at all those seats being full, and you’re playing football and you’re in a fishbowl and everyone’s screaming at you—it’s a lot like being a gladiator. I saw it and went, ‘I get it now.’ That was real thrilling for me. That was one of those moments before we started doing the picture that I went, ‘Wow this is going to be cool.'”
The Longest Yard stars Burt Reynolds, James Hampton, Michael Conrad, Bernadette Peters, and Eddie Albert. This 1974 film centers on a game between prisoners and prison guards. It’s fixed, though—the warden ensures a victory for the guards by threatening Paul Crewe, played by Reynolds. Crewe, a former pro quarterback, was known to fix football games. In turn, the prisoners think he’s thwrowing this game for some kind of bribe. All is going according to the warden’s plan until Crewe decides to turn against the warden.
In his memoir But Enough About Me, Reynolds exposed his method of filming at a real-life prison—Georgia State Prison in Reidsville. “I’d filmed in prisons before, and I knew it was essential to have the inmates on your side, so in addition to building a football field complete with bleachers, we had six basketball courts installed on the yard. I also knew from experience that every prison has its inmate leadership, so I went to the top man and made him my stand-in. His name was Ringo. He looked like a Brahma bull with glasses and he was serving ninety-nine years for manslaughter and kidnapping.
“Six months later I was in Nashville shooting W.W. and the Dixie Dancekings when who should appear at my trailer door but Ringo. There were a couple of state troopers guarding me, and I was afraid of bloodshed if they knew who he was, so I sent him to James Hampton’s trailer. Ringo told Jimmy that he’d decided ‘to take a vacation.’ The next time I saw Ringo, he was leaning against a wall watching us shoot a scene. A week or so later I heard that he was back at Reidsville, in solitary confinement.
M*A*S*H, based on the novel by Richard Hooker, revolves around the antics of the doctors, nurses, and enlisted men at Mobile Army Surgical Hospital #4077 during the Korean War. A football scene gives real-life NFL player Fred Williamson an opportunity to showcase as Dr. Oliver Harmon “Spearchucker” Jones, a neurosurgeon who also played professional football for the 49ers. Through Jones’s tutelage, the 4077th team creates sufficient confidence to place a bet with the rival team from the 325th Evacuation Hospital—with one catch, however. Hawkeye devises a scheme to keep Jones out of the game for the first half. Then, the 4077th will get larger odds from the 325th, bring Jones into the game, and receive a windfall upon victory.
In his review of M*A*S*H for the New York Times, Roger Greenspun wrote, “In one brief night scene, some MASH-men and the chief nurse meet to divide the winnings of the football game. In the distance, a jeep drives by, carrying a white-shrouded corpse. The nurse glances at it for a second, and then turns back to her happy friends—and we have a momentary view of the ironic complexities of life that M*A*S*H means to contain.”
Forrest Gump features the title character as an outstanding kick returner for the University of Alabama. In turn, he becomes an All-American football player. After college, Forrest becomes a war hero in Vietnam, a ping-pong champ, and a shrimp tycoon. In his review for the New York Daily News, Dave Kehr commended director Robert Zemeckis and Tom Hanks, who played the title character, on creating Forrest’s life journey from the 1950s to the 1980s. “With Hanks’ graceful and creative performance at the center (his first role since his Oscar for ‘Philadelphia’), Zemecks combines a mastery of wide-screen composition, camera movement and long-term patterns of theme and image to create na original and deeply moving experience,” wrote Kehr. “The sweetly sentimental and the unbearable grotesque exist side by side, with little to mediate between them.”
An episode of The Odd Couple features Alex Karras as a guest star. In the episode “That Was No Lady,” Felix engages in a romance with a woman named Melanie, who shares his passion for New York City’s culture. Unbeknownst to Felix, Melanie is the wife of Jarrin’ Jake Metcalf, a football star, who’s working with Oscar on his autobiography. When Felix wants to confront Jake because love has made him strong, Oscar responds, “Strength has made him stronger.” In the end, Melanie returns to Jake leaving Felix with wonderful memories that hopefully dull the pain of heartbreak.
Silent film star Harold Lloyd stars in The Freshman, a comedy about a college football player. The Turner Classic Movies web site lauds the film’s production qualities, sourced to Lloyd’s attention to detail: “The Freshman lacks the high stakes of Keaton’s comedies and the pathos of Chaplin’s struggles but it doesn’t lack for comic invention or filmmaking polish. Longtime Lloyd collaborators Sam Taylor and Fred C. Newmeyer direct and his regular writing team (Taylor, Ted Wilde, John Grey, and Tim Whelan) provide the story, gags and titles, but this is Lloyd’s production down the line and lavishes all the time and money necessary to perfect every gag. The campus backgrounds are filled with students, the big dance has Lloyd maneuvering through throngs of couples while quite literally tearing his suit apart (a hilarious sequence that builds to a predictable yet comically perfect gag finale), and the big game looks like ti was shot at a real championship match. Throughout it all, every last extra seems to hit their marks and react on cue.”
A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on February 7, 2016.