Well, football season is here again. But what with the Ray Rice scandal, bad behavior by other gridiron stars, and the rising anxiety about brain damage among athletes of all ages, football no longer seems like an all-American sport (in the positive sense, at least). How times have changed! My personal memory banks are full of movies in which football is presented as the great American pastime.
If you go back far enough into the annals of Hollywood, you’ll find Knut Rockne, All American. This thoroughly wholesome film was released in 1940, at a time when America had not yet entered World War II. While fighting raged in Europe and Asia, Americans turned inward, clinging to their isolation from the rest of the globe’s problems. Many cheered for this mostly true story of a Norwegian immigrant who grew up to be Notre Dame’s legendary football coach. As played by Pat O’Brien, Rockne was both an innovator and an inspirational figure. The film’s most famous sequence involves a outstanding freshman halfback, George Gipp, who leads the Fighting Irish to victory before succumbing to a fatal infection. As Gipp lays dying in a campus hospital, he urges his teammates to win one in his memory. "Rock,” he says to his coach (who later uses his words to motivate his squad), “sometime when the team is up against it and the breaks are beating the boys, tell them to go out there with all they've got and win just one for the Gipper.'”
Needless to say, George Gipp was played by the young Ronald Reagan. And when Reagan entered political life, “Win one for the Gipper” became his mantra. The film itself won no prizes -- for the Gipper or anyone else -- but in 1997 it was selected for preservation via the National Film Registry, overseen by the Library of Congress, in recognition of its cultural and historic significance.
I haven’t, of course, watched every movie made about football, though there’s warm spot in my heart for 1968’s Paper Lion. In this charming and funny flick, the always appealing Alan Alda plays writer George Plimpton who, for the sake of a Sports Illustrated byline, poses as a rookie quarterback for the Detroit Lions. There’s nothing like seeing (and empathizing with) someone who’s totally out of his league. Believe me, the audience feels every hit, every sack. Ouch!
More recently, two movies have depicted high school football as a laboratory for the solving of social problems. In 2010 The Blind Side won Sandra Bullock an Oscar. Of course she doesn’t put on the helmet and shoulder pads herself. As real-life heroine Leigh Anne Tuohy, Bullock is a genuine steel magnolia, a blonde Southern belle who welcomes into her comfortable life a homeless and troubled black kid with football talent to burn. After the usual trials and tribulations, of course he does her proud, going on to be the first-round draft pick of the Baltimore Ravens.
Equally inspirational is 2000’s Remember the Titans, another true story about high school athletes who make good. In this one, the always stalwart Denzel Washington is an African-American who in 1971 is named coach of a newly integrated Virginia team. Tensions between black and white players naturally mount, but Coach Boone finds ways for everyone to get along. I watched this film to catch the performance of Ryan Hurst, a star actor at Santa Monica High School who plays (very well) a showboating white kid. In a much smaller role, someone named Ryan Gosling is there too. How refreshing it is to see football players as good guys!