Fabulous football flicks: 45 gridiron movies to get you warmed up Super Bowl 45
February 4, 2011 8:00 PM
Melinda Sue Gordon
George Clooney as Bulldogs team captain Dodge Connolly in "Leatherheads."
By Barbara Vancheri Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Football long ago turned into the great American pastime in terms of sports movies.
Whether they focus on the team, the town, the tomfoolery or the occasional agent or waterboy, they typically draw audiences in droves.
It is not too late to raid the public library, troll rental or store shelves, blow the dust off your DVDs or (egads) videotapes and cruise the TV channels for something to watch before the pre-pre-pre-game shows.
This is not a definitive list, just one with 45 suggestions -- one for every Super Bowl. To vote on your favorite from our list of 10 MVP titles, go to this PG Poll.
In chronological order:
• "The Blind Side," 2009 -- Oscar-winning Sandra Bullock is Leigh Anne Tuohy, a Memphis woman who welcomed a homeless teen into her house and transformed his life -- and that of her family. That young man, Michael Oher, grew up to be an offensive tackle for the Baltimore Ravens. (He, by the way, will tell his story in "I Beat the Odds: From Homelessness, to The Blind Side and Beyond," due in bookstores Tuesday.)
• "The Express," 2008 -- Rob Brown stars as the late Ernie Davis, the historic Heisman winner and one of the greatest running backs in the history of college ball. Mr. Davis battled prejudice on and off the field, and after playing at Syracuse he signed a record rookie contract with the Cleveland Browns, only to be diagnosed with an illness that would steal his dream and his life.
• "Leatherheads," 2008 -- George Clooney is a charming football hero who can toss off lines such as "You're only as young as the women you feel," John Krasinski a golden-boy war hero and Renee Zellweger a spitfire newswoman in a romcom set in 1925.
• "The Game Plan," 2007 -- Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson is perfect as a hotshot quarterback and party animal whose bachelor lifestyle is disrupted by the arrival of an 8-year-old daughter he never knew he had. Familiar fun but heartwarming.
• "We Are Marshall," 2006 -- Win-loss records are put into perspective in this account of the 1970 plane crash that killed Marshall University football players, coaches, other staffers, fans and the flight crew, 75 all told. It dramatizes the disaster, the aftermath and the effort to heal Huntington, W.Va., and the team.
• "Facing the Giants," 2006 -- Uplifting if sometimes amateurish film about faith and high school football that was made for $100,000 by Georgia churchgoers and earned more than $10 million at the box office.
• "Invincible," 2006 -- Mark Wahlberg, now on screen as a Massachusetts boxer, is Vince Papale, a real-life bartender and substitute teacher who made the Philadelphia Eagles in 1976 at age 30 after answering an ad for an open tryout. Greg Kinnear is coach Dick Vermeil, who dreamed up the publicity stunt that allowed Mr. Papale to put on the glass slipper.
• "Gridiron Gang," 2006 -- A 1993 documentary of the same name inspired this story of a probation officer (Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson) and the teen criminals he molded into a football team. "I expect better from you" he preached, and they delivered.
• "The Longest Yard," 2005 -- Adam Sandler and Chris Rock star in a remake of the 1974 Burt Reynolds classic about a former pro QB behind bars who leads an inmate team against the guards. Mr. Reynolds turns up as a one-time NFL coach, long since imprisoned, who helps the convicts to work as a team. The language was tamed to get a PG-13 so lobbing the f-bomb is kept under control.
• "Friday Night Lights," 2004 -- Who knows how many coaches cribbed the speech delivered by Billy Bob Thornton. "Being perfect is about being able to look your friends in the eye and know that you didn't let them down. I want you to put each other in your hearts forever -- because forever is about to happen." The movie is about high school football in Odessa, Texas, and its cast includes Garrett Hedlund as a tailback with a tendency to fumble and an alcoholic father (Tim McGraw). Today they're in "Country Strong," and "Friday Night Lights" is a TV show.
• "Radio," 2003 -- A 1996 Sports Illustrated article inspired this family-friendly film about the relationship between a South Carolina high school football coach and a man who is "just a little slower than most." Thanks to Ed Harris and Cuba Gooding Jr., it will restore your faith in humanity.
• "Remember the Titans," 2000 -- Denzel Washington's role as real-life football coach Herman Boone plays to his strengths: natural athleticism, leadership, determination and charisma. Mr. Boone is hired by an Alexandria, Va., high school to coach its newly integrated football team in 1971 in this rousing film invariably cited as a favorite by high school athletes.
• "The Replacements," 2000 -- In some union circles, they might be called scabs. Here, though, they're replacement football players, led by a legendary coach (Gene Hackman) and a Sugar Bowl washout (Keanu Reeves) who makes a living cleaning barnacles off boats and gets a second chance at the big time.
• "Any Given Sunday," 1999 -- On any given Sunday, anything can happen. And it does when the first- and second-string quarterbacks are hurt, and the backup (Jamie Foxx) is sent into battle by the Miami Sharks coach (Al Pacino). This Oliver Stone drama is like a halftime show that throws everything at the audience, from scheming owners and egomaniacal players to locker-room nudity.
• "Varsity Blues," 1999 -- James Van Der Beek stepped out of the shadows of "Dawson's Creek" and convincingly turned into a high school quarterback chafing under a win-at-all-costs coach played by Jon Voight. You can almost feel the crunching hits and the hard tackles. The rest, however, is calculated teenage fantasy.
• "The Waterboy," 1998 -- Adam Sandler is the water carrier for a college football team who discovers his own gridiron talent. More crude than comic, it nevertheless is studded with cameos by the likes of Lynn Swann, Bill Cowher, Jimmy Johnson, Brent Musberger, Dan Patrick, Lawrence Taylor and others.
• "Jerry Maguire," 1996 -- Forget that win one for the Gipper stuff. This gave us a catchphrase for our time: "Show me the money." And, in Cuba Gooding Jr.'s case, the Oscar.
• "Little Giants," 1994 -- Rick Moranis and Ed O'Neill are rival coaches of Pop Warner football teams in this "Bad News Bears" clone set in a small Ohio town. The final showdown is as improbable as it is predictable, but there are enough wrinkles to make it amusing.
• "The Program," 1993 -- A month after releasing this football drama with James Caan as a college coach and Craig Sheffer as a troubled QB, Disney's Touchstone Pictures sent replacement reels to 1,200 theaters. The new reels deleted a scene in which drunken jocks lie down in the middle of the road while traffic rolls by. Copycat incidents led to the death of one teen and critical injuries to two others.
• "Rudy," 1993 -- Sean Astin stars in this corny but inspiring real-life ''Rocky" story about a young man who dreams of playing football for Notre Dame. The roadblocks are many: his grades, his unsympathetic teachers, his scornful or discouraging relatives, his lack of money and his size, just 5 feet 61/2 inches and 185 pounds. He arms himself with pluck, perseverance and prayer and then studies, works out and wins a spot on the practice team. And for 27 shining seconds one day in 1975, he bounds onto the field against Georgia Tech and into the team's official record books.
• "School Ties," 1992 -- Brendan Fraser is a winning quarterback from Scranton who is recruited to a fancy New England prep school in the '50s. All is well until his pals discover he's Jewish. This is more than just a football flick. It's a potent lesson in prejudice and honor codes for all ages.
• "The Last Boy Scout," 1991 -- Why is this such an ugly film? For starters, in the opening scenes, a pro football player -- under pressure from gambling forces to score more touchdowns -- pulls out a gun and shoots a tackler on the field during a Monday night game. Later, we get a would-be assassin falling from a light tower and passing through the blades of a low-flying helicopter. With Damon Wayans as an ex-QB and Bruce Willis as a burned-out Secret Service agent.
• "Necessary Roughness," 1991 -- When a Texas university is blitzed by the NCAA for every rule violation imaginable, the school hires a principled coach who ends up with so few players they have to play offense and defense. Scott Bakula is a 34-year-old QB who quit college to run the family farm, and Kathy Ireland plays a placekicker.
• "Everybody's All American," 1988 -- This is the story of what happens when the world declares you a hero and then yanks the golden cloak off your shoulders -- leaving you a mere mortal or worse, an ex-football star who must retell game stories until the memories are meaningless. Based on a novel by Frank Deford, it stars Dennis Quaid, Jessica Lange and Timothy Hutton, with fine support from John Goodman and Carl Lumbly.
• "Wildcats," 1986 -- Goldie Hawn is a high school teacher who ends up the first female head coach at a tough Chicago school -- it's patrolled by armed guards and Dobermans. This comedy, also featuring Nipsey Russell as a supportive principal, takes full advantage of a cute situation and milks every drop of possibility from a mildly amusing script.
• "The Best of Times," 1986 -- Robin Williams is a banker haunted by a perfect pass he dropped 13 years earlier in a big high school football game. He convinces the quarterback (Kurt Russell) who lobbed that ball to help restage the game in what proves to be affable, lightweight entertainment.
• "All the Right Moves," 1983 -- Filmed in Johnstown, this drama stars Tom Cruise as a high school senior who hopes to win a football scholarship so he won't have to follow his family into the mills. Craig T. Nelson is a football coach, and Lea Thompson a sweet but strong small-town girl. Even more importantly, well-known Don Yanessa (then coaching Aliquippa) plays an opposing coach and merits a speaking line, too.
• "Diner," 1982 -- The guys in Barry Levinson's beloved Baltimore of the late 1950s love their Colts so ardently that Steve Guttenberg's character won't marry his fiancee until she passes a tough Baltimore Colts quiz.
• "The Steeler and the Pittsburgh Kid," 1981 -- The famous Coca-Cola commercial with Joe Greene inspired an NBC movie starring Mr. Greene, Franco Harris and, as the kid, Henry Thomas less than a year before he would befriend "E.T., The Extra-Terrestrial."
• "Fighting Back," 1980 -- This also is a made-for-TV movie, but it's close to Pittsburghers' hearts and helmets. Robert Urich plays Rocky Bleier (who has a cameo as a jogger) in the story of the Steelers running back who defied the doctors and the odds by returning to football after being wounded in Vietnam. Art Carney channels Art Rooney Sr., Richard Herd is coach Chuck Noll and Steve Tannen, former QB Terry Hanratty.
• "North Dallas Forty," 1979 -- Considered by many the best gridiron film ever made at the time. Nick Nolte plays a veteran receiver for the North Dallas Bulls in this adaptation of Cowboy Pete Gent's novel about how teams abuse and ill-use their players in the National Football League.
• "Heaven Can Wait," 1978 -- This is what you might call a major crossover film, in more ways than one. Warren Beatty plays a pro football quarterback who dies in an auto accident. But when he arrives in the hereafter he learns it isn't his time yet -- someone made a clerical error. So he is given a second chance at life in the body of a corrupt businessman whose wife wants to kill him. This enjoyable comedy, which also stars Julie Christie, Dyan Cannon and Charles Grodin, is a remake of the 1941 film "Here Comes Mr. Jordan."
• "Black Sunday," 1977 -- International terrorists plan to hijack the Goodyear blimp and use it to blow up the Miami stadium where the Super Bowl (Steelers-Cowboys) is being played. Stars include Bruce Dern, Robert Shaw, Marthe Keller and Fritz Weaver. Watching this is almost like committing to a game; it's 143 minutes long but worth it.
• "Semi-Tough," 1977 -- Burt Reynolds again, this time as a carefree pro football player carrying on with the owner's daughter, Jill Clayburgh. So is his teammate and best friend, played by Kris Kristofferson. But director Michael Ritchie, that satirist of the American way, turns the focus to a spoof of all those consciousness-raising movements that were popular in California during the 1970s while Pittsburgh was busy winning Super Bowls.
• "Gus," 1976 -- The title character is a field goal-kicking mule from Yugoslavia recruited by a hapless football team in this comedy starring Ed Asner, Don Knotts and Tim Conway.
• "Two Minute Warning," 1976 -- A sniper terrorizes spectators at a football game at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Charlton Heston is a police captain trying to figure out the killer's motives and stop the shooting, and Merv Griffin famously turns up singing the national anthem.
• "The Longest Yard," 1974 -- Three, three, three genres in one: football film, prison movie, comedy. Burt Reynolds plays a former pro who ends up in a prison run by Eddie Albert's warden. Mr. Reynolds and his fellow prisoners face off against a team of guards. The stakes are high, the hits low. Look for these former pros on the field: Joe Kapp, Ray Nitschke and Pervis Atkins.
• "Brian's Song," 1970 -- James Caan is Brian Piccolo and Billy Dee Williams is Gale Sayers in this real-life story of how cancer claims a man and changes his Chicago Bears teammates. If you can watch this with dry eyes, you should have your tear ducts -- and heart -- checked.
• "Number One," 1969 -- Charlton Heston is an over-the-hill quarterback from New Orleans. Observers said Mr. Heston's passes were wobbly and he didn't appear to have an athletic bone in his body -- but he told real-life bruisers to bring it in a tackle and they broke three of his ribs.
• "Paper Lion," 1968 -- Alan Alda stars in this adaptation of George Plimpton's book in which he tried out for quarterback with the Detroit Lions, one of his several true-life chronicles of an ordinary man attempting extraordinary feats. Not only is this Mr. Alda's first significant film, it also gave Alex Karras his acting debut.
• "All American," 1953 -- This loose remake of a 1931 Richard Barthelmess vehicle of the same name stars Tony Curtis as Mid-State star quarterback Nick Bonelli, who earns coveted All-American status in the championship game, but his parents are killed in an accident on the way to see it. Devastated, Nick quits football, transfers to Ivy League-ish Sheridan U. on a scholarship to study architecture and refuses to pick up the pigskin. He runs afoul of snooty fellow students, brawls at an "off-limits" bar, and gets kicked out of school -- but somehow manages to show up in the crucial fourth quarter of the Big Game.
• "Jim Thorpe, All American," 1951 -- Whenever actors who can pass as athletes are singled out, Burt Lancaster often leads the pack. Although Thorpe violated his amateur status before earning gold medals at the 1912 Olympics, his achievements in football, baseball and track and field were never in doubt.
• "Knute Rockne -- All American," 1940 -- Pat O'Brien plays Notre Dame football coach Knute Rockne and Ronald Reagan is George Gipp, aka The Gipper. Yes, this is where the "Win one for the Gipper" speech originated.
• "Pigskin Parade," 1936 -- A spirited musical about a small Texas football team mistakenly invited to play against Yale University and starring a teenage Judy Garland, her future "Wizard of Oz" co-star Jack Haley and an Oscar-nominated Stuart Erwin.
• "Horse Feathers," 1932 -- Groucho Marx, appearing alongside Harpo, Chico and Zeppo, famously sang, "I don't know what they have to say / It makes no difference anyway / Whatever it is, I'm against it" in a madcap comedy about a losing college football team, recruitment of "ringers" gone awry and, of course, a big game unlike any others on this list.