What do the classic movie It’s a Wonderful Life, Jesus Christ, and high school football players with tears in their eyes have in common? Quite a bit, says actor Jim Caviezel, whose new movie, When the Game Stands Tall, opens in theaters nationwide on Friday, August 22.
Caviezel plays Bob Ladouceur, the football coach who led the De La Salle High Spartans of Concord, California to 151 consecutive wins from 1992 to 2004, setting a national record. The accomplished actor—who is known for his powerful portrayal of Jesus in Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ (2004) and who currently stars in the CBS hit drama Person of Interest—can relate to underdog, as well as to struggling sports teams. In a recent phone interview with Catholic World Report, Caviezel recounted a life-changing experience he had as a teenager that included both sports and film.
“I was about 18 years old,” he explained. “I was playing basketball for Kennedy High School in Seattle and we had just qualified to go to the next level and were on our way to the state tournament. … We were selected to play the number-one team in the state. We believed we could beat them. And nobody believed we could beat them. It just so happened that they just released the movie Hoosiers, which was about a small high school team beating a big powerhouse.”
“To make a long story short,” Caviezel recalls, “we saw the movie as a team, we went out and played that team and we played them without fear and we won that game.”
“Years later,” the actor continued, “I reflected on the power of film—what film can do. A film can change the course of a person’s life.”
Caviezel recalls a memorable encounter with “a great teacher,” Jimmy Stewart, the legendary star of It’s a Wonderful Life—a film, Caviezel says, that changed his life.
“Jimmy Stewart had said to me, ‘Make good movies, young man!’ not knowing what I was going to do in my life.”
In When the Games Stands Tall, Caviezel plays a man he considers another great teacher, Coach Bob Ladouceur. Affectionately known as “Coach Lad,” Ladouceur has been inducted into the National High School Hall of Fame and is considered one of the greatest high school football coaches of all time. His impressive record of achievement during his 34 years at De La Salle includes the historic 12-year run of consecutive wins, as well as seven national titles, five CIF Bowl championships, 17 state championships, and 28 CIF North Coast titles. All of this from a quiet and unassuming man who did not set out to break records or even win games. Ladouceur’s true goal was to shape boys into men by focusing on virtue—something almost unheard of in the competitive and often brutal sport of football.
“Bob Ladouceur is a coach but he is still a teacher,” Caviezel said. “The best teachers are very humble. … Ladouceur had great players, but the kids would come to him. They were from broken homes—kids who had no hope. And, all of a sudden he gave them hope, the hope of ‘you can depend on me.’ If you can depend on me, then someone else can depend on you, first on a team—but then that boy becomes a father and a husband, and he’s no longer a boy, he’s truly a man. In this day and age we have too many ‘guys’—boys who never become men, who become ‘guys.’… But Coach Ladouceur had this tradition of building on trust and honesty and having the courage to say ‘This is who I am,’ and ‘Can I help you?’”
Caviezel knew there was something very special about the story of Ladouceur and his team. In preparation for the role he studied great coaches Vince Lombardi and John Wooden in addition to Ladouceur, and found himself moved by the emotional responses each coach elicited from his players.
“[Lombardi and Wooden] both had immense winning streaks,” he remarked. “Lombardi himself was a daily communicant. When I saw the film footage of [his players] looking at him when he spoke to them—I saw the same look [when players looked] at Ladouceur and the same thing with Wooden. … You see how these boys are looking at him. It’s the very first thing I saw. Their eyes are glistening as if they are about to cry.”
In researching the role, Caviezel poured over endless hours of game footage. Ladouceur’s importance to the boys he coached and the way he inspired them was obvious, the actor said. “You can see it. When guys get hit and they’re knocked down and they’re out—they get up and fight. That’s a big part of life. These boys from broken homes, these boys—it’s very common now—boys don’t have fathers. … Those boys need a mentor, those boys need a father, and those boys love him.”
Caviezel calls De La Salle’s 151-game winning streak “miraculous,” but maintains that for Coach Ladouceur, it was never really about winning. “That’s the most interesting thing about this story,” he explained. “That’s what he teaches these boys. It’s simple. You know, he’s just passing on what the great saints have said—what Jesus himself has said. There is no greater love than to lay your life down for your friends. And, if that’s countered by this world, well, who wants to be a part of this world, then? … It is only through the pain of significant self-examination that we can hope to right ourselves and remain on the straight and narrow path that will lead to true fulfillment and inner peace.”