Sports movies seldom deviate from the “underdog” scenario. Many of the true-life sports stories to which Hollywood gravitates involve the “little guys” rising to the occasion and defeating the “big guys.” The formula speaks to the ethos of team work and perseverance that makes any sport engrossing. However, When the Game Stands Tall, directed by Thomas Carter (Swing Kids, Coach Carter), opens not with a hungry underdog, but with a seemingly invincible team riding the wave of a record-breaking winning streak. From 1992 to 2004, Coach Bob Ladouceur led the De La Salle Spartans High School (Concord, California) football program to an astonishing 151 consecutive victories.
Jim Caviezel (The Passion of the Christ, The Thin Red Line) stars as the legendary Ladouceur, an unorthodox coach with a reserved demeanor and a perspective on football that extends beyond the field. “It ain’t about scoring touchdowns,” he remarks at one point, “It’s about moving you in a direction that can assist you and help you to grow up.” This broader and deeper outlook contributes to the success of his players both on and off the field.
Rousing his team toward victory in the opening sequence—a scene that could, in another sports film, easily be the penultimate speech given immediately prior to the climactic game—Ladouceur’s philosophy quickly becomes central as a series of misfortunes befall the Spartan program and various De La Salle players. When the team’s winning streak comes to a grinding halt, the players and coaches are forced to build back to their winning status, rediscovering the sense of teamwork needed to take the championship.
Based on the 2003 book of the same name by Contra Costa Times sportswriter Neil Hayes, the film does indeed stand apart from other sports films, not only for its Goliath-turned-David inversion, but for its efforts to weave in some larger themes. Typically, football coaches do not double as religion teachers, musing with students in the classroom about deep questions such as why bad things happen to good people. The real-life Bob Ladouceur was well-known for his more “philosophical” approach to coaching, and was hired at De La Salle in 1979 as a religious studies teacher prior to heading up the Spartan football program.
In the end, the layering of the characters’ personal hardships with the football storyline proves not only the film’s biggest draw, but also its biggest challenge cinematically. There are moments when what is happening with the characters doesn’t always sync with the action on the field. As a result, we feel a little lost in the pacing of the story. The pressures faced by the players off field could have been better fleshed out so the synthesis of the larger themes within the traditional sports-film narrative were a bit more organic, rather than simply an addendum.
Flaws notwithstanding, the story remains compelling; performances from the cast are well rounded, and the gridiron action is well shot and keeps you in the moment. While not a cinematic masterpiece, even within the sports genre, it does give a strong testament to the power of teamwork, the need for humility, and the importance of using the skills learned on the field to pursue a higher purpose. And it also fittingly honors the remarkable legacy of California high school football’s winningest coach, who retired in 2013 with an astounding career record of 399–25-3.