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Most people would probably say that “winning isn’t everything” is a better attitude to have than the opposite mantra, “winning is everything.” Yet, a disproportionate few live out the ideal that winning is not everything in life, particularly in the context of sports.
If normal sports scenarios cause problems with keeping the priority of winning in its proper place, what’s a high school football team to do when cruising on a 151-game winning streak? Based on a true story, When the Game Stands Tall explores much more than football. The film proposes and confirms the truth that love, service, and humility are infinitely more important than any number of records or trophies.
Coach Bob Ladouceur is riding high on a winning streak of 151 games—a record no other team in American sports has even neared. As the head coach of the De La Salle Spartans high school football team, Ladouceur never aimed for a winning streak. In fact, teaching players how to win games is not why he coaches.
But most people don’t believe that when Ladouceur can’t seem to do anything but win. At the finish of another season, his senior players, a few of them marked for college teams, try to inspire the players who will take their place the next year, but seem to fail. The graduating seniors aren’t the only ones who have noticed a difference in the juniors. The coaching staff shares concern over the more pompous attitude, cockiness, and selfishness that this next generation displays.
Still, Ladouceur’s coaching method has always worked in the past. He opens the next football season by continuing with the method that has worked so well—teach good morals, inspire leadership, and encourage familial love among the players while challenging them to give “a perfect effort” in everything, regardless of the outcome.
The seeds that have grown so well in the hearts of previous players seem to find dry soil in the new seniors. [MILD SPOILER WARNING] Instead of growth, these players show only increasing strife, arrogance, and selfishness—attitudes that find their way to the field where they translate into losses.
With the winning streak destroyed, the Spartans are poised to find out what they are really made of. They can either continue to self-destruct or surmount the odds through strength of character and the realization that their lives, rather than a game, should define who they are.
In many ways, Stands Tall is a typical sports movie. The majority of the action occurs on the football field or in the locker room, and these sports sequences are used to bring viewers through the powerful, emotional highs and lows for which the genre is known. In several key areas, however, Stands Tall departs from the usual sports flick fare.
Perhaps the most apparent difference is the film’s repeated self-assertion that “It’s not about football” and “It’s only high school football.” Despite the undeniable fact that this movie wouldn’t exist if not for football, the claim that other things are more important still rings true. For Coach Ladouceur, the goal in coaching has never been to stack up wins, but rather to shape boys into men of character. When asked by a reporter how the team keeps winning, Ladouceur answers, “Winning games is doable. Teaching kids there’s more to life—that’s difficult.”
The more difficult task is the one that Ladouceur attempts, as he repeatedly makes clear that his reason for coaching is to impact boys as they come to manhood, teaching them through the means of football how to become dependable, moral men. For Ladouceur, then, the winning streak actually becomes more of a hindrance than a benefit, as the kids who come into the winning program easily let winning become their only focus, making the coach’s job of affecting their characters more difficult.
The challenge, though, produces even more powerful lessons for viewers of this story to absorb. Ladouceur has to go especially out of his way to come up with new ideas in order to reach this more difficult generation of players. His lessons for the team translate into crucial teaching moments for the film audience, as viewers learn along with the players how to have a grateful, humble perspective that leads one to live as a servant to others.
In another rather shocking departure from the norm for any sports film not produced by Sherwood Pictures, Stands Tall uses Scripture as an unexpected vehicle for several of the movie’s positive messages. Ladouceur apparently doubles as a Bible class teacher at De La Salle High School, and, in his course, he has his students (many of whom are football players) study passages like Luke 6:38 and Matthew 23:12.
These verses lead to discussions on the idea of God giving back blessings to those who give to others and the statement that “whoever humbles himself will be exalted” (Matthew 23:12). These moments in the film are nicely interwoven realistically through the scenes so that they are never preachy, but also, in the case of the Luke 6:38 verse, are left a bit too open-ended.
The Spartans are shown saying The Lord’s Prayer together before their games, as well, but there is no indication that all of the players are Christians or conclusive evidence of Coach Ladouceur’s spiritual state. Yet, the positive inclusion of biblical content gives the story more lasting meaning and Bible-driven morality than any other secular sports film since Chariots of Fire.
As a result, viewers are treated to moments like the scene in which one player tells his teammates that he and his girlfriend are “waiting” for physical intimacy because they “took a purity pledge.” In the face of his teammates’ laughter, this student unashamedly speaks of his stand, apparently inspired by his involvement in a “Baptist church.”
Sadly, the film does not manage to stand so tall in the area of language content. While restrained compared to other movies of its genre, Stands Tall manages to squeeze quite a few profanities, as well as obscenities, into the PG rating. The worst of these includes an exclamation of Jesus Christ’s name in vain and about four misuses of God’s name. One use of “d--n,” “screw you,” and an unfinished “kiss my—” round out the other problematic moments.
The profane uses of God’s name spoil this film’s otherwise “perfect effort,” which avoids harmful sexual content (two teens are briefly shown kissing) and violence. The story contains one shooting, but the scene is skillfully handled in such a way as to avoid showing the act itself while heightening its emotional and dramatic impact. A few shoving scuffles also take place, including two scenes when an abusive father slams his son against a parked vehicle. These incidents are broken up quickly and condemned.
Building on this family-friendly approach, Stands Tall additionally communicates messages on fatherhood, family (not just blood relatives, but anyone who “loves unconditionally”), integrity, and God’s providence. If only the film had practiced its own mantra and given a “perfect effort” every time, families would have a completely inspiring picture to see together.
Thanks to foul language, however, parents will have to choose wisely whether or not this is an appropriate film for their families and all viewers who decide to watch should exercise discernment to filter out the losses from the wins.
“Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.” – Matthew 23:12