“It’s survival of the fiercest and the funniest.” The 2005 remake starring Adam Sandler definitely has its moments (most of them provided by real-life athletes such as Stone Cold Steve Austin, Brian Bosworth and Kevin Nash playing the prison guards), but the 1974 original definitely scores more touchdowns in our book. Burt Reynolds plays Paul “Wrecking” Crewe, a former pro football quarterback whose drunken joyride with his rich girlfriend’s Citroen SM lands him in the slammer for 18 months. Things are pretty bleak on the inside at first as most of his cellmates can’t stand him because of his dismissal from the NFL due to point shaving; on top of that, the guards punish him with extra-hard labor after he initially refuses to help coach their semi-pro team managed by the sadistic warden (Eddie Albert). Finally, Crewe agrees to put together a team of prisoners to play against the guards in an exhibition match (in which, in theory, the guards will pummel the holy hell out of the prisoners), which he eventually manages to do after starting to build trust amongst the key members of the prison community (and promising the players that they’re allowed to inflict as much pain as possible upon their opponents); not surprisingly, the guards end up playing dirtier than the prisoners in the beautifully choreographed football game, which runs over the course of the entire third act. It’s not quite to football what Slap Shot is to hockey, but The Longest Yard still makes for one of the most rough-and-tumble, hard-hitting and laugh-out-loud sports comedies on the field — be sure to stick it in your trophy case.
H. G. Bissinger’s 1990 nonfiction book Friday Night Lights: A Town, a Team and a Dream is a brutally honest, no-holds barred account of the 1988 Permian High School Panthers of Odessa, Texas making their way towards the Texas State Championship; what was originally intended to be a rah-rah sis-boom-bah portrait of high school sports keeping a small town together ended up being a startling expose of bigotry, racism and, ultimately, misplaced priorities in a football-crazy community (apparently, everything you’ve heard about Texas is true). The 2004 film starring Billy Bob Thornton (giving one of his best-ever performances as head coach Gary Gaines) is without a doubt one of the best sports dramas ever made (and, some would argue, the best football movie ever made, period). Rather surprisingly, this television series based on the book and film managed to not only be a worthy companion piece but sometimes even surpasses the greatness of its source material — this is truly great episodic television, featuring compelling characterizations, terrific writing and one of the best ensemble casts ever assembled. If you love football, you’ll love this show; if you don’t give a damn about football, hell, you might love it even more.
It sure was nice of Netflix to make this lightweight but extremely likable early-’90s comedy available on Streaming just in time for the Super Bowl (it isn’t available at all on DVD). Necessary Roughness is pretty much to football what Major League is to baseball (for better and worse, but why complain?), with Scott Bakula bringing his C-list charm (hey, it works for him) to the role of Paul Blake, an aging ex-quarterback who finally gets to realize his dream of playing college ball when he’s recruited to play for the Fightin’ Armadillos at Texas State University, which is forced to assemble a completely new team after the regular staff and players are banned from returning for the new season due to a series of rule violations. Blake is just one of the many misfits, has-beens and never-weres that new head coach Ed ‘Straight Arrow’ Gennero (Hector Elizondo) and assistant coach Wally ‘Rig’ Riggendorf (Robert Loggia) are forced to recruit for the new team due to there being no athletic scholarships available — but you don’t think a team consisting Sinbad, Jason Bateman, Andrew Bryniarski, Kathy Ireland (yep, playing a former soccer player turned star kicker) and the guy from Quantum Leap is actually going to lose, do you? You also get Rob Schneider as an excitable sports announcer and Larry Miller as the evil Dean Elias, who wants the team to fail so he can scrap it — ha, it is he who fails!
“We gonna get that quarterback?” Jerry Maguire isn’t the only “football movie” starring Cuba Gooding Jr., you know (and why it took until 2003 for someone to cast Ed Harris as a sports coach — football or otherwise — is beyond us). Radio depicts the true-life relationship between high school football coach Harold Jones (Harris) and James Robert Kennedy, a mentally challenged young man affectionately nicknamed “Radio” due to his fascination with the devices (and for the fact that he carries one around with him wherever he goes) who ends up becoming a student at T.L. Hanna High; their friendship spans from the 1960s to the present, during which Radio transforms from a shy, tormented man into an inspiration to his community of Anderson, South Carolina. Yes, it’s as shamelessly sentimental as it sounds (and boy, you’d be hard pressed to find a more manipulative music score), but Radio stays finely tuned thanks to enthusiastic direction by documentarian Michael Tollin and a particularly terrific performance by Harris, which provides a nice balance to yet another overly-histrionic one by Gooding Jr. (really, how many different ways can you grimace with determination toward the sky/horizon/whatever?). A feel-good sports movie for those in the mood — and if you’re not, it just might put you in the mood for one.
An eye-opening and rather unflinching look behind the curtain of the National Football League, Two Days in April offers an insider’s view into how one actually becomes a professional football player as it follows four prospects (Derek Hagan, Clint Ingram, DonTrell Moore and Travis Wilson) through the grueling process of preparing for the 2006 NFL Draft Weekend at a Florida training facility. The four players make for fascinating subjects, but the real star of the show is famed sports agent Tom Condon, who originally conceived the project as a feature film before it was put into turnaround as a nonfiction piece by The Biggest Loser producer Dave Broome; Condon and Broome would later clash over the final cut of the film, with Condon (who switched agencies halfway through production) claiming it didn’t reflect his clients or the draft processes properly and Broome counter-attacking with theories that Condon was trying to shut down the production because he didn’t do well in the draft and thought other football agents would use that as leverage against him (hey, why would rival agents go and do a thing like that?). See how complicated football is, even a football documentary? Directed by Don Argott, who had previously directed Rock School and later went on to call the plays on The Art of the Steal.