Faith & Film: Undefeated

“Undefeated” is this year’s Oscar winner for best documentary. It recounts the 2009 football season of Manassas High School, located in an impoverished Memphis neighborhood. It had been many years since Manassas had had a winning football team, and it had never won a playoff game. This was about to change.

Volunteer coach Bill Courtney ran a successful lumber business near the school. For six years, Courtney volunteered to be the head football coach. Courtney was raised by his mother after his father left when he was a young boy. He wanted to give back to other young men who did not have a father. In addition, he loved football.

Courtney’s life was very different from that of the Manassas students he coached. He lived in a big house in an upper middle class suburb with his wife and four children. Most of the students he worked with at Manassas lived in small, run-down houses, raised by mothers or grandmothers.

Courtney brought an attitude of hard work and discipline to the young men he coached. He believed in them and taught them to believe in themselves as individuals, and to rely on each other as a team. He taught them that a man learns more from their failures than from their successes. Courtney told his players that teams from the inner city had a reputation for giving up and rolling over if their opponents were ahead. He taught them not to give up, and to battle back.

Courtney cared about the young men, prayed with them, and got to know their families. At one point, frustrated when he went to visit a student at home and persuade him to return to the team, he sighs and says “When do you stop caring?” Fortunately, Courtney never did.

After losing the first game of the season, the Manassas Tigers won all the rest of their regular season games, defeating teams that used to beat them handily. The players learned that they can come from behind to win. They gained confidence and learned to believe in themselves. Manassas made it to the first playoff game in the school’s history. They lost by one point, after a tough, hard-fought game. Courtney told his team to hold their heads high; he was proud of them, he loved them, and they made history.

We get to know some of the players and their struggles. O.C. moved in with an assistant coach so he can be tutored in hopes of going on to college. Chavis is a talented player with anger issues which continue to get him in trouble. Money is a good player, but small in size.

As much as he loved his coaching, Courtney became aware that, during football season, he was neglecting his own wife and children. He struggled with this tension between his work, coaching, and family. By the end of the season, he had to make tough choices in this regard.

It’s inevitable that “Undefeated” will be compared with “The Blind Side.” There are similar themes, and they even take place in the same city. Precisely because it is a documentary, “Undefeated” seems more real. And while both can be criticized for having “heroic” white people coming in and “saving” African-Americans, “Undefeated” lacks the occasional condescending attitude of “Blind Side.” Michael from “Blind Side” is large and silent. The young men from Undefeated are large, but rarely silent!

I thought about the title of the film. The Manassas Tigers did not go undefeated during the 2009 season. I think the title has more to do with the attitude of the players themselves. Previously they had been defeated before they ever stepped on the field, but no longer. They learn to believe in themselves.

By the end of “Undefeated,” there were tears in my eyes. It’s been a long time since I’ve felt so emotionally involved with characters in a movie. “Undefeated” is inspirational, without being naïve or saccharine. There is some rough language, as you would expect for a movie about high school football, but otherwise, this is a movie I’d recommend to anyone but small children.

My 11-year-old nephew recently announced that he didn’t like “inspirational” movies. I bet he’d like this one. I bet you’ll like it too.

Tom Condon, OP