HUNTINGTON - With actual football games still nearly six weeks away (and, no, that doesn’t count the exhibition games to suck another $200 or so from the NFL’s season ticket holders), Lots of people getting the bug - the pigskin flu.
You know the symptoms - cranky watching baseball, indifferent about the Olympics, ready to take in two-a-day practices for Kentucky high schools in July just to get a fix.
Fever, face-painting and furious reading of preseason magazines put together in April for readers in July are just some of the symptoms of this bug which strikes Americans from coast-to-West Coast.
Fortunately, Hollywood is always ready with another football film to get us through the summer month with some celluloid punt, pass and kick until the real deal hits the field in late August and early September.
Since silent films found football in the mid-1920s, it has remained a favorite topic. The first may have been, “Feet of Mud” starring Harry Langdon, who was big in silents.
Silent and sound comedian Harold Lloyd cranked out one of his sometimes overlooked and underrated classics, “The Freshman,” in 1925 — and, seriously, Lloyd is every bit as funny as silent comic giants Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton, but his films are seen less on commercial television due to him keeping the rights to all of them.
Fortunately for fans of the Marshall Thundering Herd, Herd Insider has its own “Holly Woody” to break down the films you should watch, rent or own to fight the mid-summer pigskin flu.
So here are the Top Football Films of All-Time, with one hidden caveat in the Football Film constitution:
Since Herd Insider is primarily written for Thundering Herd fans and since “We Are Marshall” is a movie about the Marshall football program, HI will assume it is the favorite movie of most Herd fans.
Therefore, it is given an honorary status as the No. 1 football movie for all Herd fans and should not have to be discussed in this forum — and is probably being shown again right now on TNT.
(Hey, it wouldn’t have been made without Matthew McConaughey, even if his Jack Lengyel is probably the worst performance of the film, when judged beside Matthew Fox’s extraordinary turn as assistant coach Red Dawson as well as the beautiful Kate Mara as the MU cheerleader composite and love interest — a true football lady, desended from the Pittsburgh Steelers and New York Giants football families — as well as Anthony Mackie's turn as troubled Nate Ruffin, one of three returing starters for "Young" Thundering Herd in 1971.
Those are all reasons to keep watching the film over and over. Don't forget, if you want a factual account of that era, watch "Ashes To Glory," the award-winning documentary by Deb Novak. HI also receommends reading "November Ever After" by Craig Greenlee, who was on the 1969 and 1971 Herd teams. or "Rolling Thunder" from The Herald-Dispatch staff, many of whom were here for Nov. 14, 1970's crash and the 1971 rebuilding of the Herd program.)
So, with “WAM” designated as such, here is the top ten, in chronological order:
“Horse Feathers” — starring the Marx Bros. and Thelma Todd, Paramount Pictures, 1932. MGM stepped in after the four comedic brothers did this film and the delightful political satire, “Duck Soup” (in 1933), for Paramount as part of their seven films there, but the final two are the best from the brothers’ first studio. Groucho is Professor Quincy Wagstaff, who wants a “college the football team can be proud of” as the new president of Huxley College. The film looks at the practice of “tramp athletes,” those who sold their athletic talents to the highest bidders, as well as the “college widow,” a woman, played by Todd, who is still in college to catch a rich husband. The football scenes against Darwin University, including Harpo (as Pinky), Chico (as Baravelli) and Zeppo (in his next-to-last film) as Frank Wagstaff, Groucho’s son, who is sweet on Todd — a major star at the time, who died just three years later under mysterious circumstances, in 1935. Harpo’s winning touchdown(s), coming in a horse-drawn chariot as well as Chico’s Italian-accented signals for the snap are hilarious.
“Knute Rockne, All American” — starring Pat O’Brien (Rockne) and Ronald Reagan (George Gipp), Warner Bros., 1940. The movie is a bio of the famous Notre Dame player and coach, released a decade after Rockne died in a plane crash in 1931. Rockne and Notre Dame didn’t invent the forward pass, as the movie suggests, but they did popularize it with a win over Army in 1913. As coach, his emotional “win one for the Gipper,” speech (in 1928) to his team, who was trailing Army 0-6 (they came back to win, 12-6) is played out with Ronald Reagan not only playing Gipp, but riding his image as “The Gipper” all the way to the White House. It is sappy, and warm hearted, and set the script for Hollywood in sports movies for many, many years.
“Paper Lion” — starring Alan Alda, Lauren Hutton and many of the Detroit Lions players and coaches, United Artists, 1968. George Plimpton was a writer from Sports Illustrated who put himself into sports (like pitching to MLB All-Stars in an exhibition and sparing with Archie Moore) to show how the average man would do, and managed to convince the Lions to allow him to go to fall camp with them as a quarterback. Plimpton allows fans to live the experience, while also showing them why only very special players make it in the NFL. Lions include head coach Joe Schmidt, tackle Alex Karras (later in TV and movies), quarterbacks Milt Plum and Karl Sweetan, defensive back Dick “Night Train” Lane, running back Mel Farr and ends Pat Studstill and Ron Kramer, while opposing linemen John Gordy and Roger Brown are also in the movie as is boxer Sugar Ray Robinson also appear. The movie was a big success, peeling the curtain back on the NFL, and was based on the best selling novel of the same name.
“Brian’s Song” — starring James Cann (Brian Piccolo) and Billy Dee Williams (Gale Sayers), ABC TV, 1970. The tragic story of Chicago Bears fullback Brian Piccolo, who died just four years after joining the Bears, and his friendship with African-American teammate Gale Sayers, the first white and black roommates in the NFL. The movie was based on Sayers book, “I Am Third.” One of the best ever TV-movies, rating wise, and actual Chicago coach Abe Gibron and players including Jack Concannon, Ed O'Bradovich, Dick Butkus and Harold 'Happy' Hairston all have cameos. Much of the film was shot at Notre Dame Stadium during a 1969 preseason game between the Cleveland Browns and Chicago. A real tear-jerker with actual NFL football footage, it remains popular with new generations of fans.
“The Longest Yard” — starring Burt Reynolds (convict/football player Paul “Wrecking” Crew) and Eddie Albert (Warden Rudolph Hazen), Paramount Pictures, 1974. From the people who brought you “Horse Feathers,” Paramount scores with another football comedy about Reynold’s former NFL quarterback — who took a bribe to throw a game — ending up in prison and a game with convicts versus the guards. Albert completely plays against type, having been in the highly-rated show, “Green Acres,” over the past decade on CBS, as the sadistic, power-hungry warden of the prison. His football team has been good, not great, and thinks Crew and the cons will be a good test for the guards, and enforce the notion of keeping the cons down by brutalizing them in the game. Of course, Crew and the cons come back after Reynolds appears to have “thrown” another game, and the last-second score is, in the words of Albert’s assistant, “His-tor-ry!” Also in the movie are former NFL players Joe Kapp, Ray Nitschke, Pervis Atkins and Ernie Wheelwright, as well as Sonny Sixkiller, former Univ. of Washington and WFL quarterback. Great movie with great football.
“North Dallas Forty” — starring Nick Nolte (Phil Elliott), Mac Davis (Seth Maxwell), G.D. Spradlin (B.A. Strother), Bo Svenson (Joe Bob Priddy) and former NFL player John Matuszak (O.W. Shaddock), Paramount Pictures, 1979. Perhaps the greatest football movie of all, Peter Gent’s book of the same name ripped the veneer off the NFL and the movie pulled no punches. Paramount, who had two of the best comedies, delivers in what one critic called “strong, if brutish, entertainment” as Elliott tries to hang onto his place with the North Dallas Bulls, very much the Dallas Cowboys who Gent played for. Drugs, relationships, injuries and how you “play with pain” are all looked at in a true look inside pro football. “Every time I call it a game, you call it a business and every time I call it a business, you call it a game” outburst by Matuszak, the former Raider, is the central theme of the movie.
“All The Right Moves” — starring Tom Cruise (Stefen Djordjevic), Craig T. Nelson (Coach Nickerson), Lea Thompson (Lisa Liezke) and Christopher Penn (Brian), 20th Century Fox, 1983. Gritty drama about high school defensive back trying to escape small Pennsylvania town of Ampipe, reeling from downturn at local steel mill. But the film also looked for the first time at the underbelly of college recruiting.
Djordjevic’s pass interference, and a late fumble, lead to Ampipe losing the big game to Walnut Heights H.S. and Nelson’s character tells team it quit, to which Cruise tells the coach he quit, and is quickly told he is off the team and even cannot ride the bus back with the team. The coach blacklists Cruise’s character, keeping him from college offers, but in the end the coach gets a college job and takes his former player with him to Cal Poly. Well made, and first real look at influences high school coaches can wield as well as the strain of being a coach in a town hanging on with its local high school football team as the focus, while all else is falling apart.
Tie - “The Program” — starring James Cann (coach Sam Winters)), Halle Berry (Autumn Haley), Omar Epps (Darnell Jefferson), Duane Davis (Alvin Mack) and Kristie Swanson (Camille Shafer), Touchstone Pictures, 1993. Picks up where “All The Right Moves” left off a decade before and gives an inside look at goings ons in major college football programs. Although some is ill-aimed or over the top, big-time college football comes up looking like the NFL did after “North Dallas Forty” — a cesspool of dirty coaches and colleges who take care of players “as long as you are in the program” at ESU, playing for the Timberwolves, whether taking a drug test or an English test. The doping subtext was met with universal acclaim, even though the movie was not by all — but Roger Ebert gave it three stars (out of four). A scene with players laying in the middle of a busy highway for kicks was deleted after a real-life death took place by way of imitating the movie by real players. The football scenes are realistic and imaginatively filmed, setting the stage for movies like “Rudy” and “We Are Marshall.”
Tie - “Rudy” — Sean Austin (Daniel “Rudy” Ruettiger), Ned Beatty (Daniel Ruettiger, Sr.), Jon Favreau (D-Bob) and Charles S. Dutton (Fortune), TriStar Pictures, 1993. Also released in 1993, same year as programs (my story, my rules). Another Notre Dame tear-jerker, Rudy is the story of a walk-on with the Irish program actually dressing and recording a sack in his senior day game against all the odds — he is not recruited out of Joliet Catholic, he is only 5-foot-6 and weighs only 165-pounds. After seeing a good friend die, Rudy goes to Holy Cross, a junior college, and is eventually accepted at Notre Dame when his friend, D-Bob, gets him tested for dyslexia and treated. He walks-on for coach Ara Parseghian, who tells the scout team (running other teams defenses in practices) player he can dress next year, only to have Dan Devine take over the team. Players push Devine to let Rudy dress, and Dutton keeps him living at the stadium, doing odd jobs and not quitting (as Dutton’s character had) and he has the family in the stands when he not only dresses, but gets in for a late kickoff, then records a sack and is carried off by teammates. Getting goose bumps just writing abut it. Sappy, sentimental and wonderful, you may just cry like you did watching “Brian’s Song.”
“The Express” — starring Rob Brown (Ernie Davis), Dennis Quaid (coach Ben Schwatzwalder) and Charles S. Dutton (Willie “Pops” Davis), Universal Pictures, 2008. Story of the first African-American to win the Heisman Trophy, Ernie Davis of Syracuse, who broke all of Jim Brown’s records with the Orangemen. Davis plays in the Cotton Bowl in Dallas, Texas, in 1960, facing biased fans, players and officials and racism, discrimination and athletics in the 1950s and 1960s is as much a part of the movie as is his football ability. Davis was so coveted by the Cleveland Browns, the team traded eventual NFL Hall of Fame back/receiver/return man Bobby Mitchell to the Redskins to draft him. However, Davis is diagnosed with Leukemia, and never plays a game for the Browns (although they did retire his #45 jersey after his death in 1963).
“The Blind Side” — starring Sandra Bullock (Leigh Anne Tuohy), Quinton Aaron (Michael Oher) and Tim McGraw (Sean Tuohy), 2009. Bullock won an Oscar for her role as the white, evangelic mother who “adopts” the homeless Oher from the mean streets of Memphis, Tenn. Oher tries to find his way through football, rising to be a coveted college player. His signing with Ole’ Miss, however, raises flags to the NCAA, as the Tuohy’s are alumnus of Mississippi. But Oher does play for the Rebels and eventually is able to have a full career in the NFL with the Baltimore Ravens. Oher’s life with the well-to-do white family, even with a sister and brother in the Tuohy family, is a stark contrast to his life in the projects, but his adjustment to this new life is as tough as his homeless existence before Leigh Anne came into his life.
There’s the list from “Holly Woody” for football fans until those first pads are handed out next month.
Honorable Mentions (in reverse chronological order):
Invincible (2006) - Mark Wahlberg is a bartender and season ticket holder for the Philadelphia Eagles who takes advantage of tryout to eventually make and captain special teams.
Friday Night Lights (2004) - Billy Bob Thorton whips up the "Mojo" as the head coach at Permian, Texas, High School, where top back is hurt and left by the wayside.
Radio (2003) - Ed Harris and Cuba Gooding, Jr. in the story of a kind-hearted high school coach and his relationship with a mentally-challenged fan of the program.
The Junction Boys (2002) - Tom Berenger is Bear Bryant, in his first football camp as head coach of Texas A&M and nearly killing players in the heat in Junction, Texas.
Remember The Titans (2000) - Denzel Washington and Ed Harris co-coach T.C. Williams through integration of white and black players at the high school in the south.
Any Given Sunday (1999) - Al Pacino and Jamie Foxx give insider look at National Football League, one not very flattering to the league and its owners, coaches and players. Some great action scenes.
Jerry Maguire (1997) - Tom Cruise and Cuba Gooding, Jr. "show me the moeny" in a story of down on his luck agent and his client, and Renee' Wellzeger isn't hard on the eyes as Cruise's love interest.
Everybody’s All-American (1988) - David Quaid in a look at the career and retirement of the college superstar who goes onto play in the NFL.
The Best of Times (1986) - Kurt Russell and Robin Williams in a story about getting a second chance to win the big HS game and being more than a HS superstar. Great fun.
Heaven Can Wait (1978) - Warren Beatty remake of "Calling Mr. Jordan," about player taken before his time by his guardian angel who returns to lead Rams to Super Bowl in another body.
Two Minute Warning (1976) - Charlton Heston and David Janssen in a thriller at the Los Angeles Coliseum, where a sniper is taking out fans and police during actual NFL football game.
Trouble Along The Way (1953) - John Wayne and Donna Reed pair for movie about coach kicked out of college game trying to come back with small school.
Saturday’s Heroes (1937) - Van Heflin (very underrated actor) looks at corruption in college game as college player.
Three Stooges: Three Little Pigskins (1934) - Moe and Jerome "Curly" Howard and Larry Fine play football - come on, it's the Stooges play football!
College Coach (1933) - Dick Powell, usually a song-and-dance man, is the college coach balancing life and coaching in corrupt college game. Cameo by USC player John Wayne.