The documentary “Undefeated” (not to be confused with the documentary about Sarah Palin) played the Chicago Film Festival, depicting the Manassas High School Tigers football team’s 2009 season, as they attempt to win the first playoff game in the 110-year history of the school.
The filmmakers, T.J. Martin and Daniel Lindsay, spent 9 months living in Memphis and soon learned that “There’s a story under every helmet,” as Coach Bill Courtney told them. Courtney began volunteering in 2004 and is quoted throughout the documentary, reminding this Iowa Hawkeye fan of the antics of Coach Bob Commings (Massillon, Ohio), who was immortalized in a John Irving novel as “Iowa Bob.” Commings called the Hawkeyes the “chosen children” and succeeded in winning some memorable games, but, ultimately, was unsuccessful in turning that program around and was fired. Coach Courtney, by contrast, announces he is quitting after the season to spend more time with his own family.
Before that, however, we learn a lot about the players on the Manassas Tigers team. Most successful of the lot is probably O.C. Brown, 6’ 3”, 315 pounds and fast. Mike Ray, volunteer coach, says, “That’s a big dude running that fast.” O.C. has some academic problems and, in a real-life plot that echoes “The Blind Side,” ends up moving in with an assistant coach and his family to make sure he remains eligible and is able to claim a college scholarship. After one report card period, the coach asks O.C., “How do you get a 90 in calculus and a 70 in keyboarding?” One memorable quote to the team, “If you will allow it, football will save your life.”
Another player highlighted in the film is troublemaker Chavis, who has one of the most emotional moments in the film as he turns his attitude around. Then there is “Money,” who suffers an injury to his ACL and must miss 8 to 12 weeks of playing time. He begins to miss school after he can no longer play, and Coach Courtney says, “Money is on the cusp of being lost.”
Really, most of the team is on the cusp of being lost and the filmmakers, in interviews after the game, revealed how many stories they had to ignore to highlight those that are included. There was Jaquim Collins, who had been in 18 different foster homes in 4 years, a defensive lineman. He became too old to remain in the 19th home and was kicked out of the system. Said Director Lindsay, “It was heartbreaking not to be able to tell his story. But ultimately the sum is greater than its parts.”
Money, in the film, is shown looking at an X-ray of his injured interior ACL ligament and asks the doctor, “Is that my brain?” The filmmakers reported that Money was not thrilled that that scene remained in the documentary.
Director Lindsay said, “We just filmed a ton of scenes and then laid them out. None of it was scripted…We were going for a very intimate film. Bill’s trusting us made the kids trust us, but it was really surprising to us how quickly they forgot we were there. The camera became an extension of us.” However, reported the filmmaking duo, “Even 2 to 3 months later, they (the players) still didn’t get what we were doing. They’d ask, ‘So, who’s going to play me in the movie.’”
The answer is that the Manassas Tigers played themselves, and the filmmakers did a very good job of being in the right place at the right time to capture moments in their 2009 season. As Lindsay said of one particularly moving scene involving Chavis (the troublemaker), “Oh, my God! Did that really just happen? We have a movie here!”
The film with plenty of exhortations like, “Please remember discipline. Please remember character, and let’s go kick their ass,” (Bill Courtney). As a former NFL player, invited to address the team by Coach Courtney, tells them, “It’s not where you start; it’s where you finish.”
The documentary, which earned great praise from one audience member, in particular, who called it “the best football film I’ve ever seen” will open in February with distribution from the Weinstein Brothers. Said Coach Courtney at one point, “If they don’t win the game, they’re gonna’ win the fight. You gotta’ believe in yourselves. You can come back.”
Sandy Wilson was Music Supervisor on the film, and should be singled out for praise, as well. All in all, with 70 young men on the team, there are some compelling and amazing stories of life in North Memphis and what it means to be resilient and never give up.