Small town populations obsessed with high school football are nothing new. But when the team’s record becomes a major factor in town elections, the fine distinction between the words “fan” and “fanatic” becomes clear.
Ken Carlson’s Go Tigers! is an unflinching portrait of one such town. In Massillon, Ohio, boys are from birth encouraged to join the Massillon Tigers. Early in the documentary, the proud parents of a newborn boy are greeted by a Tigers booster club member, who presents them with a team logo-emblazoned football. This isn’t some cute little photo op; it’s a dead serious tradition that goes back generations.
The film follows the 1999 Tigers, who went an abysmal and unacceptable 4 and 6 the previous year. Led by the trio of defensive end Ellery Moore, quarterback Dave Irwin, and linebacker Danny Studer, the Tigers are at a major crossroads, on and off the playing field. A levy in the upcoming election might be devastating to the football program if it isn’t passed. Cuts will be made somewhere in the educational system, and while the books and school walls may be crumbling, the district has until now given only the best to the Tigers. Carlson mixes footage of the most important game of the year, against the McKinley Bulldogs, with local news coverage of the elections. The inference is not hard to decipher: if the Tigers win, the levy passes, if they lose, it doesn’t.
This may sound like an extraordinary burden for an adolescent boy to bear. But Irwin’s mother sees it as part of a “normal” experience: “There’s a lot of pressure on our kids to win from the time they’re young. They know that’s their job.” Such pressure is only enhanced by the traditional practice of “red shirting,” meaning, holding 8th graders back, ostensibly to allow them to mature for one more year. Moore, Irwin, and Studer were all red shirted. While some defend the practice as educationally based, the hard truth is that red shirting allows for one more year of football eligibility, and a much stronger and bigger senior team, a fact that isn’t lost on one of Studer’s teachers—he notes that the boy is a straight A student, and openly criticizes the system’s potential damage to a child’s psyche. The film also reveals allegations of recruitment, paying players to come to Massillon, and tracks the dark experiences of Moore, who’s dealing with the aftereffects of being jailed on rape charges for 15 months during his freshman year.
Go Tigers! includes lighter moments. Take the “Tiger Lady,” for instance, a local who claims not to have missed a Friday night Tigers football game in 40 years, while her home is packed wall-to-wall with team memorabilia. Or “Obie”—unlike other schools, who may have a person running around in a tiger outfit, the Tigers have a real tiger cub as mascot. Then there’s the local YMCA’s babysitting services on game nights, for children six weeks to eight years old. And the funeral home that offers Massillon Tigers-themed caskets, invoking a full-circle, “cradle to the grave” feeling.
The self-proclaimed “Greatest Show in High School Football” is the Massillon Tiger Swing Band, which comes close to equaling the football team in their level of enthusiasm for game day. The day of the McKinley game, they are given permission by the Mayor to march anywhere within the city limits. Not regulated to the streets, the band marches loud and proud through the town library, museum, McDonalds, and various restaurant kitchens, elevating the excitement of the townspeople.
A native of Massillon, Carlson was given “full access” to the team and obliging residents. Though he surely feels a deep affinity for his hometown, Carlson’s film maintains balance. For all his subjects’ efforts to extol the Tigers’ virtues, his film doesn’t shy away from showing the controversies concerning the school’s practices. The film covers all that comes with high school football—the parties and the locker room frustration when the Tigers are down at halftime, as well as interviews with token outsiders who hate the football team and wait for the day when they can get out of town (this topic is not fully explored, the film’s only misstep).
The DVD extras are impressive, most notably, the inclusion of a 1951 Massillon newsreel that serves as evidence that this town was just as fixated on its team 50 years ago as it is today. The disc also features interviews with Chris Spielman, a former Tiger and four-time former NFL Pro Bowler, and those who knew him in Massillon. He was the first amateur athlete voted to appear on a Wheaties box, and those who remember what it took to get him there tell stories of how many uses you can find for the breakfast cereal while trying to collect the most box tops. A series of hilarious deleted scenes depict the cheerleading squad completely botching a pep rally and overzealous fans in the parking lot, showing off a Tiger van complete with team-colored rims and a couch tied to the bumper, which, with fans drinking on it, gets dragged around the stadium parking lot before games.
Go Tigers! is amazing and disturbing. It ranks among the top of the best sports documentaries ever made (ESPN2 just voted it one of its Top Five), and like its predecessors, such as Hoop Dreams, it not only encourages the audience to cheer on its subjects, but also shows their vulnerabilities. Importantly and insightfully, these subjects aren’t just team members; they’re also the townsfolk who live vicariously through the Tigers, reliving past glories and anticipating future triumphs. Still, for all this fervor, they’re admirable: their primary goal isn’t to make millions of dollars or become famous. They just want their little town’s football team to do well—and beat McKinley.