‘Undefeated’ Looks at a High School Football Season

“Starting right guard shot no longer in school. Starting linebacker shot no longer in school. Two players fighting right in front of the coach when he’s trying to make things work out. Starting center arrested for shooting somebody in the face with a BB gun.” As Coach Bill Courtney speaks to his football squad at Manassas High School in North Memphis, TN, the camera offers brief close-ups of several players’ faces, and a repeated low angle on Coach. “Most coaches,” he observes, “That would be pretty much a career’s worth of crap to deal with.”

For Coach Bill, though, this is only the start. It’s also the start for Undefeated, Daniel Lindsay and T.J. Martin’s Oscar-nominated documentary. “You know what, I know damn good and well what I sign up for every year,” Coach continues, “And I keep coming back because I love this program and I feel very responsible to make sure that you guys have a football season that you can be proud of.”

Following this speech — which might be called rousing or alarming, determined or unbelievable — the film offers up a montage of images, littered streets and boarded up homes, cop cruisers lit up and cars on blocks, under the propulsive beat of RJD2’s “Seven Light Years.” You get the idea that life is both predictable and harrowing in North Memphis, where Coach Bill’s players reside. Each day, they face choices beyond their years, and some of them go wrong.

Like many Coaches in many locker rooms, Coach Bill tells his team that football is a way forward, if not out, exactly. “This is our season,” he says, and the kids nod. If this first declaration and assent, the broad outlines of the season to come, are common enough in a high school football story, what follows in Undefeated is not. For as earnest and devoted as Coach Bill and his staff are throughout this 2009 season, and as troubled and diligent and sometimes distracted as the kids may be, the film represents the essential difficulties of football (at this level, but at others too). That is, the film shows how this enterprise can be demanding and inspiring, a source of discipline and identity, as well as a game, and specifically, a game premised on violence and passion and self-sacrifice and aggression.

The film offers some basic background even as it begins detailing the experiences of Coach, his assistants, and three players. The principal and teachers recall the team’s losing record before Coach Bill, and a journalist, Jason Smith, describes the area’s economic decline: “Since the [Firestone] plant closed, that neighborhood went to heck, I mean the people moved out, the jobs were gone.” With the lack of parents’ interest, kids feeling lost, and plummet in local and state funding, the football program, Smith sums up, “fell off the map.”

Coach Bill changed that, believing right away that the Tigers were “young men of character and discipline and commitment.” As he sees it, the cliché should be flipped: when “the foundation of what you’re doing is football and you hope all at other stuff follows, well, then, you think football builds character, which it does not. Football reveals character.” Just so, he expects his players to show up, to make efforts, to overcome obstacles. And he’s especially attentive to what those obstacles can be.

As the film reveals in that opening montage, most of the players come from hardship. They and their families struggle to pay rent, to find work, to eat. When offensive lineman O.C. Brown needs tutoring to prepare for college entrance exams, Coach and his assistant, Mike, work it out so O.C. moves in with Mike and his family for a few days each week, because tutors “won’t go to his neighborhood.” On Mike’s white block, O.C. sees joggers and smiles. “If I were to jog around the neighborhood, they’d be running for the police or something.” It’s a joke that makes clear how impossible the odds are against him, as it also indicates how aware he is of those same odds.

This is visible too in the story of linebacker Chavis Daniels, who begins the season inside juvenile detention. Hs return doesn’t go well: he fights with other players and wit his coaches. Trying to reach him, Coach Bill sounds both accusatory and frustrated: “At what point do you quit trying?” he asks, as the scene cuts to black and you hear the sounds of a fight off-screen. In the next moment, Coach has to tell the team Chavis is suspended, again. Looking at players who are angry and frightened and unfocused, he brings them back: “When folks don’t get right, that’s that. It will not be spoken of.” For now, he presses forward, “You will handle yourselves, we have a football game to win, we have a season to go kick everybody’s butt.”

This edict that the disruption “will not be spoken of” can’t hold up of course, and so, even as the team returns to the business of “kicking butt,” they are also wrestling with what they can and can’t say. Such understanding of a world outside football that is incorporated into football (and vice versa) suffuses the film. The season leads — as you know it must — to better communication, not less, but it does so without imposing wills and breaking spirits, and with a faith in character.

RATING 9 / 10