Watching “When the Game Stands Tall” during its opening weekend took me back to my own youth of playing football at Catholic schools in Detroit and Ann Arbor, Mich. The movie chronicles the De La Salle Spartans of Concord, Calif., and how legendary Coach Bob Ladouceur led his Catholic troops to an incredible 151-game winning streak from 1992 to 2003, more than doubling the 72-victory standard of the Tigers of Hudson, Mich., who made their mark from 1968-75.
What the movie gets particularly right is showing how coming together as a team and forging bonds as brothers, particularly within a faith context, can pay great dividends on and off the field, as boys gradually become young men together through the guidance of good coaches.
“It’s not about football,” says Jim Caviezel, who portrays the quietly intense Coach Ladouceur, as he addresses his team not long after the streak has ended. “It’s about helping to assist you to grow up, so when you take your position in the world, you can be depended on.”
I was blessed to have “Coach Lads” in my own life, men like Pat McDevitt, Dave Bedsun, Pete Tibaldi and Dan Nemecek at St. Mary of Redford Grade School in Detroit and Dave McCarney, Mark Helms, and Pete and Vince O’Neill at Father Gabriel Richard High School in Ann Arbor. Men who, in one way or another, helped me to grow up and grow in my faith. At St. Mary’s, I was involved in 21 games of a 29-game winning streak. And the winning continued at Father Gabriel Richard, as the Catholic teams I played on were a combined 35-0-1 until we lost in the Detroit Catholic League playoffs my junior year. I finished 40-4-2 in my career.
But, as in the movie, winning was never simply an end itself. And I can say this as one who never saw a great deal of playing time. I grew significantly after high school, but when you combine a smaller stature with an absence of speed, that’s a pretty good prescription for cheering more from the sideline than competing on the field. And yet, like the diminutive Garcia in “When The Game Stands Tall,” a lack of playing time didn’t negatively define my existence as a football player and teammate.
“I’ve never been prouder of anything in my life than being a Spartan,” says Garcia, as Coach Lad smiles. That might sound excessive, but for a young kid from a difficult background, perhaps not as much. For many kids who played at De La Salle over the years, Coach Lad was the only father they ever really had and continue to have. And while I was blessed with both a wonderful mother and father, I can relate otherwise to Garcia’s Catholic football experience. I could’ve excelled more at cross country or wrestling, but I’ve always loved football first. I loved the camaraderie, and the growing as a team through double-day and even triple-day practices in the hot August sun — not always in the moment, but realizing that the foundation of championships, of meeting team goals, are set in place before the regular season’s first snap.
Those shared and sustained sacrifices before and during the season, battling through adversity and savoring our accomplishments, praying before games and participating in Mass together, all collectively served as a lesson of how to be truly successful in life. In a word, I loved the brotherhood in Christ that we shared, a brotherhood that has endured with some of my teammates to my present age of 52, despite living most of my professional life outside of Michigan. Indeed, my time as a Catholic football player has shaped and served me well ever since.
On the other hand, I agree with Steven Greydanus that the movie lacks focus and key character development and the real-life family relationship between Bob and Bev Ladouceur is particularly shortchanged. In the movie, after suffering a near-fatal heart attack brought upon by his smoking habit, Ladouceur laments that he’s been a lousy husband and father, and his wife, played by Laura Dern, affirms that he spends much more time with his team than his family. Earlier in the movie, she says it’d be good if they could have hot chocolate “more than twice in a decade.”
Ladouceur consequently and unjustly comes off as a major hypocrite in the film, that the unparalleled, much celebrated winning streak was accomplished at the expense of his first family, the neglect of his primary vocation as a husband and father.
In real life, Ladouceur’s epiphany about faith, family and football actually came several years before the streak started in 1992, as Neil Hayes reports in his eponymous book.
“After ten years of doing it here, I’m 35, 36, and I’ve got two kids and my girl, Jennifer, is eight or nine years old, and my wife sits me down and says, ‘I feel real cheated,” says Ladouceur, who began coaching De La Salle in 1979. “‘That school got the best of you,’” he recalls his wife saying, “‘and we got seconds.’” “I tell you something,” Ladouceur added. “I felt like [dung.] She was right. That was another life-changing moment for me. I discovered it can be done differently. That’s live and learn” (emphasis added).
In an apparent attempt not to alienate Protestant and other viewers by not being overtly Catholic, the movie fails in crucial ways to deliver the real Coach Ladouceur. (The one time we see something distinctively Catholic is an easily missed crucifix hanging on the wall of a meeting room, apparently at De La Salle’s cafeteria, when area coaches gather to complain about the Spartans’ incessantly winning ways.)
Who is this man behind the much vaunted streak? How did his Catholic faith distinctively contribute to his building from scratch and sustaining this high school dynasty? After all, he was hired to both coach and teach religious studies at De La Salle, and his teaching has continued after his retirement as head coach in January 2013. What role do the Mass and Eucharistic adoration play in his life? And how did he learn to balance the demands of marriage and family life with coaching football, something that undoubtedly was a challenge each and every regular season? And what role did his wife play, the woman who in real life said about her future husband, “We just fell gaga. From the very start we knew we would get married one day.”
We never get that in the film. We never meet the real Bev Ladouceur, a woman who undoubtedly has been Coach Lad’s rock and confidante all these years. An example is the tragic, real-life death of the recently graduated Terrance Kelly, which is poignantly portrayed in the movie, though Coach Lad should’ve offered prayers for the repose of Kelly’s soul, instead of presuming he was in heaven. In his eulogy in a black Protestant church, Caviezel says, “People ask me what it’s like to never lose. Today I am lost.” How did his wife help him through this tragedy? And other challenges? The film could’ve been a lot more powerful and realistic had we learned more about Bev Ladouceur, and ironically it would’ve generated a much wider audience, particularly among women. (In process, the acting talents of Caviezel and Dern are underutilized.)
And how does he impart the Catholic faith to his players, instead of the more generic brand of Christianity that we see in the movie? Artfully and efficiently weaving in some of these themes, particularly regarding Coach Lad’s relationship with his wife, and refining some other elements, including some of the game action and team-related activities, would’ve made for a more intriguing screenplay and film.
Instead, in an apparent and clumsy attempt aimed to win over some Protestant viewers, we see a Spartan kid telling his De La Salle teammates at a restaurant that he and his girlfriend have taken a “purity pledge” until marriage. A kid from “Pleasant Hills Baptist,” not a Catholic player, simply says they’re waiting without making a good argument for premarital chastity. And Coach Lad’s son Danny remains sadly silent when another teammate says he’d be fornicating with abandon if he were dating the Baptist kid’s girlfriend. Surely Ladouceur’s lessons about brotherhood and living virtuously in the Lord extended to respecting young women. No doubt young men have to battle impure thoughts and other temptations in this regard, but the scene would’ve been better excised if a teachable moment consistent with the rest of the film could not have been integrated well somehow.
Similarly, the relationship between Coach Lad and Danny is not developed nor represented well in the movie. Realizing that his Dad might not be fit to coach him in his senior year, Danny complains in the movie, “The whole time I needed a father, I got a coach. Now I need a coach and all I got is a lame Dad.”
In real life, in the days following his father’s heart attack, Danny said, “I couldn’t ask for a better dad. He [has] to coach me my senior year and watch me play in college and see me get married and raise a family. It’s amazing how much goes through your mind in a time like that.”
“We were never just about winning,” Caviezel says in summarizing the streak. “We were built on families.” Unfortunately, regarding the man who engineered the streak and his primary family, we sadly don’t get to see how. While this movie is worth seeing and teaches various good lessons, it had the potential to be much more.