“You think football builds character. It does not. Football reveals character.” That mantra sums up the philosophy Bill Courtney relied upon in pep talks to turn around the football program at Manassas High located in inner-city Memphis. When he assumed the reins in 2004, the Tigers had never made the playoffs in its entire 100-year history, and hadn’t even won a single game in the previous 14 years.
Luckily, Coach Courtney followed a calling to try to make a difference in the lives of the underprivileged African-American kids on the team, so he offered his services to the school on a volunteer basis. And it wasn’t long before he began to understand precisely why the Tigers had such a long losing record, as members of his squad were soon being crippled by assorted afflictions visited upon unfortunate folks stuck in the ghetto.
First, his starting right guard and middle linebacker left school after being shot, while his center was unavailable because of being arrested. Then, he had to intervene when a couple of other players fought with each other right in front of him. That “career’s worth of crap” for an average coach all transpired at Manassas in just two weeks. Not one to be deterred easily, Courtney still stuck around for the long run and by 2009 had forged Manassas into a playoff-bound powerhouse to be reckoned with.
The team’s phenomenal achievement is the subject of “Undefeated,” an overcoming-the-odds documentary co-directed by T.J Martin and Dan Lindsay. Nominated for an Academy Award in the Best Documentary category, the film focuses primarily on the coach and on three youngsters whose fortunes he took a particular interest in: Chavis, Money and O.C.
We see that Chavis, a hot-headed junior being raised by a single-mom, has recently returned to school after spending 15 months in a juvenile penitentiary. Money, a gentle giant who lives with his grandmother, is applying himself both in the classroom and on the field with hopes of landing a scholarship as a ticket out of the ‘hood. Star senior O.C. has been blessed with size and great natural ability, yet poor grades might torpedo his chances of being accepted to college.
Although Coach Courtney’s tough love regimen looks at times like it might push a player or two over the edge, it ultimately proves to be just the right prescription to inspire the team to morph from perennial underdogs to gridiron greats. A compelling documentary chronicling not just football exploits but a few bona fide cases of quality character revealed.