Some people will say this pick is a reach, and they may not be wrong. But I go with my gut, and my gut loves the hell out of this movie. Most of all, I love the crude, unrefined feel of it. The lack of pretense or flash. It’s a grimy, simple movie about a grimy town and a kid with a simple motive: To escape.
The only reason it’s not even higher on this list is that it’s really more a coming of age movie than a true football movie. Because of that, and other reasons, it’s not for everybody. It’s definitely not the crowd-pleaser that a few movies left off this list are. It’s not about pro football or even college. And while there are a couple other high school football movies on this list (SPOILER ALERT!), this one is not about teams fighting for a state championship.
It’s about a small, down-on-its-luck town -- Ampipe, Pennsylvania, named after the American Pipe and Steel mill it was built around -- and how much high school football means to a place like that, in good ways and bad. It’s about small town dreams -- getting out, and making a life for yourself.
Let’s break it all down. But first, the trailer:
The kid trying to get out is Stefen Djordjevic, excellently played by a 21-year-old Tom Cruise, in just his sixth film role and second as a lead -- only two months after his first, Risky Business. It wasn’t nearly the same hit that was, but did get a decent enough review by the estimable Janet Maslin in the New York Times.
This is not nearly the Tom Cruise we’re used to -- polished, practiced, not a hair out of place. In this, he’s raw and rough around the edges, every bit the kid from the wrong side of the tracks. Part of that is good acting, but I think much of it has to do with the fact he wasn’t a star yet. Like Stef, Cruise was a kid who just wanted his shot. Remember, he filmed this before Risky Business was released, so he didn’t know he’d be well on his way to stardom by the time it came out.
You can feel his hunger, and whether it’s from his real life or the script, it’s plays perfectly here. You believe a shot at college is all he wants and provides the fire that drives him. And you believe the speech he gives a college recruiter, when he says all he wants is trade his football talent for a college education.
You see, Stef doesn’t dream of a pro career -- he’s much too smart for that, joking to the recruiter about NFL teams wanting a 5’10” white cornerback (never mind Cruise isn’t even 5’10” when he stands on a hard cover copy of Dianetics). He has a much more down to earth dream -- to be an engineer.
It’s this kind of realism that allows us to become emotionally invested in Stef’s struggle, and to root for him to achieve his modest goals. So when those goals are threatened, then held hostage, Stef’s plight becomes riveting, even heartbreaking, drama. “Grounded” is not generally a word used to describe Cruise or his movies, but it fits here. But don’t worry, Cruise also does what he does best: Run.
Key role players
Christopher Penn gives a standout performance as star LB Brian Riley. Stef’s plight wouldn’t be nearly as involving if we didn’t see how it can all go wrong. Stef watches his worst nightmare play out for his best friend, who gets a scholarship to USC, then learns his girlfriend is pregnant. An abortion is out of the question, so instead of playing in the Rose Bowl, Brian stays home to start a family.
Penn plays this transition expertly, going from the youthful exuberance of his childhood dreams coming true to the very adult realization that his dreams now come in second to his responsibilities. Watching Penn, you feel you’re seeing a boy become a man. It’s no surprise Penn went on to become a dependable and underrated character actor.
Paul Carafotes is also great as Salvucci, Ampipe’s even more ill-fated RB. Without much screen time, Carafotes displays a wide range — from comic relief to sympathetic figure to cautionary tale — as Salvucci’s life quickly goes down the tubes.
Best known as Hayden Fox on ABC’s Coach, Craig T. Nelson plays a whole different kind of coach here. Ampipe head coach Vernon Nickerson runs his practices like a drill sergeant, golf club in hand, grabbing players’ facemasks to make sure he has their attention. It’s hard to tell if he’s toughening them up or just being a jerk.
Nickerson is hard on Stef, criticizing his unwillingness to be coached. He warns Stef playing the receiver instead of the ball will result in a pass interference penalty, and he’s right. But he takes it personally, telling his assistant “He’s using me,” without realizing he’s using his players in the same way. Just like Stef, Nickerson is using the team to escape the confines of Ampipe, by way of a college coaching job.
This foreshadows Nickerson’s thin skin, and also the disregard he has for the fact he’s not just coaching a team, but shaping young men. These traits take root when Nickerson blames his players for a heartbreaking loss and kicks Stef off the team in the heat of the moment (more on that later). It’s quite the heel turn, and Nelson nails it.
It’s not enough to end Stef’s high school career and put his future in jeopardy, Nickerson actually blackballs him. When a recruiter from Boston College comes asking about Stef, Nickerson warns him he has an attitude problem. That’s more than being a hard-nosed coach, that’s playing god.
It isn’t until Stef calls him out on this later that Nickerson sees the error of his ways. Luckily for him, and also for Stef, Nickerson does get that college job -- as DB coach at “Cal Poly” (San Luis Obispo, I assume), which just happens to be of the best engineering schools in the country. That allows Nickerson to offer Stef the scholarship he desperately needs, giving them both a happy ending.
It’s one of those rare occasions when the antagonist isn’t so much defeated as reformed (think Darth Vader at the end of Return of the Jedi, minus the dancing Ewoks).
Rookie of the year
Lea Thompson is solid as Stef’s girlfriend, Lisa, despite only having a couple of bit parts prior to landing the role. She’s sympathetic as a small town girl who loves her boyfriend, but fears losing him.
Part of Lisa’s storyline is cliche — Stef wants sex, and she’s “holding out” — but another thread is original and heartfelt: Lisa loves Stef and wants him to achieve his dream, but realizes she’ll almost certainly lose him if he goes to college. When it appears Stef has lost any shot at a scholarship, Lisa goes to the mat for him, speaking to coach Nickerson’s wife on his behalf. Even when Mrs. Nickerson points out she’ll lose Stef if he leaves Ampipe, Lisa only wants to best for him. That’s what real love is all about, and the scene sells you on Lisa’s character and Thompson’s performance.
It’s no surprise that in the four years after this movie Thompson went on to several high-profile films: Red Dawn, Back to the Future, and Some Kind of Wonderful, where she met her future husband and director of the number 10 movie on this list, Howard Deutch.
There’s not much football -- just a few practices, and one game. But what a game. Ampipe travels to powerhouse Walnut Heights in what feels like an actual high school football game, played by real kids, with remarkable passion. Walnut Heights is a heavy favorite, but with a solid game plan from Nickerson, and a couple of big plays (including a pick-six by our boy Stef), Ampipe leads 14-10 late.
In the closing minute, Stef commits the dreaded pass interference penalty to give Walnut Heights a 1st and goal. A goal-line stand appears to save the day for Ampipe, which just needs to run out the clock. But playing in driving rain, that proves too much. Salvucci fumbles the handoff and Ampipe loses on a defensive TD as time expires.
After what might be the most dispiriting loss in football movie history, the post-game locker room scene provides the movie’s turning point.
Nickerson taunts Salvucci for crying over his game-losing fumble, saying he choked and quit on his team. You know, just what any good coach would do after his team played its heart out in a gut-wrenching loss to a superior opponent on the road.
When Stef defends Salvucci, Nickerson calls him out for the big pass interference penalty he was warned about. Stef doesn’t back down, criticizing Nickerson for not having his QB take a knee to end the game: ”We didn’t quit. You quit!”
Nickerson responds by kicking Stef off the team. Bear in mind, Stef is a senior with one game left in his college career. Nickerson won’t even let Stef take the team bus home, telling him “This is the wrong bus, son. This bus is for players. You ride back with the cheerleaders.” Classy.
Everything about the Walnut Heights game. It’s one of my favorite game sequences ever. Not just the game itself, but everything leading to and from it.
- It starts with the pep rally, where Nickerson stirs up the students’ hatred for Walnut Heights, the “have’s” to Ampipe’s “have not’s.” He begins with the obvious: “Their football team is undefeated and ranked third in the state.” Okay, screw them. Then he goes for the throat: “They have a swim team. A tennis team. They’ve got a golf team, for boys and girls.” Boo!
- The bus ride also provides a great prelude. Players are stoic, psyching themselves up for the game. But as they approach Walnut Heights, they can’t help but look around in awe at their surroundings. One player: “Jeez, look at the place!” Entering the visiting locker room, another says, “Now this is what a real locker room looks like!”
- The pre-game is similarly telling. Players touch an old, deflated football from their school’s 1960 state championship season for good luck. Tension in the locker room leads to a skirmish. Players display thousand-yard stares and palpable intensity.
- Just before kickoff, Nickerson delivers a truly rousing speech, ending with a string of racial epithets to fire his team up. And you know what? It works!
- After the game, Stef hitches a ride back with team boosters. Angry about the loss, they stop to vandalize Nickerson’s home. Stef dumps some trash on the lawn, but tries to stop the adults spray-painting the house and slashing car tires, which leads to him being spotted by Nickerson. This ironic and gut-wrenching twist adds fuel to Nickerson’s grudge against Stef.
As in the last installment, it’s a dance sequence. Celebrating Brian’s scholarship to USC, the black players decide to show Brian the moves he’ll need in Hollywood. This leads to them giving Penn and Cruise a dance lesson. Luckily, there’s no clip of this on You Tube.
Realness is a through-line of the movie. It feels like real high school, with real high school situations, real high school football, and real high school romance.
Also, the film is based on a magazine article by Pat Jordan about a town in western Pennsylvania where the kids “either get a football scholarship or work in the steel mill for 40 years.” Jordan lived there for months to get the feel of that life. After he optioned the story to Hollywood, they tried to cheat Jordan out of his money and credit by making the movie behind his back.
Stef: “You are really f****d, man!”
Nickerson: “No son, you are.”
After two films I assumed people would feel I overrated, the next movie is one I assume people will feel I’ve underrated. Hint: The cast includes four Oscar winners and two other two-time nominees.