I never played high school football, but I was around it enough as a sportswriter — roaming the sidelines at hundreds of games, hanging out at practices, in locker rooms and in coaches’ offices — that I developed a really good knowledge and feel for the sport.
I’ve seen terrible teams and terrific ones. I’ve seen awful players and amazing ones, including many who went on to star in college and the NFL.
And I’ve heard all the clichés – 110 percent of them!
Which is why I wasn’t too bothered by the canned platitudes that make up much of the dialogue of When the Game Stands Tall, a film celebrating not only the greatest team in high school football history, but the coach — and the truisms and ideas — behind it.
De La Salle High School, a Catholic school for boys in Concord, California, won an astonishing 151 consecutive games from 1992-2004. That’s 104 more victories than the best streak in college football history (Oklahoma’s 47 from 1953-57), and 130 more than the NFL’s longest (New England’s 21 straight in 2003-2004).
When the Game Stands Tall is based on the 2003 book of the same name by Neil Hayes, a sportswriter for the Contra Costa Times. I don’t how many clichés are in the book, but if Hayes quotes De La Salle coach Bob Ladouceur at all, it’s certain to have some.
Here are just a few from the film, as spoken by “Coach Lad,” played by Jim Caviezel:
We got caught up in the hype, the celebrity, the glory.
We’re not just a football team. We’re a family, a brotherhood, which is based on love. And love means you can count on me, in good times and bad.
You’re not alone. You’ve got me and 60 brothers on this team.
We’re going to find out what this team is made of. You’ve got to decide what you want to be.
It’s not about winning or touchdowns. It’s about growing up.
You get the idea. But here’s the thing: They’re delivered with such sincerity that you believe them right along with the players. And not just because they’re so earnest, but because — at least at De La Salle High, and at least while Ladouceur was coach — they’re true. And because Ladouceur, a devout Catholic who also teaches religious studies at the school, lives out these ideals right before their eyes.
He’s the real thing. And Caviezel, also a devout believer, captures his subject very well — a coach who truly loves his players first as young men made in God’s image, and second as football players. Don’t get me wrong: Love alone won’t win football games. Ladouceur — who went 399–25-3 in his career before retiring last year — is a fantastic coach, and he has had incredible talent on his teams. But most of his players grew up to be exemplary young men, even the ones who didn’t play ball in college or the NFL.
In a video promo for the film, the real Ladouceur says that as a coach and mentor, “there’s a lot of gospel values to base our actions on and our motives from. I do believe you have to live the gospel too. If you’re going to be in front of kids, you have to be examples. If you’re going to be in front of them, you can’t be hypocritical. That’s one of the things Jesus was most critical of, the hypocrites.”