Huddle Up, We’re Dreaming

A football family finds home in Netflix’s Last Chance U

In Massillon, Ohio, where they’ve been playing high school football since 1894, football starts at birth and ends at death. Or, if you believe in heaven, then there is surely Tigers football there as well. In a town of only 33,000 people, the football stadium seats 16,600. The Tigers Booster Club visits maternity wards to give newborn babies mini footballs. Season tickets pass down through the generations. As one woman tells in the recent book, Tiger Legacy: The Stories of Massillon Football, “The football team isn’t only about family. They’re like a family. For those four years, they’re brothers.”

The football family of Massillon, Ohio, is only one of many. Think of Odessa, Texas, whose Permian Panthers were made famous by Buzz Bissinger’s 1990 classic book, Friday Night Lights. Or Allen High School, also in Texas, which built a $60 million stadium in 2012, only for the foundation to crack two years later, rendering the stadium useless. Ten million dollars and 18 months later, however, and the Eagles were back and better than ever.

The National Football League (NFL) doesn’t have the school settings or small-town settings of Massillon or Odessa, but it does have more money and brighter lights. If you turned on a game last year, you might have caught the NFL advertising spot featuring New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski. Gronk, as everyone calls him, rolls out of bed, eats his cereal, hangs out with friends, drives to Gillette Stadium, and dresses for the game. Just as he and his teammates storm out of the locker room tunnel, the NFL’s slogan flashes over the image. It says, “Football is family.”

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Somewhere between the New England Patriots and Massillon, Ohio, is Eastern Mississippi Community College in Scooba, Mississippi. There is nothing to do in Scooba; even the nearest Walmart is 45 minutes away. Nothing much happens in Scooba, except on a few good Thursday nights every fall, when the school’s crown jewel, the EMCC Lions, are in action.

Premiering in July, the Netflix original documentary series Last Chance U follows the EMCC Lions through their 2015 season. It’s a shame that Last Chance U may have slipped under the radar upons its summer release in the dog days of summer. The six-part, roughly 300-minute season is a brilliant piece of sports journalism. The dramatic stakes are high since EMCC is the two-time reigning junior college national champion. The players are colorful characters, desperate to earn scholarships from Division I programs, and the filmmaking is inspired. Directed by Adam Ridley and Greg Whitley, Last Chance U avoids the shaky-cam aesthetics that make many documentary viewers dizzy. Football has always been a sport that looks great on TV, but Ridley and Whitley mix great access, slow-motion shots, and sharp editing to bring the audience closer than ever.

Watching the show, you can almost feel that seering Mississippi heat and the post-practice ice baths. The spaces feel lived-in and authentic. The dorm rooms where players share their thoughts have all the causal indicators of college life, like familiar boxes of snacks and hats sprawled over the place. Guys struggle to open their new box of headphones while complaining about class. The language of Last Chance U is raw and uncensored but not vulgar. In other words, the series’ approach is first and foremost an honest one. Everyone, but especially college kids, wants someone to pay attention to them. Last Chance U makes the most out of listening closely.

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The players of EMCC call themselves a family, but like all unhappy families, they are unhappy in their own way. They have an aggressive, wild “father” in head coach Buddy Stephens and a traditional, loving “mother” in academic advisor in Brittany Wagner. The kids want to win a national championship, but even more, they want to get academically eligible and catch the attention of a bigger, wealthier “family” at Auburn or another SEC school. As one of the assistant coaches says without blinking: “None of these kids want to be here.”

But these kids didn’t have anywhere else to go. The likeable, jolly defensive lineman Ronald Ollie was raised by relatives after his father killed his mother in a murder-suicide. Running back D.J. Law’s father just got out of prison, and Law is trying to motivate himself enough in class so he escapes the trapped life of his Florida hometown. Even the player with the stablest family, quarterback John Franklin III, is a transfer from Florida State where he was highly touted out of high school, only to be forgotten on the depth chart.

The young men of EMCC find no love from Coach Stephens. Stephens, a man built like he once ate a player, is an absolute lunatic. He gets suspended for two games for throwing punches in a bizarre fight with a ref, proving there’s a first time for everything. He also shoves a player who back talks him and, when EMCC plays poorly in the first half of a game, yells this at halftime:

“Shut the fuck up. Don’t say a goddamn word to me. That’s what I fucking think…Some of you were brought here because we thought you were players. I think I may be wrong. I fucked up recruiting ’cause I let your asses come here. Some of you. I fucked up. Now you either decide to play or your asses won’t be around here anymore.

If EMCC is a family, then it’s a fucked-up family. And Coach Stephens is only part of the problem. Football is a sport predicated on violence. Not just accidental violence, the concussions, the tearing of ligaments, but schematic, intentional violence. John Franklin tells Brittany Wagner at one point that “we risk life and and death every time the ball is snapped.” “Oh, please,” she replies. “You’re not at war.” “How are we not?” Franklin fires back, and you sense he knows he’s exaggerating, but only by a little.  The Lions’ after-game chant is taken from the military. A team captain yells, “Blood makes the grass grow” and other players ominously chant back: “Kill! Kill!”

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“No one gets killed” is about the only good way to describe the premature end of the Lions season. The scene is the end of the second-quarter of their last regular season game, the Lions leading up 48-0 on Mississippi Delta. The teams have been on the verge of fighting the entire game, and when one of the Delta players lands a cheap shot on D.J. Law, the situation explodes. The all-out brawl that transpires is football stripped to its primitive savagery, swinging helmets like weapons and lashing out at whoever comes within reach. But, as one player says, “We ain’t about to let [Law] get jumped. We’re family out here.”

As a consequence for the fight, EMCC is disqualified from the playoffs; there will be no climactic championship game for the Lions. Afterwards, the healing is slow. Many of the black players on EMCC lose respect for Stephens when he criticizes the team for “punk-ass thug shit.” Ollie yells, “Coach Stephens, he don’t give a fuck about us.” But the brawl turns out to be a counterintuitive gift for Last Chance U, as it gives the characters space to give a long goodbye.

Franklin III earns a scholarship to Auburn. Law and Ollie struggle to get make the grades they need. And off the field the final episode belongs to academic advisor Brittany Wagner. Throughout the series, she badgers players to do their work, offering advice and vouching for them when recruiters come by. On her office wall is a collage of pictures of her posing with past EMCC football players, giving the sense that she’s not only doing her job well, but with clear eyes and a full heart. She’s the one that asks the players how they feel and tells them they can do anything. And she is the  person who cries twice every year at graduation. “It’s like losing children,” she says, and the hugs goodbye are long and full embraces because we, too, are saying goodbye to Scooba.

The football family of Last Chance U is one that doesn’t last very long. It’s more tentative and transactional than Massillon or Odessa while remaining smaller and less corporate than NFL Sundays. The players, coaches, and fans of EMCC are stuck as perpetual Penelopes: They love football but must wait a while for it to come back. Thankfully, Netflix has given the go-ahead for a Season 2.

Of course, I understand the many people who don’t know a kicker from a punter or a first down from a fourth down, and who dismiss football either with indifference or as the last dying ritual of masculinity. And I tell you that Last Chance U is still made for you. Sure, football is a sport that is both wild and over-plotted, that destroys and creates, that rips apart dreams, only to stitch back together hope for next year. Maybe someday the people and towns of Massillon or Scooba won’t need football. Community will appear out of thin air. But for now, these flawed families love each other, even if football is all they’ve got to love.