There’s a clichéd saying: It’s not just about football. It’s about much more. Sports, in fact, are about much more. They teach children how to work on a team, how to be better human beings, yadda, yadda, yadda.
Undefeated could have easily been branded as just that—a cliché, just another football movie, but rather, it blossoms into a charismatic character study of a group of Nashville, Tennessee underdogs.
In 110 years, the Manassass Tigers had never won a high school football playoff game. In this historic season, led by Volunteer Coach Bill Courtney, the team has a chance to do so. But first, they must overcome a reputation of once being the laughing stocks of Tennessee High School football.
Six years prior to the making of the film, when Coach Courtney first took over, the team used to play staged “pay games.” To have an easy homecoming or season opening game, teams paid schools like Manassas for stress-free matchups, which ultimately satisfied both parties. The teams’ alumni are delighted to have a winnable freebie game, and Manassas is pleased to have anywhere from $5,000 to $20,000 to spend on underfunded school programs.
As the story goes, the once defeated Manassas experiences one of its best football seasons in school history. In a turn of events, they are playing one of those “pay games” teams in the playoffs.
Sure the team does more winning than losing during its Cinderella season. But Undefeated is really not about winning and losing, at least as measured by points and scoreboards. For the kids at Manassass, winning is about overcoming stereotypes.
In the beginning of the film, the coach rattles of a list of team statistics—but not the usual ones, which we are accustomed to hearing. Rather than the number of interceptions or yards gained, the coach goes over the number of team members who got shot, arrested, or are no longer in school. The cinema verité style, with swift shifts in camera angles and sudden eruptions from outbursts, corresponds with these erratic realities that can so easily derail the team’s progress.
Beyond these realities are the stereotypes others harbor about inner city football players. Schools outside the city don’t believe they have any discipline. These teams refer to the phrase “inner city knock”—which means that if you score on inner city teams first—or better, get up by 14 to 0—they will lay down because they lack the discipline to get back in the game.
These are stereotypes that Coach Courtney readily shares with his players to let them know exactly what they are up against. In addition to their own team drama, frequent tardiness and occasional scuffles between players, they also have to deal with other teams’ indiscipline. Players from one opposing team said: “If we don’t win the game, we’re gonna win the fight,” referring to the fight that they would start if they were to lose to Manassas.
For these teenagers, it takes loads of mental toughness to withstand the situations in which they often find themselves.
There is a feeling of despair and hopelessness in the vast expanses of the neighborhood’s inactivity. Between the houses, some abandoned and some dilapidated, there is a long stretch of civilization where there is little productive work for residents and their children to partake in. After he is injured, Money struggles with the decision to continue his schooling. For him, football provides a motivation for him to attend school and aspire to college; it is a reason to get up in the morning and something to do with days that would otherwise be filled idleness.
One kid wonders: “I wonder where we’re gonna be after football.”
All the kids have a close relative or family member who had been to jail, while none had two parents who had both been to college. A guest speaker wisely advises the Manassas players to think outside of their circumstances.
Football becomes the natural way to escape the cycle of social reproduction. The team’s star player O.C., whose mom never missed a football game since he was 7 years old, said: “I don’t want to say that football is everything to me, but football is the way out. Academically…I’m not the smartest kid in the world.”
In many ways, O.C.’s experience parallels that of Michael Oher, whose journey to college and to the NFL through football was fictionalized in the 2009 film The Blindside. Like Michael Oher, O.C. was having difficulties with academics in school. He ended up living with his coach a few days each week in order to receive tutoring that would allow him to achieve grades that would make him eligible for a college scholarship.
The perception remains: sports are the true, sometimes only, beacon of opportunity for some children, especially poor kids who see athletics as the sole way to advance in society. The black U.S. army hoodies many of the players wear for fashion suggest what other institutions, besides college football programs, lie in waiting for students like the Manassas players in the more probable event they don’t make the first way out and desire an alternate route.
What makes their season special is the bond that forms between a devoted coach and children who do not have fathers living in their home or sometimes even in their life. Together, they built a formidable reputation for an otherwise unremarkable school.
More than the football games, the personalities in the film propel the narrative. Chavis receives The Uncommon Man Award, bestowed upon the player who sets “a whole bunch of demons aside” to try to be something bigger than himself.
In his acceptance speech, Chavis–who was once a fairly cocky individual–instead of praising himself, immediately begins to give a speech about Money, who is temporarily sidelined due to a late-season injury.
Earlier in the film, Money and Chavis nearly start brawling during a team meeting. They had rarely exchanged a word since. On the day of the team banquet, Chavis humbly attests to Money’s value as a true team player.
After this gesture, one trite quotation Coach Courtney swore by—”Football doesn’t build character. Football reveals character”—suddenly made a lot of sense.