Football has been a staple of the American cinema for a century. The same characteristics that make the sport so perfect for television also have inspired directors to use the sport as a centerpiece of countless films. Here are seven gridiron classics.
In this madcap Marx Brothers comedy, Groucho Marx play Professor Quincy Adams Wagstaff, who takes the presidency of Huxley College just as it is due for its big football game against arch-rival Darwin. Wagstaff’s son, Frank, played by Zeppo Marx, convinces his father that in order to win the big game they should recruit pro football players to serve as ringers. Needless to say, they end up getting Harpo and Chico Marx to play on the team instead. The usual hijinks ensue.
Knute Rockne All American
This 1940 biopic of legendary Notre Dame coach Knute Rockne has gained a second life because of the famous performance of future President Ronald Reagan in the movie. Reagan played George Gipp, the Notre Dame star who died young. On his deathbed, Gipp asks Rockne, played by Pat O’Brien, to urge the Fighting Irish to “win one for the Gipper” some day when the odds seem against them. The line became a slogan for the actor turned politician, who was nicknamed “the Gipper” for his role in the film.
In 1963, author George Plimpton attempted to try out for the Detroit Lions as a third-string quarterback. It quickly became clear that Plimpton’s considerable talents as a writer and editor didn’t translate to the gridiron. He turned the experience into a best selling book, and in 1968 Hollywood turned the book into a movie with Alan Alda playing Plimpton. The movie recreates many of Plimpton’s follies playing football but with a host of cameos and appearances by football stars of the day like Alex Karras and Vince Lombardi.
In the late ’60s when the NFL was still marked by segregation, white fullback Brian Piccolo and black halfback Gale Sayers were good friends who roomed together on the road while playing for the Chicago Bears. Piccolo was diagnosed with cancer in 1969 at the age of 25 and died less than a year later. Brian’s Song, first aired as a TV movie on ABC, is the story of their friendship through Piccolo’s illness and death.
Rudy is the story of an undersized, overachieving young man named Daniel “Rudy” Ruettiger who perseveres against the odds to achieve his dream of playing for Notre Dame. Ruettiger struggled to even get admitted to Notre Dame, laboring through junior college where he was diagnosed as dyslexic. Finally, the 5’6”, 185-pound Ruettiger was admitted and allowed on the team as a walk-on who practiced every week but was never allowed to suit up on game day. Although the movie takes some dramatic license with how he got there, Ruettiger ended up playing the last game of his senior year where he notched a sack and became the first Fighting Irish player ever carried off the field by his teammates.
Any Given Sunday
The modern NFL is given a thorough examination by Oliver Stone in 1999’s Any Given Sunday. The plot focuses on a fictional football team in Miami coached by Al Pacino that is forced to put in a third string backup quarterback played by Jamie Foxx with the season on the line and a manipulative owner, played by Cameron Diaz, demanding results.
Remember The Titans
In 1971, after Alexandria, Virginia’s public high schools were consolidated as part of court-ordered desegregation, T.C. Williams became the city’s lone high school. Its newly integrated football team struggled with tensions as a new
African American coach, played by Denzel Washington, replaced the team’s incumbent white coach, played by Will Patton, who took a demotion to stay on as an assistant. The film depicts how the team overcame racial divisiveness—as well as a devastating injury to a star player in a car crash—and went on to win the Virginia state championship in football.
Friday Night Lights
Before it was a television series, Friday Night Lights was a movie. Based on the book by Buzz Bissinger, the movie chronicles the 1988 high school football season for the Permian Panthers in Odessa, Texas. Playing in front of huge crowds in football mad West Texas, the team struggles to make the playoffs while players struggle with anxiety about what their future might hold once the glory days of high school sports have faded away. Despite losing their star player to a career ending injury in the first game of the season, the team eventually reaches the state finals before losing.