When it comes to sports movies, football takes a back seat to baseball and boxing. Bull Durham, The Natural and Eight Men Out are far superior to any football film ever made. So are Rocky and Raging Bull, for that matter.
But that doesn’t mean we don’t love some glorified gridiron stories, where every hit is a bonecrusher, every touchdown comes with time ticking down, and grown men weep for their fallen compatriots or the traditions of Notre Dame.
And so, we tee up our Top 10 Favorite Football Movies, divided into high school, college and pro divisions. Tell us yours at dfw.com
All the Right Moves (1983): Jerry Maguire may be Tom Cruise’s best-known sports film, but he was at his football finest as Stefen Djordjevic, the scrappy defensive back desperate to earn a scholarship and get out of a dead-end Pennsylvania steel town. Cruise clashes with his hard-line coach (Craig T. Nelson) and is conflicted about leaving behind his good-hearted band girlfriend (Lea Thompson). Sandwiched between Risky Business and Top Gun, All the Right Moves showed a different, grittier side to Cruise’s trademark intensity.
Remember the Titans (2000): Denzel Washington stars in this film based on the true story of a black coach who was hired at a Virginia high school to help integrate the team in the early 1970s. The movie is a bit heavy-handed at times with its message (thanks to producer Jerry Bruckheimer), but the relationship between Washington and his white assistant coach who was next in line to be head coach (Will Patton) is tense and believable. The football scenes are terrific, so is the Motown music, and a young Hayden Panettiere nearly steals the movie as the football-obsessed assistant coach’s daughter.
Friday Night Lights (2004): Based on Buzz Bissinger’s book about the Odessa Permian Panthers, this film really portrays the pressure cooker of being a high school football star in a small town where all the hopes and dreams are riding on you making it to the state championship. Billy Bob Thornton is solid as the put-upon new coach, and country music star Tim McGraw is scary good as the ex-football star whose son can’t live up to his legacy. Also, keep an eye out for a wonderfully understated performance by Fort Worth’s own Grover Coulson as the uncle of injured Permian running back Boobie Miles.
Everybody’s All American (1988): Dennis Quaid is one of the most believable sports movie actors of all time (see also The Rookie, Breaking Away, Any Given Sunday), and one of his finest performances was as Gavin Grey — “The Grey Ghost” — an LSU legend who is the big man on campus but can’t quite cope with life after he leaves the adoring fans in Baton Rouge. Jessica Lange co-stars.
Rudy (1993): We know it’s a weepy love letter to Notre Dame, but the story of the undersized kid from Joliet, Ill., (Sean Astin) who won’t quit until he gets on the field for the Golden Domers is the ultimate underdog story. We don’t want to watch it every time it’s on, but we do. We also love seeing a plump Jon Favreau as Rudy’s brainy friend, a skinny Vince Vaughn as the bratty scholarship player and Charles S. Dutton as the stadium manager with a secret.
The Program (1993): You could call this movie the anti- Rudy because it takes a totally unsentimental view of what it’s like to play for a major college football program. James Caan is solid as the conflicted coach who can’t control his players or boosters. And Omar Epps is believable as the kid from the hood whose football ability might just earn him a shot at the NFL. It doesn’t hurt that a young Halle Berry and Kristy Swanson are among the co-stars.
Any Given Sunday (1999): Oliver Stone’s portrait of pro football may be a bit overwrought, but we admire the way he tries to lay bare all the excesses and injustices in the sport while also glorifying the gladiators on the field. Jamie Foxx gives a breakout performance as the third-string QB who gets his chance to shine but doesn’t want to bend to the will of his once-great coach, Al Pacino. Giants linebacker Lawrence Taylor is all-too-believable as an aging defensive star trying to cash his last bonus check. And Cameron Diaz is tough as nails as the owner’s daughter who wants to win at all costs. Sure, the movie’s too long and there’s too much scenery chewing, but you forget all that during the slow-motion on-field ballet sequences. Keep your eyes peeled for T.O., too.
North Dallas Forty (1979): A classic for many reasons: It’s loosely based on the Dallas Cowboys of the 1970s, with a Don Meredith-esque folksy QB played by musician turned actor Mac Davis. Former Oakland Raiders star John Matuszak is great as the manchild defensive enforcer, and Nick Nolte is perfect as the aging but gifted receiver Phil Elliott. The film has many bawdy, funny moments, but it also shows the mercenary nature of big-time pro football better than any other. When Phil must face his football mortality in his mid-30s — and the cold hard fact that his team and coach view him as disposable — North Dallas Forty is both poignant and heartbreaking.
Brian’s Song (1971): Billy Dee Williams plays the smooth-as-silk Chicago Bears running back Gale Sayers, who learns that his teammate and friend Brian Piccolo (James Caan) is dying of cancer. Their friendship is surprisingly tender, especially considering the skull-cracking roles Caan would gravitate toward later in his career. Originally made as a TV movie, it was such a three-hanky hit that it got a theatrical release. Essentially, if you don’t cry during Brian’s Song, you are empty inside.
The Longest Yard (1974): Burt Reynolds, in his ’70s heyday, plays the rugged ex-pro quarterback Paul “Wrecking” Crewe, brought in to lead a team of inmates against the neanderthal prison guards. Eddie Arnold (yep, Green Acres), the ruthless warden, wants Crewe to throw the game, but after assembling a rag-tag team, Crewe has second thoughts. Packers legend Ray Nitschke is in the film, along with several other NFL players. And Reynolds was a college football player for Florida State, so there’s an authenticity to it. But it’s also funny and brutal at times. (Don’t confuse this one with the Adam Sandler remake, or you’ll be sorry.)