Last weekend, celebrities gathered in Hollywood for their annual night of high fashion and tearful speeches – that’s right, the Oscars.
Among all the gowns and the glitter, we’re willing to bet there was only one football coach in the audience. And that coach walked out on Sunday night an even bigger winner than he was when he walked in.
That’s because Bill Courtney, a lumberyard owner and volunteer high school coach in Memphis, Tenn., was a central figure in the film that walked away with the Oscar for Best Documentary.
Undefeated, the film that stars the coach, is a story of the Manassas Tigers, a team in the poor, violent, and traumatized neighborhood of North Memphis.
When Coach Courtney came along, the team had not won a game in 14 years, and had not won a playoff game in its entire history. But most humiliating of all, when wealthy schools in the region wanted a surefire win for their Homecomings or other big games, they would hire Manassas to come be their punching bag. The other team got to look good for their fans, and Manassas got $3000, which was how they financed their season’s equipment and transportation.
Ending the practice of getting hired to lose was the first thing Courtney did when he took over as coach in 2003. Then, he began the process of teaching his players not just how to build strong football skills, but how to build strong character. His impact on his players and their families was nothing short of life-changing.
Undefeated follows the Manassas Tigers through the 2009 – 2010 school year. The filmmakers moved from Los Angeles to Memphis after they read a newspaper article about the team, and ended up living there for nine months, in the process spending thousands of hours with the high school students and their coaches, capturing emotional highs and lows of every kind.
How is the coach handling his new, higher profile since the movie got an Oscar?
“There’s three things I hope people get out of this movie,” he told the Memphis Daily News recently. “One, if you put race and preconceived notions aside … it’s amazing what we can accomplish if nobody cares who gets the credit. Two … the only way in my opinion to really kick abject poverty’s butt in this country is to not give a hand out but a hand up. Three, I hope people are inspired to get out of their comfort zone and go find something to do somewhere. If people get all that, then I’m glad.”
If you like inspiring sports movies, we think you’ll love Undefeated. Sometimes real life is even better than anything Hollywood could make up.
The film opened last week in limited release, and is expected to hit wider release nationwide sometime in March. If you want to be sure it comes to your community, consider making a request to your local cinema manager.