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A documentary that follows the Manassas Tigers football team, a severely underfunded and underprivileged football team -- who were even hired out as a practice team for more successful schools -- as they reverse their fortunes, thanks to coach Bill Courtney. Written by
Prefunctory in a sense, but engaging and divinely human
It has become a new thing of amusement for sports fans to research old rants of coaches, particularly football coaches, that they gave in a live press conference while currently in the heat of the moment. Quite possibly the most iconic was the professional and motivating Herm Edwards sending a message to his players saying, "you play to win the game" after Herm's New York Jets lost to the Cleveland Browns in 2002. The rant I thought of during Daniel Lindsay and T.J. Martin's documentary Undefeated was Jim Mora's "Playoffs?!" remake when asked about the Colts' future after a devastating loss. "I just hope we can win a game!" he stated shortly after.
It's that kind of mentality I feel that the Manassas High School football team and their long-suffering coach, Bill Courtney occupied for a long, long time, as the school's team, which existed for 110 years, never won a playoff game and have become the devastating team that you look on the schedule and cite as an easy win if you play them. The school is located in Manassas, Virginia, and is grossly underfunded, along with possessing an athletic program unfit for even a third-rate school. The kids need to get by with what they have, and that's not much. Coming from a prestigious and often highly-regarded public high school, I look on with great sympathy and possess deep gratefulness in what I was born into.
Undefeated primarily focuses on Manassas High School football team's 2009 year, where they plan to turn things around for the better (not like they could get any worse). They figure that since they're at rock bottom, they can only go up from there, and Bill Courtney plans to turn the team around, putting heavy emphasis on character and frequently telling them, "character is not how you handle successes, because anyone can bask in the glory of a win, but how you handle failures," and that is a bold and admirable message for an unpaid coach to tell his players. He believes in them, even when their previous record was 0-10. You won't find too many high school coaches who take the game as seriously as Courtney, or are prepared to give them advice they can use off the field or when they hang up their jerseys and helmets to pursue other things.
Courtney explains that the school is so underfunded athletically that they considered taking part in "pay games," which involves the team traveling miles across the state to face a team they have no chance in beating and accepting a $3,000 - $4,000 in exchange for brutal humiliation. When your only option to get money is to belittle your self-esteem, you really need help in some way, shape, or form. He even goes on to say that the reputation the football team gets is so putrid, ugly, and dehumanizing that athletes that come to Manassas High from eight grade don't even consider playing for the team. Can you blame them? Yet not only are they out of an extra-curricular activity in their high school career, they're almost completely out of a future career with football.
Thankfully, Courtney has a reliable lineup, involving O.C. Brown, a senior whose passion is more suited for the field than the classroom, the quick and dependable Montrail "Money" Brown, and a man by the name of Chavis Daniels, who is the team goon, often causing trouble and possessing a very suspicious anger problem. Courtney accepts the challenge with no regret at all, and often connects personally with many of his players. There's a touching scene in the latter half when O.C. and Courtney are traveling somewhere in a car together when O.C. tells the coach that he is attracted to another girl. As a result, Courtney hands over a small bottle of cologne telling him to use it conservatively and he will get all the ladies he wants. The warm, innocuous, yet comforting feeling of bonding goes right to the viewer's heart in just a wonderful scene.
The film chronicles the 2009 season, showing modest beginnings, but a wonderfully unbelievable conclusion with opportunities soaring for the team, players, and school. We also see how the players not only adapt to the new opportunities, but also the inevitable ones, like college approaching their line of vision and high school entering their rear-view mirror. Courtney devastatingly explains that once the football season ends, some kids recognize that they have a 2.0 grade point average, a 14 on their ACT, and no scholarship, resulting in almost nowhere to go. It's a depressing state of affairs, especially for kids who have no other experience other than the kind they obtained on the field.
Undefeated is a nicely made documentary that had the honor of beating Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory at the 2012 Oscars for Best Documentary Feature. The film will without a doubt will strike an emotional chord for some audiences, yet despite being a true story, there's something about hearing the perfunctory tale of a coach turning a ragtag bunch of half-wits into a winning team, real or not, that feels sort of artificial. Yet there is a divine humanity in this story that isn't ignored, and the result, in the long run, was a long-overdue one Manassas will cherish for another 110 years. It's light years more efficient than a cliché-ridden tale like Rudy, I suppose.
NOTE: Undefeated will see a DVD/Blu-Ray release on February 19, 2013, but is currently on several video on demand outlets and on DirecTV's Pay-Per View feature.
Starring: Bill Courtney, O.C. Brown, Montrail "Money" Brown, and Chavis Daniels. Directed by: Daniel Lindsay and T.J. Martin.
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