Inspirational sports movies are not uncommon, but the 12-year, 151-game winning streak of the De La Salle High School football team — the longest consecutive winning streak in American team sports history — is extraordinary. That story and the story of Coach Bob Ladouceur comes to the big screen Friday, Aug. 22, in director Thomas Carter’s film “When the Game Stands Tall,” based on Neil Hayes’ book of the same name.
The film, starring Jim Caviezel as the soft-spoken Ladouceur and Michael Chiklis as assistant coach Terry Eidson, starts in 2003, when the streak comes to an end, but the making of young men begins.
“It ain’t about the football. It ain’t about scoring touchdowns. It’s about moving you in a direction that can assist you and help you to grow up … so that when you take your place out in the world and out in our community you can be depended on,” Coach “Lad” tells his team in a scene from the film.
That focus on character, service to others, and caring for each other like family is true to life, says Higley High School football coach Eddy Zubey, who graduated from De La Salle in 1995, having played in the ’92, ’93, and ’94 seasons with the Spartans. Zubey’s older brother also graduated from De La Salle — a private Roman Catholic school for boys in Concord, Calif. Their father coached freshman football there before passing away from cancer.
“Coach Lad taught me stuff my mom couldn’t, like how to shave. My situation was unique from the standpoint that he knew my dad. I was only 7 years old when my dad passed away and my mom never remarried. Coach Lad really took me under his wing,” says Zubey, who saw the movie in a pre-release screening.
Zubey says Caviezel “nailed” his portrayal of Coach Ladouceur, who just retired in 2013 as head coach at De La Salle, where he is now the running backs coach. Ladouceur acted as a consultant for the film, as did his assistant coach, Terry Eidson.
Although the film compresses real-life events that occurred over a four- to five-year period — including Coach Lad’s life-threatening heart attack and the tragic death of star player Terrance Kelly just days before reporting to training camp at the University of Oregon — into one-and-a-half football seasons, Zubey says it is a very accurate portrayal of the spirit and atmosphere at De La Salle, where brotherly love and personal commitment characterize the program.
“It was more important for us as players to produce for the guys around us than for (ourselves). That’s kind of cliché and coach speak, but it was. They fostered that attitude with you in the offseason. It was all a production of hard work,” says Zubey, who tries to pass on Coach Lad’s emphasis on character training to his players at Higley.
That outward-focused philosophy, in conjunction with the school’s impressive record, drew director and executive producer Thomas Carter — whose résumé includes “Coach Carter,” “Swing Kids,” “Gifted Hands: The Ben Carson Story,” and “Save the Last Dance” — to make “When the Game Stands Tall.”
“I was inspired by the story and by the way Bob coaches and the way he wants to build character in these young men, not just the football,” says Carter. “To maintain that philosophical commitment is a job they have to do. It’s not like they teach the lesson once and then they’re done. They have to keep doing it. That’s why it’s so miraculous they did it for 12 years.” Carter portrays that commitment by focusing on a period in the team’s history when they are challenged on and off the field in ways previous Spartans weren’t.
“They weren’t as mature,” Carter says. “Every team needs leaders; they hadn’t developed great leaders. It wasn’t at the level they needed them to be. That’s what it is about. Now I have a team that hasn’t bought in totally. How do you get that team to buy in to the level that we take for granted? That’s why it’s interesting to watch and is emotional and has this inspirational sense to it.”
And inspirational it definitely is. “When the Game Stands Tall,” which is rated PG for a scene of violence, will leave you encouraged to fight the good fight, love others selflessly, and serve your community with courage and grace.
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