Super Bowl XLVII is upon us (in the Meadowlands, no less), and in honor of this beer-sodden event, I’ve compiled a list of football movies to get you in the first-and-ten spirit. But these aren’t your average sports flicks. Instead, all have been adapted from books—both fiction and nonfiction. So if you really want to sound smart while scarfing down those suicide-spicy Buffalo wings on February 2nd, sample some of the required reading below.
Friday Night Lights: The mother of all sports adaptations, Friday Night Lights achieved the trifecta (or quadfecta)—book, movie, and two television shows. Plus, it was written by a Philly native, so you know I love it. Friday Night Lights: A Town, a Team, and a Dream, penned by former Inquirer staff member H. G. “Buzz” Bissinger, follows the unsuccessful state championship run of the 1988 Permian High School Panthers.
It’s not your typical “underdog heading to the big game” story, instead it focuses on the role high school football plays within the rural, football-obsessed town of Odessa, TX. And while it’s not a glamorous portrayal, Bissinger’s assessment has withstood the test of time. The books have sold nearly two million copies, and it’s universally considered to one of the best sport books ever—by everyone from ESPN to Sports Illustrated.
It also inspired the short-lived TV show, Against the Grain, in 1993 starring Ben Affleck; the movie Friday Night Lights starring Billy Bob Thornton in 2004; and the critically acclaimed NBC TV series that ran for five seasons beginning in 2006. Now that’s how to you make a sports adaptation.
The Blind Side: It’s not just a Sandra Bullock movie. Before The Blind Side hit Hollywood, it started out as the nonfiction book, The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game, and it is described as follows. “An examination of how offensive football strategy has evolved over the past three decades in large part due to Lawrence Taylor's arrival in the 1980s and how this evolution has placed an increased importance on the role of the left tackle.” Doesn’t that just scream Oscar buzz?
In all fairness, the other half of the book features Michael Oher, the former left tackle for Ole Miss and current right tackle for the Baltimore Ravens, whose rags-to-riches life story inspired the film. Written by Michael Lewis, who also penned Moneyball, it’s safe to say this author has nailed the book-to-film adaption. Sports writers everywhere should light a candle at his altar.
We Are Marshall: The film, starring presumed soon-to-be Oscar winner Matthew McConaughey (Dallas Buyers Club), features the horrifically tragic true story of the 1970 plane crash that killed 37 college football players, five coaches, two athletic trainers, the athletic director, and 25 boosters from Marshall University, along with five flight crew members.
It’s the deadliest sport-related tragedy in U.S. history, and its tale was first depicted in the book, The Marshall Story, written by Rick Nolte, Dave Wellman, Tim Stephens, and Mickey Johnson. Rather than a sports book, this is a story about a town trying to recover from grief. According to Nolte, 37 years after the crash, the University and surviving family members still had to approve the Hollywood script before the film could be made. Seventy children lost a parent in the crash, and 18 were orphaned, so this is a personal tale.
But the book and film are ultimately more about resilience than tragedy. The Marshall football program began again the year after the crash with kids from the JV squad and athletes who’d never stepped onto a football field before. It’ll put your priorities in perspective.
North Dallas Forty: If you’re looking for something a little more upbeat, try the 1979 comedy-satire North Dallas Forty, based on the semi-autobiographical novel written by former Cowboys’ wide receiver, Peter Gent. As an Eagles fan, it’s hard to recommend anything related to the Dallas Cowboys, but I’ll put my feelings aside for this.
The movie stars Nick Nolte (which right there, should tell you a lot about the film), and its characters closely resemble players from the 1960s Dallas franchise, with Seth Maxwell often compared to real-life quarterback Don Meredith; B.A. Strother to Tom Landry; and Phil Elliott to Peter Gent. Overall, the book and movie are often credited for shining the first light on the drug, sex, and alcohol crazed atmosphere of the NFL—with players addicted to painkillers and coaches turning a blind eye. It’s vintage sports-adaptation at its best.
Any Given Sunday: In terms of a killer cast, this movie’s hard to beat. Starring Al Pacino, Cameron Diaz, Dennis Quaid, Jamie Foxx, LL Cool J, and Matthew Modine, plus directed by Oliver Stone, this is one whopper of a star-studded sports film. Partly based on the book You're Okay, It's Just a Bruise: A Doctor's Sideline Secrets by Robert Huizenga, the 1980s L.A. Raiders’ team doctor, the film opens with the team’s franchise quarterback (Quaid) receiving a season-ending injury to which the trainer quotes, “You're okay, it's just a bruise."
The movie is often heralded as one of the most accurate depictions of an NFL team—from owners fighting with coaches, to players fighting for notoriety. And it features lots of NFL cameos, including Ricky Watters, Emmitt Smith, and T.O. Come on, Terrell Owens fighting for notoriety? That must be fictitious.
The Express: Another tearjerker of a sports film (a bit of a trend here), The Express is based on the biographical book The Elmira Express: the Story of Ernie Davis by Robert C. Gallagher. If you know anything about the life of Ernie Davis, you know this story unfortunately doesn’t end well. In 1961, Davis was the first African American to be awarded the Heisman Trophy, after an undefeated season that led Syracuse to its first National Championship and a victory in the Cotton Bowl.
He was the Number 1 draft pick in 1962, but sadly didn’t get to play a single game. He was diagnosed with leukemia during the preseason and died a year later. While the movie didn’t receive much commercial success, it was loved by critics and non-football fans who appreciated the athlete’s accomplishments during the racially-charged atmosphere of his time. Also, the film stars Dennis Quaid as the tough-but-lovable football coach, proving its hard to make a sports film in Hollywood that doesn’t include this man. (He’s starred in eight sports films to date.)
Diana Rodriguez Wallach is the author of three young adult novels, Amor and Summer Secrets, Amigas and School Scandals, and Adios to All The Drama (Kensington Books). In Fall 2013, she will publish Mirror, Mirror, a short-story trilogy based on the Narcissus myth (Buzz Books). She hold a B.S. in Journalism from Boston University, and currently lives in Philadelphia with her husband and daughter. Follow Diana online: www.dianarodriguezwallach.com, @dianarwallach, or http://dianarwallach.tumblr.com.