At one point in the Oscar-winning documentary Undefeated, Coach Bill Courtney's voice cracks as he shouts "character!" at his team for the 400th time.
He has volunteered six years of his life to this team — underprivileged kids from inner-city Memphis — volunteered because the school can't afford a football coach.
He has had to break up fights between players and hound them to stay in school, keep their grades up and aim higher than the lives fate has ordained for them. And at that one moment in this often-moving football documentary, they seem to get it. Character is what you show when things go wrong. Character is what picks you up. And character is what determines how you live your life.
Courtney, an ex-salesman who runs a successful lumber company, is the heart of Undefeated, a white businessman who longs to turn this hapless team peppered with unruly, undisciplined young black men into winners for the first time in their lives and the first time in their school's long history.
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The sports clichés and football myopia of the coaching staff might provoke a bit of eye-rolling. But when Coach tells the kids that football doesn't build character; it "reveals character," you believe. So do they.
Daniel Lindsay and TJ Martin's film focuses on Courtney's mania for taking this school to its first-ever victory in the Tennessee state playoffs. It zeroes in on a trio of players: kids who believed in and stuck it out for him through four long years because their coach believed in them.
There's a touch of The Blind Side to this, in its Memphis setting and in one of its central characters. O.C. Brown is a big, fast offensive lineman with college potential. He's a terrible student, living in a rough part of town. The only way to get him tutored and qualified for college? Move him in with a white assistant coach's family a few days a week.
Chavis Daniels is a thug, in and out of trouble, a hothead who threatens team harmony and team chemistry with his prickliness. And Montrail "Money" Brown is a kid who realizes football isn't his final destination but who gets much out of being a part of what Coach always calls "something larger than yourself."
As movies of this genre go, this one feels a little superficial, a little too content to trot out "raised by his grandmother" and show the caved-in ceiling of the kitchen of one boy's home, and go no further.
That's because the profane and prayerful Courtney gets the most screen time. We get a sense of his motives and his methods, the way he seemingly won't give up on any kid.
And when his voice cracks at that demand for "character," we understand his real gift to the young men of the Manassas Tigers: resilience. The metaphor that a team shows its mettle by coming back, even after falling behind, works with life, too. Undefeated makes you hope that the boys he influenced will be like the team he coached: guys whose real achievements show up in the second half.