The team has built its whole offense on one player, African American student Boobie Miles (Derek Luke), who has a great physique, and can do it all: run; catch; throw. His abilities make him so egotistical, that his self-absorption does not allow for any room to care about being part of a team. He tells Mike, after the quarterback says Boobie hasn’t lifted weights like the other players, “This is God given. The only thing I gotta do is show up.” He sees himself as chosen by God, and does not have to earn his place as part of the team. For him, he is the team. His boasting is an affront to the oppositely quiet Ivory Christian, aka Preacher Man (Lee Jackson), who exudes stoical strength. On the field, after Don’s father has humiliated his son, Boobie says to Don that he doesn’t have to worry about hanging onto the ball, because he “ain’t never gonna get the ball. Your job is to be blocking for Boobie and I don’t care if your dad is sitting over there crying.” Don goes after Boobie for his selfish insensitivity, which shows how the star player’s attitude divides the team that should be thinking about how to work together.
But, Boobie’s talents only revolve around football. When asked about his grades, he says he gets all “A’s,” because he is an athlete. He has nothing to add about his courses. He says, “Hey, there’s only one subject. It’s football.” His lack of any other knowledge shows when he doesn’t know the word “distinguished” in the college material sent to him, ironically from institutions of higher learning trying to recruit him. Later, he thinks a MRI can fix a knee injury. This emphasis on sports at the expense of academic disciplines, shown in Mike’s session with his mother, is echoed in a radio comment. A man says, “There’s too much learning going on in that school,” a sad revelation of how things have turned upside down, where sports is thought of as the primary part of the curriculum, and academic studies are considered to be extracurricular.
The town will not give the players a moment of rest from the responsibility heaped on them. While they eat in a car, a man drives up and asks them in mid-bite if they are going to win State, be undefeated, get it done. The implication is that if they don’t succeed, their lives are ruined. When they eat at the burger joint, a thirty-five year old man, driving in his car, yells to Mike, Don, and Chavez (Jay Hernandez) about going to a party with the other football players. The boys comment on his age, which implies how the man is still living in a state of arrested development, not having moved on from his youth. A former title winner wants a picture of his baby with Mike, who he calls the next Texas State Championship quarterback. He tells Mike that he should not waste a second of being on top of the world at age seventeen, because “before you know it, it’s done.” He says, “After this, it’s just babies and memories.” There is this carpe diem feeling that hovers over the movie about how fleeting are the youthful exhilarating feelings of triumph, indestructibility, and freedom.
Don is also trying to have some seventeen year old fun before the grueling football season is to start. He takes a girl home, and starts to make out with her. But, his father, like the town, won’t give him a moment’s escape. He barges in on them, drunk, and starts to wrap Don’s hands around a football with duct tape, yelling at him for not being able to hold onto the ball. His father is a bitter man, who has not been able to make the transition from being a high school hero to being an average, working stiff. He wants to recapture the idol worship of his youth by vicariously experiencing the accomplishments of his son, who he sees as not being capable of achieving greatness. At one point, after a game loss, Charles kicks out the windows of the car, saying he needs air because Don makes him sick. He takes off his championship ring, presses it into his son’s head, asking him “Can you touch that?” He then throws the ring out of the car window, which implies that his son’s failures, which he shares, has brought him shame, and has invalidated his entitlement to past glories. After he has sobered up, Charles says he didn’t mean half the things he said. But, he echoes what the man with the baby said to Mike. He says that winning is the only thing important his son will have in his life. He says that is not only an ugly fact of life it is the only fact of life. He tells Don that he has only one year to make memories. Don found his dad’s ring, and gives it back to him, trying to show that he doesn’t want his father to feel like a failure because of him.
The man who experiences the full force of the town’s intimidation is Coach Gaines. The radio callers and the community leaders constantly harass him about the team’s efforts. They are like backseat drivers, telling him how he should do his job, and they Monday-morning quarterback like mad. At the dinner party mentioned above, racism (more emphasized in the book) surfaces when one of the women says to use Boobie on defense, too, because nothing will hurt that (n-word). Her remark shows how the white leaders just see the black player as a tool to be used for their own glory, and don’t value him as an individual. Gaines says, in a bit of ironic foreshadowing, that he doesn’t want to use Boobie on defense because he doesn’t want him to get hurt. The coach’s response to the pressure varies as the story progresses. At the beginning, he passes on the weight of the obligations by saying that the team must protect the town’s reputation. He says that they are in the business of winning, and asks them if they can be “perfect” because that is what it will to take to achieve their goals. On the locker room wall, there is a sign that reads, “Whatever it takes,” which doesn’t leave much room for human imperfection.
Dallas dominates the first half, overpowering Permian, until the closing seconds, when Comer takes the ball for a long run and a touchdown. At halftime, instead of bellowing out a loud speech exhorting his players, Gaines gives a philosophical, emotional talk. He explains what he meant when he asked early in the season if they could be “perfect.” He says, “Being perfect is not about that scoreboard out there. It’s not about winning. It’s about you and your relationship with yourself, your family and your friends.” He says if they can be sure that they did everything they could, then they didn’t let themselves or others down. If they can do that, then they are “perfect.” He urges each to hold in his heart what he feels for the other teammates, and Boobie, who would do anything to be playing with them. Gaines tells them that who they are, no matter the game’s outcome, has made him grateful because his “heart is full.”
The team does exactly what Gaines said they would have to do to be “perfect.” They give it everything they have, and battle back to within one touchdown. The film’s play action sequences here are electrifying and involving, and doubts about the negative aspects surrounding football dissolve in the focus on the these battling warriors. Don brings them close to the end zone in a bruising run, and Mike falls inches short of scoring a touchdown as time runs out, and Dallas wins. Don’s father knows that his son played a great game, gave it his all, and shows that he feels his boy is a winner by going down on the field and putting his championship ring on his son’s finger.
The movie ends with Chavez, Don, and Mike basically saying goodbye to the game near the stadium. Don says he will “miss the lights.” He is bidding farewell to that moment in the spotlight that the champions before him were talking about. We read about what happens to the players, going off to college and finding jobs, but that is all aftermath. Gaines is picking out the players for the next team, and we are told the next year Permian was undefeated. Why isn’t that the season Bissinger and the filmmakers zeroed in on? Because the more dramatic tale, the more involving, and edifying one is that which shows how individuals face adversity, challenges, and persevere. Those are the stories that resonate and inspire.
In a couple of weeks, the next film is Stalag 17.