“I always said that if I could find a production that would help inspire young boys to become men I would do it, and this was that film.” This was what Jim Caviezel recently told me of his starring role in the new sports drama, When the Game Stands Tall (rated PG for mature themes and a scene of violence).
At first glance, Caviezel (perhaps best known to Christian audiences as Jesus in The Passion of the Christ and to television fans as John Reese on CBS’ hit drama Person of Interest) may seem like an unusual choice to play a high-school football coach. To say that the 44-year-old actor is soft-spoken might be an understatement—I had to strain to catch some of his answers to my questions. But then I watched a video of the legendary Bob Ladouceur, and it became immediately clear that Caviezel was perfectly cast. The two men share not only a devotion to their Catholic faith and a penchant for obscure theological references, but also a strikingly unassuming demeanor. As sports journalist Neil Hayes noted in the 2003 book the film is based on, Coach Ladouceur stands out in his industry for rarely raising his voice and avoiding the customary locker room speeches.
Perhaps that’s why the film about California’s De La Salle High School football team doesn’t focus on the bulk of Hayes’ original book—how Ladouceur led his program to achieve a staggering 151-game winning streak—but rather on the events that made up the epilogue. That is, how he handled losing it.
The movie begins, as many sports movies do, on the night of the big game. Only our protagonists aren’t the underdogs—far from it. With 12 consecutive undefeated seasons under its belt, De La Salle is the winningest team not only in high-school football history, but in all of American sports history. They are the over-over dogs, so to speak, though thanks to a pair of tragedies and a general attitude of entitlement, that will change in the film’s first few minutes.
The rest of the story focuses on how Ladouceur goes about teaching his players to overcome the sting of public defeat and what it means to serve one another in love. Or, as Caviezel describes it, “teaching them how individual egos must die in order for the team to live.” These are hard lessons that don’t sink in until a few more losses lead them to visiting the recovery ward of a veteran’s hospital.
From there, much of the film follows the expected sports film arc, but the performances, including Laura Dern as Beverly Ladouceur, are so spot-on, it’s an enjoyable ride despite its familiarity. And there are other, quietly unexpected elements that work to place When the Game Stands Tall above many competitors in the sports genre. It may not be all that unusual for a coach character to have a few faults. But to have the coach admit it and ask his family for forgiveness for not always living up to the principle of sacrifice above self is fairly uncommon.
Similarly refreshing is that the film shows Ladouceur as a spiritual as well as an athletic mentor to his players. In one scene he encourages a student to consider different angles of a particular Gospel story for a senior thesis. In another, he challenges a player dealing with loss to look for biblical answers for doubt and anger.
The movie doesn’t make a spectacle of these moments, but subtle as they are, they help form a significant aspect of the film’s tone and help the audience understand how Bob Ladouceur built such an enduring legacy. As Caviezel puts it, “This guy won 151 football games in a row. Never has there been such a winning streak. … Yet he never focused on winning. He focused on changing [his players’] character and the byproduct of that was winning.”