Sports films are some of the most poignant and emotionally driven works in Hollywood; they can inspire, frustrate, and move audiences all at the same time. When done right, these movies can serve as a moving representation of what football is truly all about: perseverance, confidence, hope, and the utmost importance of teamwork. A good sports film teaches audiences these lessons and inspires them along the way, utilizing the tension, comebacks and glory of sports games to highlight the human experience.
While the debate continues as to whether Americans should even play football (due to the concussive, problematic danger of the sport), the NFL nonetheless continues to be the most-watched sports league in the country, with the 2021 Super Bowl being watched by 96.4 million viewers, which is actually the lowest viewership the game has had since 2007. While there have been a plethora of great documentaries about football exploring both its danger and its glory, Hollywood has also enjoyed telling stories about the game, dating back to Harold Lloyd’s 1925 classic comedy The Freshman, and viewers still can’t seem to get enough. With many films to choose from, not all titles have the staying power to become a football fan favorite; the NFL has changed it’s rules so many times that football movies can become technically outdated. Outside of documentaries, and with the Super Bowl just around the corner, these are the best American football movies to grace the big screen.
Based on the life of Daniel “Rudy” Ruettiger, David Anspaugh’s Rudy is one of the ultimate underdog stories and remains one of football’s greatest feel-good films. Long before Lord of the Rings, Sean Astin starred as the titular Rudy, a young man on the journey of playing football at the University of Notre Dame, in spite of numerous obstacles thrown his way. The film is famous for its mixed bag response: viewers either love it for its heartfelt message or think its football story is muddled by all the sometimes sappy sentimentalism. Regardless, since its release in 1993, Rudy has been featured on numerous football film lists and was ranked the 54th-most inspiring film of all time in the American Film Institute’s “100 Years” series.
Gridiron Gang (2006)
Gridiron Gang is a sports drama that loosely depicts the story of the Kilpatrick Mustangs during the 1990 season, a team that is based out of a juvenile detention camp. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson stars as coach Sean Porter, who works at the center as a probation officer and decides to create a football team so the kids can have a purpose and direction. The film is an uplifting story that sheds light on troubled youths while delivering a moving performance from Johnson. Gridiron Gang is a perfect fit for the star, who himself played college football at the University of Miami.
Varsity Blues (1999)
The coming-of-age drama Varsity Blues features an impressive cast including James Van Der Beek (at the height of his Dawson’s Creek fame), Paul Walker, Jon Voight and Scott Caan. The premise follows a small-town high school football team through a troubling season as the players navigate the pressures of adolescence both on the field and off. Van Der Beek delivers a strong performance as the soft-spoken quarterback who goes toe-to-toe with his volatile and downright mean head coach (Voight). Though filled with some cliches, the talented cast and honest representation of the hope football brings in a small town truly hits the mark.
Any Given Sunday (1999)
With an all-star cast including big names like Al Pacino, Cameron Diaz, Jamie Foxx and Dennis Quaid, Any Given Sunday is partly based on NFL defensive end Pat Toomay’s 1984 novel On Any Given Sunday. The Oliver Stone film follows Pacino as the Miami Sharks’ head coach, who has devoted his life to the team and sport via untraditional methods. The is a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at the life of a football coach and the players he helps mold, and is a good fit for Stone’s typically bombastic and epic direction. Jamie Foxx was able to show off his skills on the field, having once passed over 1,000 yards during a single season in his high school days.
The Waterboy (1998)
1998’s hilarious sports comedy The Waterboy stars Adam Sandler as Bobby Boucher Jr., a socially inept water boy for the South Central Louisiana State University Mud Dogs. After being bullied by the team’s quarterback, Bobby knocks the player out and is subsequently hired as a soon-to-be-feared linebacker, despite his mother’s wishes. Kathy Bates co-stars as Bobby’s Mama Helen, in a surprising and bizarre but amusing performance. The Waterboy has garnered a cult following and is a great example of comedy tackling the sports’ genre and running with it. Sandler’s hilarious and good-natured portrayal really helps propel this funny football flick.
The Longest Yard (1974)
Classic sports comedy The Longest Yard was a massive hit upon its release in 1974, following an imprisoned former NFL player as he recruits a group of fellow prisoners to play football against the guards. Starring Burt Reynolds as former pro quarterback Paul “Wrecking” Crewe, the film is so popular that it has been remade 3 times, most recently in 2005 starring Adam Sandler with Reynolds returning. The Longest Yard also featured real-life football players, including Green Bay Packers legend Ray Nitschke. The humorous and down-and-dirty flick is a beloved favorite and staple among football fans.
The Blind Side (2009)
The sleeper hit The Blind Side features an Oscar-winning performance from Sandra Bullock, who portrays real-life Leigh Ann Tuohy as she adopts future NFL star Michael Oher. Based on the excellent journalistic book, the feel good sports flick tells the story of how Tuohy and her family helped Oher become a football superstar while developing unbreakable relational bonds along the way. The inspiring backstory of Oher paired with Bullock’s feisty mama-bear-esque performance really elevates this film and tugs on viewers’ heartstrings in the process.
Brian’s Song (1971)
The deeply moving and tear-jerking Brian’s Song is a TV-movie that depicts the life of Brian Piccolo, a Chicago Bears football player diagnosed with terminal cancer after making it to the pros in 1965. It is told through his friendship with Bears teammate Gale Sayers and displays their differing temperaments and racial backgrounds as the pair became the first interracial roommates in NFL history. Starring James Caan as Piccolo and Billy Dee Williams as Sayers, Brian’s Song is an uplifting and enriching story that truly stays with audiences, and is considered one of the greatest, most emotional television films ever made.
Remember the Titans (2000)
Based on the true story of coach Herman Boone, Remember the Titans follows the football coach as he attempts to integrate T.C. Williams High School football team in Alexandria, Virginia in 1971. Despite racial prejudice running ragged, Boone’s leadership never falters and he inspires his players to be the best that they can be. The legendary Denzel Washington beautifully portrays Boone and his performance is both profound and moving. With an impressive supporting cast including Will Patton, Ryan Hurst, and Ryan Gosling, the film truly packs an emotional punch, making Remember the TItans revered as one of the greatest football films of all time.
Friday Night Lights (2004)
The film that would inspire an equally great television series, Friday Night Lights is based on the 1990 H.G. Bissinger book and depicts the football coach and team of Odessa, Texas. Starring Billy Bob Thornton as real-life football coach Gary Gaines, who strives to help a group of Texas teens navigate their lives both within the football world and outside of it. The movie perfectly portrays the football-obsessed mentality of many small towns and contains some of most inspirational monologues in cinematic history. Both Friday Night Lights and the subsequent series are the most outstanding representations of football in film and television.
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