De La Salle High School in Concord, California, was undefeated for 151 straight football games from 1992 to 2004. Needless to say, that is a national record. Loads of players went on to play college and even professional ball, and the coach all of those years has become a sports legend.
When the Game Stands Tall is not about The Streak. It really is not even about football, though there's lots of solid action. It is about the end of The Streak and a group of teenage boys who must deal with the consequences.
Bob Ladouceur (Jim Caviezel) had been coaching and teaching at the Catholic school since he was 25 years old. It might have looked like the easiest job in the world, given that much talent to throw onto a football field, but it clearly was Ladouceur's leadership and focus on the kids that turned out winners over and over.
For years, the team members have been trained up to be self-motivated, goal-oriented young men of character. They are not expected to be perfect but they are expected to give a perfect effort. Above all, they are expected to be brothers and raise each other up.
Leading up to the 2004 championship game, however, Ladouceur and assistant coach Terry Eidson (Michael Chiklis) are already sensing a disconnect in the junior class. Riding on the efforts of outstanding seniors like Terrance "T.K." Kelly (Stephan James) and Cam Colvin (Ser'Darius Blain), the Spartans easily take the title once again.
And then the wheels begin to fall off.
Cam is struggling through family tragedies and a crisis of faith. He backs out of a long-standing agreement with T.K. that they would go to college together.
Ladouceur, only 50 years old, has a heart attack. He's told not to coach just when the new team is getting ready for spring practice. That is when the cracks in the Ladouceur family begin to appear. His son Danny (Matthew Daddario) feels he does not know Ladouceur as a father and now won't have him as a coach his senior year. Ladouceur's long-suffering wife Bev (Laura Dern) is trying to navigate a complex future that will be best for the family and for her husband.
Upcoming senior Tayshon Lanear (Jessie Usher) has an all-about-me attitude that contaminates the team. He mocks the teamwork the new captain Chris Ryan (Alexander Ludwig) is trying to carry over from the long Spartan tradition. Ryan has his own troubles at home, and the entire team is caught up in the public glorification of The Streak.
Worst of all, just days before T.K. is to go off to college in Oregon, the unthinkable happens.
Though Ladouceur is able to rejoin the team by the beginning of the new school year, De La Salle's disastrous performance in the first game seems inevitable. Ladouceur becomes so frustrated by the team's bad attitude and concentration on football statistics instead of solidarity that he is ready to accept another job offer.
How he pulls himself and the Spartans out of the mire is the core of the story of When the Game Stands Tall. De La Salle's motto is "Men of Faith," and we see Ladouceur is not teaching these teenagers how to be football players but how to be men.
Always an earnest performer, Caviezel is straight-forward in his portrayal of Ladouceur. He obviously connected with the perspective of the real Coach Lad, who has a cameo as an assistant coach. The "kids" acquit themselves very well, too, and don't leave the acting burden on Caviezel and Chiklis.
The storytelling by director Thomas Carter is a bit episodic and should flow better than it does, a typical weakness in fact-based sports movies. Some aspects of the real story are changed, and some characters are composites (to protect the trouble-makers, no doubt).
Though not overt in doctrine, When the Game Stands Tall definitely falls into the genre of a "faith film," and those offended by religion will stay away. But all of the solid lessons about building character and finding the best in oneself are painted here evocatively, with the gridiron as the canvas.