As a college student in my pre-Christian days I was mega-moved by the film The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner. A breakout role for British actor Tom Courtenay, the story depicts young juvenile delinquent Colin Smith, sentenced to a reform school run by a tyrannical thug of a governor whose passion is marathon running. After several attempts to break Smith, the governor discovers his talent for distance running and offers enticements if Smith will run for the school. It is all about the governor’s vanity and nothing to do with the welfare of any of his charges. When Smith realizes how thoroughly he has sold out for a few privileges, he stops in the grand race just before crossing the finish line. In this climactic moment, he refuses victory to assert his independence and to spite the authority figure who has used him. His gesture is all about the power to say NO when all other options are cut off. He considers his NO a victory, though he returns to the bottom in the reformatory culture with an extended sentence.
2014’s When The Game Stands Tall – available on DVD and Blu-ray – has a similar climactic moment whose meaning makes all the difference in the world. A primary subplot involves a fictional running back – Chris Ryan – whose father is abusively obsessive about the son breaking the all-time scoring record for California high school footballers. Ryan ties the record in the last game and is poised to carry the ball into the endzone in a walk near the end of the game. He too stops – and runs out the clock – after making sure his team wins the game. But his act is not defiance; it is submission. He says in the huddle – before taking a knee on the next two plays – that he is a member of a team and not interested in it being all about him. He has all the glory he needs already; he gives his tribute to the team and the coach who brought him all the way to where he is.
Chris Ryan is the only fictional character in the film. His story is truer than the facts – because fiction at its best tells the truth more clearly and more fully than mere facts. Every other character and incident is true and correct. The Ryan subplot simply draws the whole truth from the history in more living color.
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This is no one-dimensional march to athletic glory as a reward for clean living and dedication. The story actually begins after the one hundred fifty-one game-winning streak ends and a new team must discover how to live post-streak. Meanwhile, every character is flawed, or struggling, or both – like real life. TK spends his young life trying to climb out of the ghetto and wins a scholarship to the University of Oregon together with his lifelong friend, Tayshon. The latter continues to party with gangster wannabes in the ghetto and goes into a tailspin when TK – the innocent and responsible one – is randomly gunned down by a gang member while picking Tayshon up from a place where he should not be. Their coach delivers the eulogy and confesses that – while he will continue to love and serve his Lord Jesus – he has no answers and nothing but despair over the senseless killing. The coach himself has hidden flaws that bite him, his family, and his team.
He secretly smokes. Hardly a ticket to hell, but Coach is so image conscious he is living a lie – and that is a character issue. His smoking leads to a near-fatal heart attack, being unavailable to his team for several critical months, and the exposure of his hypocrisy. He is already less than available to his family, and the confluence of consequences leads him to authentic repentance across the board.
He will become a better husband and father, a better coach, and a better man. He does this not because he is so good but because he chooses – repeatedly – to live a life referred to God and to the ones he is called to serve. His choice is all the more important when it is clear and consequential that some past choices have been poor ones.
This movie is well written, directed with vision, and tightly edited. The performances are crisp and natural. That makes it an excellent piece of work and one all of us can enjoy. But it also presents a powerful depiction of a prophetic community, a 1 Corinthians 12 culture, in which everyone has a pivotal role and no one is expendable. See it.
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