For a realistic view of college football, 'Last Chance U' is a must-watch
The Netflix show should top the watch list of any football fan
"Last Chance U" is the most realistic view of the football culture I have ever seen on a screen. In a way, Netflix's six-part documentary series profiling East Mississippi Community College's football team is a condensed cousin of "Hoop Dreams," the brilliant 1994 documentary that followed two black high school basketball players in their quest to become pros.
Make no mistake: "Last Chance U" is not "Hoop Dreams," which I view as the most powerful movie about sports ever made. But they are cut in the same cloth, and that's the highest compliment I can give for anything on screen that tries to accurately portray sports.
"Last Chance U" doesn't flinch in showing people's complexities intertwined with race, education, poverty and the desperation to get out of Scooba, Mississippi, all while a coach runs up scores to win football games. Time after time, many EMCC players skip classes, show minimal interest in learning and display no Plan B for their lives.
Brittany Wagner is the hero of the series, which Netflix has renewed for a second season. She genuinely seems to care for the players while believing they have the intelligence to succeed. She's the poor soul charged with babysitting them academically so they have a shot to go to a four-year college. Wagner basically becomes a mom to some players, like star running back D.J. Law.
We learn that defensive lineman Ronald Ollie, the most complicated person in the series, grew up without parents because his father murdered his mother when Ollie was 5 years old. Ollie was the exceptional athlete growing up whose talent was supposed to take him where he wanted to go, but "Last Chance U" picked up his life with his dream running out of time.
When Wagner asks Ollie to turn off his music while she spoke, he smirks and says the headphones help him concentrate. "Do you have a pencil?" Wagner asks as Ollie left her office to take a test. Ollie doesn't answer.
"Maybe," Wagner says softly to herself in frustration. "Maybe not."
The head coach is Buddy Stephens, who admits he's hated in the state of Mississippi because he runs up the score to boost EMCC's ranking in the polls. The Netflix series becomes very compelling due to two major events during the 2015 season. First, Stephens is suspended two games for fighting with an official. Then, in a separate incident, EMCC gets into an ugly brawl and is disqualified from the playoffs. The playoff ban potentially costs EMCC players three high-profile games to get scouted by four-year colleges, and Stephens' immediate reaction to the fight hovers over the series.
"They just took out the No. 3 team in the country by getting in your head and playing on your redneck, hood, thug attitude!" Stephens screams at his players after the fight.
Stephens completely loses the locker room after his remarks. He appears to be irate solely because EMCC wouldn't be able to defend its national championship.
"That's the white man," Ollie tells teammates. "Welcome to the real world."
Law, who gets trampled by opposing players during the fight until teammates help, walks out of Stephens' tirade. "Coming from the same [expletive] who got suspended two weeks ago for fighting the referee," Law says later. "But we're thugs and rednecks. So what the [expletive] does that make him? The leader of the [expletive] thugs and rednecks."
Stephens later apologizes to his players and tries to walk back the comments. He's a coach who bluntly speaks his mind and views his structure as tough love. Still, the fact that Stephens allowed wide-open access to the filmmakers suggests he wanted attention in a college football world where junior college national titles don't matter very much.
Wagner, a single mother, is portrayed as the moral compass in "Last Chance U." When a couple players are caught with a girl in their dorm room, which is against university rules, Stephens warns the team that campus police would fine them $300 in the future and said it's cheaper to just go to a hotel room. Wagner, on the other hand, tries to explain to quarterback John Franklin III that women have feelings. She also shares the dangers of premarital sex.
"You got her number on Tuesday, she came to your game on Thursday, and she gets caught in your room on Friday?" Wagner sternly asks Franklin III, a former Florida State quarterback who is now at Auburn. "Like, come on. And now you're done with her?"
"I'm a college student. I'm a male football college athlete," responds Franklin III, who was cast in the series as a prima donna born out of arrogance, insecurity or both. "I'm so sorry that I'm living the life right now. Didn't you go to college once?"
The underbelly of how some football players get signed to colleges -- cash payments under the table -- gets broached only once in the series. EMCC defensive lineman Marcel Andry suggests to Southeastern Louisiana assistant coach Kevin Weston that money could get Andry to sign.
"We got cameras," Andry says smiling, when Weston asked what the school could do to get him to join the school. Weston tells him the university won't violate NCAA rules, whether there are cameras watching or not. Like Ollie, Andry eventually signed with Nicholls State.
In reality, EMCC could have been any junior college, where players often go to rehab themselves for academic or behavioral reasons. Yet just like any level of football, junior colleges wrestle with whether they're truly doing right by the players or simply trying to win football games.
"Are we really doing the best we can?" Stephens asks in a candid scene. "Or are we just saying that because if we're doing the best we can, wouldn't we punish them if they didn't go to class and not letting them go to practice and therefore maybe not letting them play? Every coach, every team in America has the same thing they have to go through. Where is my line? When have I put winning or being successful on the field ahead of truly putting the success of the student-athlete there? We all do that."
Yes, they do. It's just "Last Chance U" is a rare show that portrayed the realities of football, for better or worse.
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