WHEN THE GAME STANDS TALL
NOTE: This spoiler was submitted by Sandee
Movie opens with text listing the longest winning streak in the NFL, then the NCAA, and tells that one high school surpassed any of those streaks: De La Salle High School, from Concord, California, with a 150-game winning streak covering 11 years.
2003: De La Salle Spartans are about to play their league rivals, Pittsburg High School. In the locker room before the game, Coach Bob Ladouceur (Jim Caviezel) delivers a motivating pep talk, and states that “the streak was never our goal”. He stresses that the team is family, a brotherhood to be depended on. He states that “the love of family means that you can count on me in good times as in bad.” He stresses that there is no perfect game or perfect play, but that they need to to “give a perfect effort from snap to whistle”. This is the crux of his coaching philosophy.
Each senior player reads from a personal perfect-goal card, with a goal for the game, for practice, and for life.
During the game, there is a bit of attitude developing among the junior players, and they are put in to get some play-time experience. The Spartans win 28-0, their 151st straight win.
Coach Ladouceur throws away collegiate coaching offers without opening them, much to the dismay of his wife Bev (Laura Dern). She thinks he needs to at least look and see. He feels that collegiate players are hand-picked, motivated, skilled, and don’t need him or his coaching style, like the local kids do. His assistant coach and good friend, Terry Eidson (Michael Chiklis) refuses to side with either.
Weeks later at a district coaches meeting, several of the other team’s coaches refuse to play De La Salle, saying that they are cherry-picking talent from their backyards. Coach refuses to buy the excuse, noting that several of the kids come from underprivileged backgrounds, riding city buses hours each day, just to come for the education, athletics and Christian-based beliefs at De La Salle. Asst.Coach Eidson says that it’s ok-they will play Long Beach Poly, who is the #1 in California and #2 in the nation, right behind De La Salle. Coach Ladouceur looks surprised; he wasn’t aware that the asst. coach had been talking to them or setting up a game. It’s decided: De La Salle will travel to Long Beach for a pre-season game next season.
Two of the better players are from Richmond, in a blue-collar, poverty-stricken area. Cam Colvin and T.K. Kelly are best friends, and look out for each other. Cam’s mom is ill, hooked up to machines and looked after by hospice. She isn’t expected to live. When she dies, it will be just Cam and his younger brother. He will have to go live with cousins in San Jose. Cam is really upset and hates the idea that he won’t have anyone left. Coach tells him that he has him, forever, and 60 brothers. He explains that family is anyone who loves you, not just blood. Cam strives to be his personal best, both at home, on the field and in school, and doesn’t understand why God would do this to him.
As Coach drives home, we see him smoking in his car. He takes a nap alongside his wife and she jokes that he better not snore. He snores, then again, and she rolls over-he is having a seizure. She calls to their son, Danny, to call 911. Coach has had a stroke, now has 5 stents and is told he cannot return to coaching until at least spring. Players are upset-he will miss Spring Training. His son Danny is most upset that his dad may not be able to coach him in his senior year. Maurice Jones-Drew from the NFL is a former player, and has come to the hospital to check in on his progress. The whole football team visits as well.
Coach Ladouceur tells Bev that he realizes he’s been a lousy husband and father; he was too focused on the team and the winning streak. She tells him to use this opportunity to spend as much time with his family as he can, and really get to know the kids.
Oregon sends a gift box to T.K. and family: jerseys, hats, and a framed diploma with a full-ride 4-year scholarship offer. He says he won’t go unless Cam goes. They tell him they also made that offer to Cam, but he hasn’t responded. T.K. goes to Cam’s house, and Cam tells him he is going to Florida, because that is better for him and his little brother. T.K. talks him out of it, reminding him that he isn’t alonethey are best friends, brothers for life. Cam relents, and they shake hands. They’ll both go to Oregon together.
AUGUST 2004: Danny is watching game tapes and tells his father that he has dropped more passes this spring than in all 3 years of high school combined. He needs his dad back as coach. Coach’s test results are good-he is finally cleared to coach with the warning to keep the stress down. As he watches practice, he sees arguing, pettiness, no cohesive team brotherhood like before. Players are giving half-effort, cutting corners on practice and workouts.
T.K. is on his way home from practice, when his cousin calls, needing a ride home from a party. He finds the party and while sitting in his car, is shot point-blank by an unidentified shooter who flees. T.K. dies.
Coach speaks at the funeral, and mentions T.K.’s natural athletic ability, his great attitude and his infectious smile. He says that although he and T.K. never lost a game, that today he, the coach, is lost. He doesn’t know if he can handle the loss, and asks: why T.K., and why now? He states that he can’t ask that because that would be questioning God. He tells that T.K. had that perfect effort, commitment, faith in team and brotherhood. Afterwards, Cam is lost and asks Coach what he should do: Coach tells him to stick to the plan and go to Oregon.
Back coaching, the Spartans are about to play Belleview, a team that has been preparing for the game for a year. Coach tells the players that he sees that they are not giving their perfect effort. He sees the slacking, the fighting, the selfishness, and they need to do better.
The games starts, and soon it is 7-7. De La Salle isn’t playing as a team, and quickly falls behind. They have missed tackles, dropped passes and quickly begin blaming each other. They lose, 28-7.
In the locker room, the coach talks to the distraught team. He tells them people will ask how did this happen? He tells them to rememberit’s a game, it happens. They need to play better. Asst. Coach Eidson tells them NOT to let this one loss define them. “Now is when we find out what we are made of.”
Next game, he tells the team that some of them seem to think that they are entitled to win just because they are at De La Salle. He reminds them that they need to earn it. They need to play well. Play better. Despite this, they lose the game. On the bus, he tells the team to show up at 8:00am sharp the next morning.
The players board the bus, and have no idea what to expect. Coach takes them to the VA hospital. His friend is a nurse there, and she is in charge. She has the players work with recovering veterans. They see veterans recovering from limb amputation, surgery, head injuries. They are given tasks such as administering a sponge bath, talking, and helping with therapy. A veteran with a missing arm tells a player that if he could, he’d go back in a heartbeat. Confused, the player asks whyhe states that it’s to be there for his unit, his brothers. Another man has a prosthetic leg, and is running treadmill. He challenges Danny to pace him and run alongside on the other treadmill. He does, then a player ups Danny’s speed, and the vet does the same. This goes on and on, until finally Danny quits, unable to keep up with the vet. The boys ride home, a bit nicer to each other, and much less attitude.
As the team prepares for the big game against Long Beach Poly High School, they find that the Long Beach team averages 300+lbs, 50lbs more than their team. They also see that their receivers are faster than anyone they have, and realize this game will be the toughest they ever face. Coach gets the players to make their perfect-effort cards, and open up and share their feeling at a team meeting. 1st player states that things happen for a reason, and they need to overcome, and that he’d do anything for his teammates. 2nd player Garcia tells that he’s just a JV player and has never played in a game, but still, being on the team, having that brotherhood, is worth it all. Next to speak is Chris Ryan. Ryan is close to breaking the state record for touchdowns. He tells the team that he knows his dad is one of those crazy, rabid football guys. He thought his dad would lighten up once he made the team, and then became a starter, but it just got worse. He plays hard to make him happy, but it is never enough. Now he plays for his team. He know that win or lose they have each other.
Game Day: the game is the first ever nationally televised high school football game. Long Beach is on a 34-game win streak, and the Spartans are 0-2. As the game begins, Chris Ryan scores, and they lead 7-0. Soon Long Beach scores and it is tied. The temperature rises to 100* on the field, and the Spartans are exhausted by the end of the 1st half. The score is 21-17, Long Beach leading.
In the locker room, Coach sees the fatigue, exhaustion, and injuries. There is no air conditioning in the locker room. He tells the team doctor to keep a close eye on the players, and pull any that aren’t fit to play, even if it means losing the game. For the 2nd half, Coach starts the 2nd string players. Little Garcia plays for the first time, and makes a big stop against their biggest player, preventing a 1st down. The coach is proud of his effort, and Garcia beams at his accomplishment. After Long Beach punts, some of the starters are rotated back in the game. Ryan scores again, and De La Salle is up 28-24. Long Beach has the ball, and they have 2 minutes left, with a big pass completion. Ball on the Spartans 4 yard line and it is all up to the defense. Defense holds them, and Spartans win.
Coach receives a coaching offer from Stanford: 3-year contract with housing, $350k. He thinks about it, still unsure what to do.
In the final game of the season, Ryan needs just 3 touchdowns to set a new state record. His dad makes him promise that he’ll do it. Ryan is disgusted with his father and his attitude. The team is 9-0 in league play and is playing for the North Coast Championship. This would be their 13th straight championship if they can win.
Cam came back from Oregon to watch, and brings his little brother along. The game starts, and Ryan scores a touchdown. Then the other team scores and it’s tied. The game goes back and forth, and late in the 4th quarter, the score is 14-7 for the Spartans. Ryan scores again and it’s 21-7. He just needs one more touchdown for the record. Coach Ladouceur lets the QB call the last round of plays. He wants to throw to Ryan so he can break the record, but Ryan says no. He doesn’t want the last play about him. He wants it to be about the whole team, and their brotherhood. Ryan asks to be QB, and when the ball is snapped, Ryan takes a knee. His dad flips out. With time left for one more play, Ryan takes a knee again. The Spartans win, and celebrate as a team. They all lift their helmets to the coach as a tribute. They give the game ball to Coach Ladouceur.
As a post-script, the film states that Coach Ladouceur never took the job at Stanford and is still coaching the Spartans today.
*during the credits, actual footage of the real players and coaches is shown