Perhaps if a movie about football had ever conveyed such intellectual grandeur about the game, I might have caught on sooner.
The lack of authentically philosophical movies about the sport make me think of George Carlin’s classic routine about the differences between football and baseball: Baseball is pastoral, 19th-century; a gentle game played on a green grassy field, in which the object is to go home. Football is technological, aggressive, played on a gridiron and could go to sudden death. Put so starkly this way, it’s hard to imagine anyone making the football equivalent of For Love of the Game. When would, say, the quarterback have time in the course of a game to contemplate his life, the universe or the glory of his endeavor?
Even the few great football movies aren’t really about football, to an even greater degree than many great baseball movies aren’t actually about baseball. I think of Jerry Maguire, in which the football-player character is a clown; it’s left to Tom Cruise’s sports agent to get dreamy and idealistic, and that happens only when he decides to step away from the game. Or Remember the Titans, in which Denzel Washington’s coach forcibly desegregates his team and the boys all learn to love it. Maybe this one is about sportsmanship, but hardly footballishly so. Or We Are Marshall, which isn’t about football but about how one football-loving town copes in the wake of unfathomable tragedy. Or Brian’s Song, in which Billy Dee Williams and James Caan are bestest bros on the same team until one of them—spoiler!—starts tragically dying, and not from an overdose of the pigskin.
My own personal favorite football movies? I love the Cinderella story Invincible, in which ordinary schmo Mark Wahlberg gets a chance to try out for an NFL team—and makes the cut! (Even better, it’s based on a true story.) It’s more about dreaming a dream and how wonderful it is when it comes true than it is about football, but Wahlberg—who is always appealing in regular-guy roles—exudes a passion for the sport that makes me at least temporarily empathize with it.
I love Horse Feathers, the Marx Brothers’ jape about college football that hilariously embodies how very silly football looks from afar, at least to my eye, as well as how the sport can be a battleground in a kind of warfare between rival schools. Rudy, of course, is an adorable film, in which Sean Astin’s runt of a kid gets the opportunity to overcome everything that’s holding him back and be a star. I confess I’ve never seen Any Given Sunday, but knowing what I know about Oliver Stone, I wouldn’t be surprised if one day it were added to my favorite-football-movies list.
Remember that I am but a football-disdaining girl before you angrily write in to protest that I neglected to mention The Waterboy, The Longest Yard, North Dallas Forty, Everybody’s All American or Friday Night Lights. I may know movies, but I will never believe that football is the be-all and end-all of life ... or even as profound a game as baseball. But you football fans have already won the real game: Football is way more popular than baseball these days. Maybe that means we will one day finally get a shrewd, truth-seeking film about the game.