Football Dreams

Dan Wetzel

It is not that Hollywood hasn't made some entertaining movies about football – "Rudy," "All the Right Moves," "The Waterboy" – but there have been more fumbles than touchdowns. And there certainly has been no seminal flick about the sport, the way boxing has "Rocky" (the original), basketball has "Hoosiers" or baseball has half a dozen choices.

Or what, you actually liked "Radio"?

However, as football season begins – preps and colleges under way, the NFL kicking off Thursday in New England – this looks to be a year the silver screen takes a serious shot at getting one right.

In October the cinematic treatment of Buzz Bissinger's fantastic book on West Texas high school football, "Friday Night Lights," will be released. By winter a remake of the 1974's "The Longest Yard" starring Adam Sandler could hit theaters.

And starting Tuesday on Showtime comes "The Year of the Bull," football's answer to basketball's enthralling high school documentary "Hoop Dreams."

While not quite in the class of "Hoop Dreams" (of course, what is?), "The Year of the Bull" is a terrific work. Director Todd Lubin spent a year following the 2001 Miami Northwestern High Bulls football team and its star player, Taurean Charles, in an honest, entertaining and at times troubling look at the power the sport can hold over people.

In this case the backdrop is Liberty City, a depressed section of Miami that is just six miles but a world away from the glamour of South Beach. It also is arguably the nation's most fertile football talent producing turf. Nineteen NFL players have come from the neighborhood, and scores of others have played major college football, the lifeblood of in-state powerhouses Florida, Florida State and Miami.

The focus of the story revolves around Charles, a gifted player with the world opening in front of him. We see the community treat him as a nearly infallible star. We see college recruiters circle. We see hard-nosed coaches try to get the most out of a player who seems to coast on the field. We see scores of adults get invested in getting this young man on to a brighter future.

The story isn't as dramatic as "Hoop Dreams" because Charles seems more grounded than its stars Arthur Agee and William Gates. Although Liberty City is anchored by the rough and tumble Pork-n-Beans housing project, Charles lives in a stable home, with a devoted single mother and twin sister.

While you root for Charles to score high enough on his standardized test to qualify for a scholarship and you want him to maximize his talents, you don't fear that one wrong move will send him into the gutter.

Still, the stakes are high and drama is everywhere. Life in Liberty City for the ex-high school hero isn't exactly bright and Charles doesn't always understand the magnitude of his opportunities (and if you check out his off-field problems lately, he still may not.)

The principles of the community come into play regarding the devotion to football over education. Some of the more startling scenes include a fistfight between a coach and a player and the scenes from local Pop Warner games – which is played with frightening intensity as 10-year-olds begin their quest for NFL riches.

Also evident is the traditional camaraderie that the sport produces as powerhouse Northwestern High tries to live up to expectations and capture a state championship – sprinkling the film with lively, joyful moments.

Documentaries have become the hot thing in Hollywood because of the success of "Fahrenheit 911" and "Supersize Me." But this is an old-school doc. It didn't start with a political opinion and then try to prove it (occasionally even using facts). It is more voyeuristic and even-handed. It neither incriminates nor apologizes. It just lays out a world with which you may not be familiar.

"We went down to Liberty City three years ago to figure out why Florida has become the hotbed of football in America," producer Jim Young said simply.

The story they found is both compelling and complicated. It is both uplifting and depressing. There are no easy solutions. No simple conclusions.

But for a viewer – football fan or not – turning away won't be easy.

Considering the sorry history of football movies, that alone is reason to break out a touchdown dance.