Story Theater Movie of the Week for Oct. 24-26

Staff Writer
Story City Herald
Story Theater Movie of the Week for Oct. 24-26

The story of When the Game Stands Tall begins in 2003, just as the Spartans have completed an incredible, record-busting run of 12 straight State Championships and 151 consecutive victories. With the team’s outstanding Senior Class fielding offers left and right from college football powerhouses, the Juniors are looking forward to their own big year ahead. But nothing goes as planned. Instead of things coming easy, they are tested by an unpredictable season of devastating personal and team losses. Yet even as the streak collides with reality, and Ladouceur confronts his own brush with calamity, the team stands together no matter what. Suddenly, they are headed for a comeback aimed not so much at victory as at giving their all for one another.

“Commitment. Accountability. Perfect effort. And finally love. This bond is what has led countless Spartans to achieve far more than anyone, including themselves, believed they were capable of.” — Coach Bob Ladouceur from the movie When the Game Stands Tall (rated PG for mild situations; and with a running time of 115 min.)

Like all the greatest sports stories, the true-life tale of the man known as “Coach Lad” and his De La Salle Spartans was about reaching for the limits of human achievement. Yet even more so, this particular sports story was about the human bonds of love, faith and responsibility that hold us accountable to one another even when we’re not at the top of the game.

That’s what drew producer David Zelon, who previously produced the rousing comeback tale Soul Surfer, to the story. He came across it quite unexpectedly, while cleaning out the equipment room at his football player son’s high school, where he spied an abandoned copy of Neil Hayes’ book about Ladouceur, also titled When the Game Stands Tall.

Intrigued, Zelon read a few pages. Thirty pages in, the producer was ready to hunt down the film rights no matter what it would take.

The story of Coach Lad’s rise to record-shattering renown at tiny De La Salle High in a quiet suburb just outside hardscrabble Oakland was compelling enough, but when Zelon met with Hayes he learned there was even more to the story. Hayes handed him a new edition of the book with an epilogue that records the year after the famous streak, when the Coach suffered a heart attack and everything he’d built seemed on the verge of falling apart. That year became about something much deeper and truer than just going for another football championship.

“There was clearly something very special and miraculous going on with this guy Bob Ladouceur,” says Zelon. “It wasn’t so much his wins, which were remarkable of course, that got to me. It was the ability he had to get these kids to commit to each other so strongly, even when things looked like they were going south, that was so powerful. He fostered responsibility in his players, he fostered a tight, emotional bond between them, and he changed their lives.”

Ladouceur came to De La Salle in 1979 as a religious studies teacher and began coaching the Spartans a year later. A newcomer to coaching, he was an unknown quantity, but he quickly developed a spreading reputation for an unusually philosophical approach — one that placed inspiration way above perspiration as the number one aim of the school’s program. The school motto at De La Salle had always been “Hommes De Foi” (“men of faith”), but Coach Lad took that to heart in brand new ways.

De La Salle was a small Catholic school, one that certainly didn’t have the deep pools of raw ball-playing talent found at most top-ranked California schools. Yet that didn’t seem to matter to Ladouceur. He had just one aim: to give every single one of his players a reason to up his level to the max - whatever it was to begin with- not for glory, not for self-aggrandizement, but for pure love of the team.

The results of this approach were incontrovertible, as the team went on a non-stop run of victories that may never again be surpassed. Although Ladouceur never talked about the decade-plus long “streak” - nor did he consider it important — others did and his reputation snowballed as it became clear Coach Lad was becoming one of the coaches with the most wins in any sport anywhere. (He retired in 2013 with an astonishing .934 winning percentage.)

“Coach Lad’s philosophy was that if the kids truly believed in one another, made a solid commitment and then gave a perfect level of effort on every play, then all that mattered far more than talent,” explains Zelon. “And that was his genius. He didn’t need to start with great players because he coached them to understand what greatness is.”

For Coach Lad, real greatness started off the field and it came from inside, not from records, prizes or even media hoopla, though all those surrounded him and the Spartans. That’s why, in the aftermath of a summer where he faced the seemingly inexplicable death of a promising student, his own sudden heart failure and a team that seemed to be knocked down, Ladouceur turned his focus even more to building authentic brotherhood than to building muscle. For Zelon, that was the core of what he hoped to bring to the screen.

“When all seems lost, amidst a time of despair, Bob and the team find the light again,” says Zelon. “They go back to the key principles of the De La Salle program and they emerge from their toughest season not only in pursuit of a comeback but truly whole again as people.”