By James Wilson
Of all the great films set in the world of athletics Disney’s Remember the Titans is a – if not the – leader of the pack. Yes, it is Disney-fied; much of the meat has been removed for politically correct reasons. For example, most of the key characters – drawn from real history – are people of strong Christian faith; Disney hides this as much as can be done without telling another story. Yet the faith that shapes these men is visible and it is what shapes this true story into a quest for excellence more than pursuit of perfection.
Look at the story versus the history. There are changes for cinematic purposes. Unlike the filmed story – for example – schools in Northern Virginia had already been integrated several years. However, there were no black head coaches in the region; Herman Boone was chosen to replace the established and mega successful Coach Bill Yoast for political reasons. Yoast is properly represented in the film as being humiliated; after a discussion with his daughter he did decide to accept the demotion rather than let the racists set Boone up to fail. The producers generalized the unrest for ease of storytelling but rocks were actually thrown at players and one non-player student seriously injured.
Although no bricks were thrown at Boones home and the coach owned no gun, a toilet commode was pitched through his window – producers thought no one would believe it if they depicted this – the Boone children were harassed and threatened, their home vandalized more than once. Nobody actually questioned Ronnie Bass’ sexuality and the infamous kiss given Gerry Bertier was fiction, but “Sunshine” was treated to the kind of harassment for which Virginians are infamous when dealing with people they describe as “not from around here.” The famous confrontation between Coach Yoast and a crooked referee did not happen, but the jury remains out on whether such racially based umpiring actually factored into the story. There are two schools of thought on internal racism challenging team members but such tension was common in Virginia as much as twenty years later – I lived there – and film-makers simplified the situation in order to tell the story more truly.
In a change that does detract from the story, the element of faith is downplayed in coaches and players. The actual coaches depicted in the film are born-again Christians – vocal about their faith then and now. Several key players, such as Gerry Bertier, Jerry Harris, and Big Blue, practiced and expressed their faith. Others, such as running back/linebacker Petey Jones, became believers later on the inspiration and encouragement of their coaches and peers.
The dynamic of faith in a story like this is so important not because it makes people somehow morally superior, but because it provides a unique worldview that is almost indispensable for the pursuit of excellence instead of mere perfection. Take the example of Coach Boone promising Louie Lastik to tutor and facilitate his entry into college. Boone provided this service to multiple players over the years. Reality is teachers who lack relation to the Great Teacher are as likely as anyone else to compartmentalize their work; Boone is a coach, not a math tutor, for example. When faith is added it tends to move the Christian to focus on the whole personality of persons in his care. Both Boone and Yoast – and players like Jerry Harris who follow their lead-by-example – wanted the best for their charges in all dimensions of their lives. That is the difference between excellence and perfection. It explains why the real Julius Campbell credits several teachers with teaching him to excel in school but thanks Coach Yoast especially for teaching him how to live life.
TC Williams High School was already a football powerhouse at the dawn of 1971. The tension, challenges, and successes of that year were a story worth telling because they are a testament to the quest for excellence. Although the cinematic Coach Boone speaks frequently of perfect effort – Julius Campbell reminds him he has always demanded perfection in a climactic scene – the real Coach Boone spoke of best effort rather than winning, and the character he meant to develop in his players. He glorifies God in interviews even today, as does Coach Yoast. For these men excellence always comes first. It is the same with leaders like Coach Bob Ladoceur of When the Game Stands Tall or Hank Erwin of Woodlawn fame. That film-makers did not necessarily understand this truth becomes important only inasmuch as – in their efforts to tell the story faithfully – their storytelling transcends their understanding.
Excellence always trumps perfection.
James A. Wilson is the author of Living As Ambassadors of Relationships, The Holy Spirit and the End Times, and Kingdom in Pursuit – available at local bookstores or by e-mailing him at firstname.lastname@example.org