In football, when a hard-scrabbling, determined player or a even a whole team goes down after putting up a righteous fight, the loss is referred to as a “heartbreaker.” In a football movie when similar things happen, it can also be easily called a “heartbreaker”—but in that case, everybody, on screen and off, gets to win.
That’s because as much as the world enjoys the movies that celebrate football’s wild, raucous, fun side (The Replacements, Necessary Roughness, Varsity Blues), gridiron cinema’s true classics are the those steeped in sadness and even tragedy, emotional pile-ons that reduce even the most hardened jocks and ferocious fans to blubbering messes.
With that in mind, let’s kick off a Kleenex fest by saluting our 10 all-time weepiest football movie favorites, and in case you start calming down at some point, just remember: almost all these tragedies and triumphs are based on true stories!
Woodlawn chronicles the true story of the 1973 desegregation of Birmingham’s Alabama’s Woodlawn High School, as experienced by future NFL great Tony Nathan (Caleb Castille), who was among the first African-American players on the school’s team.
While overtly Christian in its message (as is Nathan himself), Woodlawn powerfully demonstrates how sports in general, and football in particular, is a great unifying force in bringing together all of humanity.
While the fact-based story of Rudy is not tragic—the undersized, underpriviliged hero Daniel “Rudy” Ruttieger (Sean Astin) dreams of playing on Notre Dame’s famous football team, despite everyone and everything being against him—the possibility of not crying during the triumphant climax is about on par with Rudy himself ever quarterbacking the Super Bowl.
Gridiron Gang (2006)
Dwayne Johnson stars as Sean Porter, a coach at L.A.’s real-life Camp Kilpatrick, a juvenile detention facility. After watching too many poor inner city youths, particularly those of color, go through the camp only to succumb to drugs, gangs, and street violence, Porter creates the Kilpatrick Mustangs football team to inspire and provide a healthy outlet for the troubled teenaged inmates.
Gridiron Gang follows the first Mustangs team as players from rival street gangs, Willie Weathers (Jade Yorker) and Kelvin Owens (David Thomas), have to learn to work together and trust one another.
In keeping with the realities of life, Gridiron Gang does not shy away from defeats, both on and off the field. And in showcasing the lessons of football, it emphasizes that what really matters is to get up, start again, and keep playing.
Everybody’s All American (1988)
An all-star cast of powerhouse actors (Dennis Quaid, Jessica Lange, John Goodman, Timothy Hutton) imbues the Everybody’s All American with true heart, deep feelings, and, of course, sad parts that will blitz you into sobbing end zones.
Quaid plays 1950s Louisiana State football idol “The Grey Ghost,” and the movie chronicles his life after college, when he struggles on and off the Washington Redskins, and then tries to keep up with the game of life once the cheering stops.
Remember the Titans (2000)
Another classic that movingly addresses race issues via real-life high school football heroes, Remember the Titans stars Denzel Washington as Coach Herman Boone.
In 1971, Boone takes charge of Alexandria, Virginia’s first racially diverse T.C. Williams High School team, where burgeoning pro ball greats Gerry Bertier (Ryan Hurst) and Julius Campbell (Wood Harris) first make their giant marks on the gridiron—while crosses burned and epithets flew nearby.
Coach Boone and his team show exactly who and what wins when prejudice gets tackled.
Any Given Sunday (1999)
Director Oliver Stone’s gonzo technique and Al Pacino’s booming performance enhance the onslaught of emotions that Any Given Sunday rushes at us like an opposing front line.
While more dramatic than sad, the film certainly packs its punt-to-the-gut moments. It also addresses pro ball’s physical brutality and cold corporate disregard for players and fans alike in a manner that can make you weep for what clouds the pure heart of the game.
The Blind Side (2009)
Sandra Bullock won a Best Actress Academy Award for her portrayal of Leigh Ann Tuohy, who adopted current Carolina Panthers star Michael Oher (played here by Quinton Aaron) when he was a troubled, lonely throwaway teen in and out of foster care.
The description alone of the actual events in The Blind Side can get anybody instantly weeping—the movie definitely delivers the tears, but it also uplifts and beautifully demonstrates the strong, unbeatable crossroads of football and family.
Knute Rockne, All American (1940)
Pat O’Brien stars as the titular Notre Dame coaching legend in Knute Rockne, All American. Future president Ronald Reagan delivers one of his best performances as George Gipp, aka “The Gipper,” a promising halfback who dies from pneumonia-related infections at age 25, which plays out in the movie.
On his deathbed, Gipp tells Rockne: “I’ve got to go, Rock. It’s all right. I’m not afraid. Some time, Rock, when the team is up against it, when things are wrong and the breaks are beating the boys, ask them to go in there with all they’ve got and win just one for the Gipper. I don’t know where I’ll be then, Rock. But I’ll know about it, and I’ll be happy.”
Compounding that sack of the tear-ducts is that Rockne himself dies at 43 in a plane crash.
The Express (2008)
The Express thrillingly recounts the life of Syracuse University football player Ernie “The Express” Davis (Rob Brown), who became the first African-American to win the Heisman Trophy.
After struggling against and repeatedly overcoming racism and corrupt officials both in and out of the game to create a brilliant college career and ultimately take home the Heisman in 1961, Davis signs to the Cleveland Browns. Two years later, he dies, at age 23, from Leukemia.
If you’re not bawling hard enough by that point, The Express ends with JFK himself expressing grief over the loss of Davis—his own, and the entire nation’s.
Radio depicts the inspirational friendship between T.L. Hanna High School football coach Harold Jones (Ed Harris) and developmentally disabled teen James Robert “Radio” Kennedy (Cuba Gooding Jr.).
While ultimately upbeat, the initial scenes of the players tormenting and bullying Radio are the embodiment of anguish. It gets worse, too, before it gets better. The real weeping, of course, comes along with the movie’s joyful ending.
Brian’s Song (1971)
The truest, most heartfelt movie examination of male friendship ever made, Brian’s Song first aired as an instant classic ABC TV-movie.
It has since elevated and enlightened millions with its depiction of Chicago Bears running back Brian Piccolo (James Caan) and future Hall of Famer Gale Sayers (Billy Dee Williams) on and off the field, and before and after Piccolo gets stricken with terminal cancer.
Brian’s Song also depicts race relations as a one-on-one issue, where love, affection, and respect absolutely obliterate what outsiders might mistake to be “difference.”
We Are Marshall (2006)
In 1970, an airplane carrying the Marshall University football team crashed less than one mile from its landing runway, killing all 75 passengers, including 37 players, five coaches, two trainers, the school’s athletic director, and 25 fans.
We Are Marshall picks up with new coach Jack Lengyel (Matthew McConaughey) and surviving assistant coach Red Dawson (Matthew Fox) assembling the players who missed the flight, rebuilding the school’s program from the ground up, and rallying the school and the town’s shattered community to get up, and keep moving the ball forward.
It’s tough a imagine a football saga with a starker direct tragedy raining down on so many lives. We Are Marshall first makes us feel the horror, loss, and sadness of all those deaths, especially of the young. Then it raises us up and inspires us to roar forward—hysterically weeping all the way.
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